“I don’t want to come to the U.S. Everyone hates us here.” The words stunned me. I was face-to-face with a woman who had just crossed the border from Mexico into Texas, and the only emotion she had was fear; fear that she wasn’t welcome in our country and that people were going to be cruel to her. I couldn’t really disagree. Our country is drowning in anti-immigrant sentiment with people across the nation, including many evangelical Christians, becoming more and more comfortable with making cruel accusations toward our immigrant neighbors. Fearmongering, condescension, and smear campaigns are the reigning spirits of the day and, what’s worse, the people at our border know it.
This is not the witness that God desires for us to have as Christians. Sure, not every Christian has to hold to the same political views. There are many facets to our current immigration debate, and there really is no one easy solution. But I do think that it’s about time we started checking our attitudes at the door. We can certainly be gentler and kinder with our words, so that these vulnerable, hurting people first see the love of Christ in us, not hate. No matter our stance on border security, Christians should be able to express their opinions without insults and overall nastiness. Colossians 4:6 tells us, “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt.” If this is true, then here are three things that we should all stop asking about our immigrant neighbors.
1. Are They Legal?
In the past week, my husband and I have had friends on three separate occasions share with us their pain, fear, and ostracization over the same experience: a coworker asked for proof of legal documentation; a random woman in a restaurant brazenly walked up and wanted to be “reassured” that they were legal; and, perhaps most terrifying, a police officer pulled one of our friends over, while he was going for a morning walk, to ask the same thing.
So many people are suspicious of whether brown-skinned people in our country, Latin Americans in particular, are legal, when the majority of them actually are. According to a recent Pew study, the current total U.S. foreign-born population is 45.6 million. Of this population, 77% are lawful immigrants (35.2 million), 45% are naturalized citizens (20.7 million), 23% are unauthorized immigrants (10.5 million), and only 5% are temporary lawful residents (2.2. million). Furthermore, at least half of these unauthorized immigrants arrived legally with temporary, non-immigrant visas. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) estimates that a “substantial” percentage of America’s illegal population is made up of visa overstays—their estimates range from 27 to 57 percent. Would it surprise you that of this percentage there are more people from Asia in our country with overstayed visas than people from Latin America? When many people talk about illegal immigrants, they are implying people from Latin America. The truth of the matter is that we are largely misinformed on who is and who is not “legal,” and our assumptions and false information are making the situation worse.
Equally important, though, is the fact that questions of legality are undergirded with both pride and fear. My friends were not being questioned by random strangers in a spirit of neighborly love. There was no desire to connect, befriend, or help. Rather, the question, “Are you legal?” is rooted in an “us” versus “them” mentality. It’s based on a desire to fact check people, believing that their legality will determine whether they are with us or against us. This is a complicated, and quite frankly unethical, cultural lens, which is wrapped up in moral politics and mindsets of scarcity and abundance.
There is an American myth built into the founding of our nation, an idea that the United States is God’s gift to white evangelicals. Somehow, our pure and holy lives were rewarded with this sacred space, and, like the Israelites in the Book of Joshua, we must safeguard, protect and, even, root out the invaders. This is why “illegal” immigrants are seen as such a threat to this country: we think they will somehow steal the cherished and limited milk and honey that God has bestowed upon his chosen few. Emboldened by notions of privilege and power, we try to keep people out, believing we have the right to challenge, expose, and even shame people to achieve this goal. It goes without saying that we should stop seeing immigrants—legal or illegal—as a threat, as if only legal citizens of our same ethnic, racial, and cultural backgrounds are permitted to feast upon the bounty of this land.
It is not your right to fact check every person’s legal status. It is not your right to walk up to a brown-skinned person and ask for proof of their citizenship. What would happen if, instead of trying to identify people who are unauthorized, we acted like the Body of Christ and welcomed everyone the way Jesus did for us, regardless of our nationality, ethnicity, or legality?
2. What If They’re Criminals?
Our church recently started an immigrant family sponsorship program with a local immigrant shelter here in Austin. We want to build relationships with the men and women in our city, to hear their stories and learn from them personally how they want to be helped. In the first week of the program, I was connected to a woman from Mexico and her four children, ranging in age from 8 months to 17 years old. By the end of our first conversation, she told me how she actually had six children. Tragically, a cartel had stolen one of her sons right from their front porch and demanded ransom money for his return. Living in abject poverty, she and her husband had no way to pay them, and the cartel had murdered their son. And then, her husband had taken one of her other children and left her. Now, she and the rest of her kids were on the run, fleeing for their own lives.
It’s a horrible, pain-wrenching story that made me weep and left my stomach sick for days. The worst part is that her situation is not unique. So many of the people in our church, and the people that we meet and serve on the streets of our city, are fleeing violence and persecution. There’s a woman in our church who crossed the U.S. border to escape human trafficking. Another couple was being physically assaulted for their faith, and they came here to practice their religion in peace and safety. None of these people have ever committed a crime.
There is a huge discrepancy between the stories of immigrants I know personally and the reports from news channels, which paint every immigrant crossing our border as a rapist, thief, or murderer. This reality is just not true. First, there is no way to prove this theory. There is no national database that compares crimes committed by immigration status. That means there’s no national database that breaks down crimes committed by native-born citizens or immigrants, or those in the country illegally, making it difficult to confirm or dispute. What available studies do show, however, is that overall crime rates are lower among immigrant groups than they are among native-born Americans.
Walter Ewing, an editor and writer for the American Immigration Council, a group that advocates for immigrants, puts it this way: “You can find any demographic group that you like and it’s going to include murderers. You can look at redheads and blondes and it’s going to include murders. But that’s not the point, the point is what the crime rates are,” he said. “And if the likelihood is low, particularly compared to natives, then it’s disingenuous to claim they’re going to be a threat.”
The vast majority of immigrants crossing our border have never committed a crime. So, instead of wholesale labeling all immigrants as dangerous low-lifes, why don’t we spend more time getting to know them, hearing their stories, learning their plight and treating them like our neighbor?
3. What Would Our Service Industry Be Without Them?
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard well-meaning Christians try to support immigration by arguing, “What would we do for cooks or maids or construction workers without immigrants?” When I was younger, I couldn’t explain why that comment made me uncomfortable, but it always did. It wasn’t until I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ We Were Eight Years in Power and his argument that slavery hasn’t been eliminated, it’s merely evolved, that a lightbulb turned on. Many Americans are comfortable with immigrants coming to our country as long as they exist as a colored underclass of servants and slaves.
Granted, as manufacturing has declined, service jobs have been a crucial source of work for those without a college degree. Immigrants fill many of these positions. According to Mark Muro, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, an estimated 20 percent of wealth work is done by people who are not citizens, compared with less than 10 percent of all U.S. labor. The problem, however, is that this statistic doesn’t tell the whole story.
Many of the immigrants coming to our country have trades and degrees. I know men and women who were doctors, lawyers, and physical therapists in their home country. There’s a couple in our church from Guatemala, who were a pastor and pastor’s wife, but until they get all their paperwork finalized, the only job they can obtain here is in the cleaning industry. That’s not what they want to be doing long term in the U.S, but it helps earn some much-needed money for the moment.
Moreover, immigrants make up approximately 17 percent of the U.S. labor force, about one in six workers. More than half of immigrant workers in the U.S. (approximately 56%) work in four of our major industry groupings: educational services, health care, and social assistance; professional, scientific, management, administrative, and waste management services; arts, entertainment, recreation, accommodation, and food services; and manufacturing. The facts show us that immigrants are professionally diverse, and they play a vital role in driving our economy. They work hard, they have different skills, they contribute to the flourishing of new ideas, and they pay taxes.
Our problem is that we don’t see these complex, intellectual beings as worth more than menial servitude. We will allow them to come as long as they benefit us and if we can control them. What would happen, instead, if we made the effort to find out what these men and women are skilled in, what they are passionate about, and what trades they have? What if we stopped treating them all like our maids and started helping them with their paperwork and finding jobs that they wanted to have? This too is how we can show immigrants the dignity and worth they deserve as image bearers.
Whether we are discussing the topic of immigration with friends, on social media, at work, or in church, let us challenge ourselves to begin from a position of humility, love, and gentleness. Let’s see ourselves more as students than teachers, so that we can cultivate a desire to get to know real immigrants and hear real stories. Let’s refrain from name calling, insults, and slander. For our words to be seasoned with salt and full of grace, we must refrain from exaggeration, embrace complexity, see nuance, and, above all, prioritize solidarity. This is the image of the gospel that I want our immigrant neighbors to see when they come to this country.