[I posted this on Red Letter Christians two years ago but the Senate’s passage yesterday of immigration reform legislation make it applicable today.]
We are all illegal aliens in the kingdom of God granted entry only by the amnesty of Christ’s blood. That is the strange foundational truth of Christianity. There is nothing I can do to get a green card that will prove to God that I deserve his love. There is no line for me to wait in at the embassy. The single citizenship requirement for heaven is to acknowledge that I don’t deserve to be there and accept God’s offer of mercy through Christ. Those who understand that they are illegal before God are able to receive God’s mercy and share it with others. But thinking that I can earn my way into heaven by accepting the right doctrine, praying the right prayer, or living in a way that retroactively proves my regeneration is like trying to get around with a fake ID.
Today’s immigration crisis gives us a helpful metaphor for articulating in evocative terms what Paul is writing about in Romans 3:23-24: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are justified freely by the redemption that is in Jesus Christ.” Additionally, our response to the immigration crisis as Christians is a good litmus test of whether we truly understand our own illegal status before God. Recognizing that the grace we have received is a completely unmerited amnesty should radically alter our ethical perspective. We no longer consider ourselves worthy of judging what other people deserve.
There are legitimate questions to be asked in resolving our immigration crisis, but they can only be addressed once we disqualify the entirely un-Christian question of whether undocumented immigrants “deserve” to be granted legal status. Christians who know that they stand on God’s grace alone have renounced the right to ask a question like that.
If I recognize my utter lack of justification without Christ, then “deserve” is not a word that should exist in my vocabulary. Furthermore, why do I deserve the advantages of American citizenship simply because I was born north of a river in the desert rather than south of it? I don’t. And it is abominable of me to judge someone for breaking a law that, being a US citizen, I cannot possibly break myself.
When we expunge self-righteousness from the immigration debate, we can actually consider the causes of illegal immigration and possible solutions. I’ve worked in various capacities with the undocumented immigrant population for over a decade. I’ve studied the visa system that we have in place in this country. Our problem is that we have a very large employment sector that is not currently covered by any visa category: temporary day labor.
We have H1 visas for white collar workers, H2 visas for seasonal farm workers who stay with the same employer (most have to hop between farms), and TN visas through NAFTA for Mexican and Canadian nationals who work in professional industries that all require college degrees. There is no visa available for roofers, landscapers, carpenters, housecleaners, and a whole slew of other independent contractor jobs that currently employ more than ten million undocumented immigrants in our economy.
If you live in Mexico and don’t have a college degree, the only way to legally migrate to the United States and work, outside of the very small and already full H2 visa pool, is to sweet-talk an American tourist into marrying you. Here is a link to a helpful graphic that illustrates the ins and outs of our broken visa system.
President Bush’s bipartisan immigration reform proposal sought to address this problem by creating a “guest-worker” visa. His proposal was torpedoed by those who thought this would “reward lawbreakers.” It had other problems too, such as denying “guest-workers” the right to organize unions. But if there is no way for blue-collar immigrants to come here legally, then how in the world can we blame them for coming illegally? It would require more government bureaucracy to oversee a temporary worker visa program in which workers are not hitched to a single employer, but I’m not sure this wouldn’t amount to a reallocation of the resources the US government already has in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
If undocumented immigrants were given a means of maintaining their legal status by reporting regularly to an ICE office, then it would separate those who want to be transparent from those who have something to hide. Since crossing the border illegally is currently an expensive investment of $6000 or more, most undocumented immigrants see it as a one-way, one-time trip for them and their families. If immigrant bread-winners could cross the border legally to work for a few months and return home regularly without paying a coyote smuggler, then many immigrant families would opt to keep their residence in Mexico or Central America where the cost of living is so much cheaper.
It kills me that the main thing standing in the way of resolving our immigration crisis with a solution that seems to address the underlying issue is the sanctimonious moralism of the anti-immigrant lobby. I wonder how many people in this lobby are professing Christians who see their adherence to a certain doctrine and lifestyle as the ground from which they can cast stones at other people.
If instead we really accept God’s mercy, then it necessarily makes us humble. Paul says this much in Ephesians 2:7-8: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” When Christians recognize our illegality before God, then our gratitude for God’s mercy determines how we treat other people. Perhaps people who are used to being called “illegal” are entering the kingdom of heaven before the rest of us.