Law and Gospel at the Borders

Julia Thorne

In 2004 the Presbyterian Church (USA) decided to fund the position of immigration attorney to work in the national office and handle the growing number of questions about immigration.

It was a sign of the times. Facing an illogical immigration system, many denominations since 2000 have created such positions, either to advocate for new immigrants or expand refugee resettlement programs to include legal service clinics for low- income immigrants. I was hired by the PC(USA) in July 2005 to offer immigration law consultation, education and advocacy. In the three years since, I have traveled all over the U.S. and Mexico listening to people, working for change, and providing help to church members – both citizens and new immigrants.

Current U.S. immigration policy is extremely complex. It is not a one-dimensional issue. Many social, political, and economic pressures shape migration patterns around the world. Immigration problems cannot be resolved in isolation from foreign policy, trade agreements, globalization, political systems, social welfare and benefits, war, poverty, and global family relationships.

The immigration system is often referred to as “broken.” Congress has chosen for years to avoid overhauling a system that no longer reflects reality. Some people are fearful of large influxes of new immigrants, fearful that the newcomers will take too many jobs and services. There is fear that the culture of the U.S. will change. New immigrants are blamed for national problems with health care, crime, the environment, even high gas prices. Employers and trade associations around the country demand a system that will allow them to hire workers legally. Bill Gates has appeared before Congress the last two years requesting an increase in the number of professional workers allowed into the U.S. The numerical quotas for family reunification are so backlogged that families often choose to bring their spouses, children and parents into the U.S. without authorization. The problems, perceived and real, are myriad. Solutions will not be simple.

Faith communities have been involved in the immigration debate for several years: they sense a higher call to treat people with dignity and fair- ness, and many new immigrants are people of faith who become part of our religious communities. We need to understand this connection between immigration, our faith, our history as a nation, and the ordeal of our current immigration policies. Until we make connections between a deeper theology of immigration and the truths of our current immigration system, we will not solve the problems we now face.

Doctrinal Disconnect

Today it is popular in our churches to go on mission trips. This is a good thing. We go to poorer countries (since it is difficult to find many richer) and do good things there. We build homes, we heal diseases. We buy local products. We take pictures. We begin to build some relationships with people whose lives are different from ours. We return home to share the story of our trip, describing the good we did and how welcoming and gracious were our hosts. We remember the poverty we witnessed, but we also see, in some ways, more similarities than differences – a human connection was made.

Yet upon our return, we somehow do not connect this experience with the unfolding reality in our communities, the immigrant reality. Often the same people who enjoyed the mission experience then become upset that the same people they just visited have moved into the neighborhood. We be- come fearful that our homes might be devalued or we might have to share our educational or health resources. The new immigrants could very well be family members of those we just met. They could be members of one of our churches down the street. We have little understanding of their struggles or their stories. We don’t realize that immigrants arrive in our cities and towns because, in so many cases, their poverty has become unbearable. They bring hope of a better life.

This reaction to immigration exposes a strange disconnection between our faith and practice. Scripture is filled with story after story of the people of God moving from one place to another. They moved for reasons of family, famine, safety, survival, and God’s direct call to “go.” The unwavering theme is that God was with them wherever they went. We need a new theology of immigration that goes beyond superficial welcome, beyond providing help when it is convenient or simply out of our abundance. We need not just a theology of welcome but a theology of inclusion. Do we not believe that we have something to learn about God from brothers and sisters who view the world through a lens different from our own? Are we willing to open ourselves to new languages and new communities to discover that part of God not found in our own cultural worldview? We need truly to seek to become a new community much like the one described in Rev. 7: 9, “And behold, I saw a great multitude which no one could count, of all nations, tribes, peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”

A Nation of Laws?

All over the country, people remind me again and again that the problem they have with the wave of immigration today is that immigrants are not coming in legally. “We are a nation of laws,” they say, and, “I don’t mind that people immigrate to the United States, I just believe they should come in legally.”

The assumption seems to be that these laws are sacrosanct. We forget the string of unjust laws that shame our history. The Indian Removal Act of 1838 resulted in the Trail of Tears, where 70,000 Native Americans were uprooted at gunpoint from their homes. The Slave Fugitive Act of 1850 made helping a slave to freedom a violation of the law. The Page Law of 1875 prohibited Asian women from immigrating to the U.S., thus ensuring that Chinese workers could not form families. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 barred Chinese from immigrating; it was repealed only in 1943 under pressure from our allied relationship with China during World War II. Meanwhile, Executive Order 9066, signed on Feb. 19, 1942, gave the Army the power to arrest every Japanese-American on the West Coast. So 120,000 men, women, and children of Japanese descent were sent to internment camps in barren isolated regions and kept under armed guard. Only in 1988 did Congress pass a bill to pay reparations of $20,000 each to the survivors, and President Reagan admitted that the U.S. committed a “grave wrong.” Mean- while, Jim Crow laws defined the segregated South, keeping African Americans marginalized and disenfranchised a century after the Civil War.

At other moments in our history, it was the lack of a humane law that was unjust. For millions of workers who were exploited in our nineteenth century factories – men, women, and children la- boring incredibly long hours without safety standards and barely earning a living wage – there was no law to protect them. For women who wanted a voice in government, there was no law allowing them the vote.

The church was active in former waves of immigration despite unjust laws of the land. In the Presbyterian Church there were pastors, missionaries and lay people who protested the Indian Removal Act; who provided safe houses and churches along the underground railroad; who rescued Chinese women who had been smuggled into the country for labor or prostitution; who created settlement houses and community centers in the tenement slums of northeastern cities; who provided pastoral care and supplies to Japanese in internment camps; and who worked hard to desegregate our schools and public spaces during the 1960s.

The controversies our ancestors faced were not clear-cut or simple. But in retrospect, we regret as a nation the way we have treated minority populations. Today, as we look at the massive growth of for-profit immigration detention centers that hold men, women and children, and the militarization along our southern border, and the work-place raids that violate due process for workers and separate families and destroy small rural communities, we need to ask ourselves whether our descendents will be ashamed of our current policies. We cannot rest on the rule of law, unthinkingly placing law above a concern for people. Let us be the generation to end the historical cycle of abuse of new immigrant- laboring communities.

Today judges say immigration is one of the most complex of all the areas of law. This might explain why very few U.S. citizens seem to understand even the most fundamental of its tenets. If you listen to the general population speaking about immigration you may come away with the idea that there are only two kinds of people in the U.S. – citizens and undocumented people (often referred to as illegals). Yet there are at least four different categories of immigration status: citizens, permanent residents, non-immigrants, and undocumented persons.

Here I will briefly list definitions of some of the most important concepts encountered in the current system:
Citizens – To apply for citizenship, you must have been a permanent resident for three to five years. Applicants must speak, read, and write English, pay

taxes, have no felony record, and pass a citizenship test.
Permanent Residents – There are four ways to be- come a permanent resident:

• Win an immigration lottery, which is granted annually to thousands by the State Department.
• Enter as a refugee or ask for political asylum.
• Be sponsored by an employer.

• Be sponsored by a close family member. Non-Immigrants – Most people apply at an American Consulate overseas and then after paying a substantial fee receive a visa interview to request permission to enter the U.S.
Undocumented Persons – There are two ways to become undocumented:
• enter the U.S. without the visa interview and with- out permission to enter the country, or
• overstay the time granted by Customs and Border Patrol at a port of entry.

Deportation – When individuals are found to be undocumented, they can be placed in removal proceedings. It does not matter if they have U.S. citizen spouses or children. It does not matter if they have been in the U.S. for twenty years. It does not matter if they own property or a business or if they have paid taxes. An immigration judge will determine whether their status as undocumented can be changed to allow them to remain; if not, they will be deported or asked to depart.
Numerical Quotas – Each year only a certain number of people are allowed to become permanent residents by winning the immigration lottery, or having an employer or family member sponsor them. This quota system leads to large backlogs of people waiting their turn to enter. Currently it can take at least five years for an unskilled laborer to be given permission to enter the U.S. The quota for unskilled laborers (such as construction, restaurant, and hotel workers) allows 5,000 to enter each year. Employers must prove that no qualified U.S. citizen has applied for the position.
Bars to Entry – If someone has been in the U.S. for more than one year without documents or has over- stayed their permission to remain and now must leave the country, they will not be able to enter again legally for 10 years.

I can always tell that someone has no grasp of basic immigration law when the person declares, “Make them go home and come back in legally.” For most of the world, there is no legal way to enter the U.S., and even less opportunity to work here.

If a new pastor were to discover that people in her own congregation were starving, what would

she do to meet the crisis? If that pastor does not educate herself about the causes and solutions of hunger, the congregation will feel she does not care about this single most important aspect of their lives. For a growing number of people in the U.S., many of them churchgoers, their own immigration status is virtually their deepest concern. As we live in community with each other, it is urgent that we understand the experiences of new immigrants and the policies created in our name that they must maneuver through.

As faith communities, we have the chance to make a difference in how our nation faces its im- migration challenge. Anthropologist Margaret Mead once said we should “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Julia Thorne is manager for immigration issues and immigration counsel in the Office of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) in Louisville. A Presbyterian elder at Second Presbyterian Church in Lexington, KY., she is also an active member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association and serves on its Religious Workers Committee.


The number of unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S. – now about 11.9 million – is currently in decline, according to recent estimates.

Economic anxiety and slowdown in the U.S., as well as tougher enforcement of immigration laws, are cited as reasons.

The estimates, released by the Pew Hispanic Center, say the inflow of undocumented immigrants is now lower than that of immigrants who are legal permanent residents. “That reverses a trend that began a decade ago,” a Pew researcher said in October. “The turnaround appears to have occurred in 2007.”

The number of people entering the country illegally is now about 500,000 a year. About 650,000 legal permanent immigrant residents (they are not citizens) came to the u.S. in 2007. That number has been steady in recent years.

Despite the recent slowdown in the unauthorized population, its size has increased by more than 40 percent since 2000, when it was 8.4 million, Pew estimates. The most recent estimate of 11.9 million suggests that unauthorized immigrants make up 4 percent of the U.S. population.

Pew’s estimates are based mainly on data from the 2000 Census and the march Current Population Surveys for the years since then.

Source: Pew Hispanic Center