Justice Chronicles: Immigration & Love for My Neighbor

I first wrote about the topic of immigration during the racial reconciliation series in 2012. In the post simply titled “Immigration,” I wrestled with my concerns as a Christian. Since that time, I have been paying attention to the many evangelical leaders who understand that immigration is a biblical justice issue and are therefore working to bring about comprehensive immigration reform.

Today I am thankful for this thoughtful post from fellow Redbud, Catherine McNiel, as she writes about immigration and loving her neighbors. Welcome, Catherine!

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Catherine McNiel photoJesus taught that all of Scripture could be summed up by the two greatest commandments: “Love the Lord God with all your heart, soul, and mind; and love your neighbor as yourself.” He then used a parable to explain that “neighbor” doesn’t just mean those living next door, but anyone we encounter in need.

Where I live, most of my neighbors are immigrants, many of them both recent and undocumented. This means that in both the literal and figurative sense of Jesus’ command, the undocumented immigrant is my neighbor. I am commanded to love my undocumented neighbor just as earnestly and faithfully as I love God himself.

For many in the United States, immigration is a justice issue, but an abstract one. In the current events of our nation we are debating how to proceed in a way that provides justice both from them and for them.

For my family, immigration is not an abstract question. The often anonymous, theoretical group labeled “undocumented immigrants” are our flesh and blood friends, neighbors, classmates, and schoolmates. We rub shoulders at the grocery store, library, and park. We worship with them in church and visit in each other’s houses. And let me tell you – when you are sitting in a person’s home, hearing their stories, sharing their food and their life – injustice stops being abstract right away.

Like many of our ancestors, my neighbors came to the United States seeking a better life for themselves and their children. Some of them left behind social or economic situations as horrifying as any I’ve heard. Yet when my own great, great grandparents arrived at the border, there were few laws stating who could or could not enter – if they arrived, they were welcomed.

The Statue of Liberty sums up the message sent at the time: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me: I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

Though my neighbors are fleeing similar or worse situations in their home countries, they find a very different and confusing situation at our borders. It is as though we have erected an enormous invisible sign that says both “Help Wanted!” and “Stay out!” The message they hear is: “We want your labor, but we do not want you.”

How did we end up in this complicated place? Since the open-arms days of the distant past the USA has tried different approaches to immigration. At times the laws have focused on inclusion and exclusion based on race, other times based on economic or social need.  The current laws – which date back to the 1960’s, and reflect the antiquated legal, economic, and social situations of that time – are complicated. They make it extremely difficult or impossible for individuals from nations we consider “overrepresented” to gain a visa. For would-be immigrants living in many countries the door is all but entirely closed.

It is easy to say “wait your turn in line” but what if there is no line to get into?

And so, for better or for worse, many decide to take the risk of smuggling themselves across the border to enter the land of opportunity and forge a future for their families. Illegal? Yes, based on human law. But when I hear their stories it is hard to take the high road. Only in the insulation of my own privilege and safety can I believe I would not have done the same.

Once they are here, undocumented immigrants find themselves stuck in a system that needs them and uses them, but degrades them. They work long hard hours for low pay – because employment law, minimum wage, and overtime do not apply to them. If they are injured on the job, they are fired and left to pay their medical bills without income – because worker’s compensation and the Family Medical Leave Act are not applicable to those with no legal status. One family friend broke his back while on the job, and was fired before the ambulance arrived.

The Federal Government has concocted ways to collect taxes from undocumented immigrants, allowing them to file taxes without fear of deportation. Collectively undocumented immigrants pay billions of dollars in taxes annually, and billions more into Social Security. Yet they will never get a social security check because they are not eligible to receive any benefits – not Social Security, Medicare, health insurance, food stamps, college financial aid, or welfare. As a group, undocumented immigrants are a huge boon to the national economy, and a drain on the local economy – especially school and hospitals, which see little benefit trickling down.

In other words, our society is fully aware that nearly 12 million undocumented immigrants are living and working in our borders. Economically, we benefit enough from their cheap labor and their tax payments that the Federal government has little incentive to block their arrival, deport them, or protect them with the basic rights granted legal residents. My family has watched our friends run into a myriad of injustices, even standing in court with them at times, and we are keenly aware of the system built to exploit their vulnerability in dozens of tiny ways.

My neighbors are socially at risk as well. Many of them were brought here as young children, so though they have no chance of American citizenship or legal residency, they have as little knowledge of their home country as you and I do. Others have given birth to American citizens and stand to leave small children parentless if deported. These scenarios are so complex, created and perpetuated both by the immigrants and by America’s policies. As individuals and as a society we are confused what to do, what is right, what is just, where to go from here.

This is not the first time that our nation’s economy has depended on the hard labor of a people group that had no legal rights or protections. And it likely won’t be the last. But it is the one we have an opportunity to stand against right now, today, this year. It is an injustice which we benefit from tangibly on a daily basis – especially in the price of food, agriculture, and manufactured goods. Yet we rarely witness it with our own eyes.

As a nation, we are debating comprehensive immigration reform. Because this is a justice issue, we must have a real conversation about real solutions. How many new residents do we need to allow and invite each year? How shall we decide who this will be? What are the economic and social needs that ought to be considered? And what does justice look like for those who are here?

As citizens of the United States, it is time we made up our minds and create an immigration system that makes sense. But as citizens of the Kingdom of God, we have no choice but to extend love and hospitality to our neighbors, and to seek justice for them even at the expense of our own comfort.

In the Old Testament, the Israelites are reminded by God that they themselves were strangers in Egypt, and commanded time and again to be merciful and loving to the strangers in their midst. In the New Testament, we learn that in the Kingdom of God, earthly labels and groups no longer apply – a new family has been created, and it is known by its love and sacrifice on behalf of justice – especially justice for those who are vulnerable.

In today’s American society, there are few more vulnerable than the immigrant. It is time that citizens of the USA and citizens of the Kingdom come together and seek justice for the immigrants living and working among us.

In the meantime, my family and I will be right here at home, at the store, at school, and at work – loving our neighbors.

If you’re interested in reading more on the topic of Christian responses to Immigration, check out Welcoming the Stranger and Christians at the Border.

Catherine McNiel writes to open eyes to the creative and redemptive work of God in our daily lives. She is striving to see beauty, learning to expand her perspective, and praying to keep her eyes and heart open. She is a member of theRedbuds Writer’s Guild and contributes to several sites. Connect with her onFacebook,Twitter, or  www.catherinemcniel.com.

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