Mark D. Roberts

What should be our goal as Christians when it comes to illegal immigration? What are we trying to accomplish? Or what should we be trying to accomplish?

For some Christians, the “big goal” has to do, first, with extensive legal and social reform. When confronted with specific problems, like the porosity of the border between the United States and Mexico, these people say something like “We can only deal with that problem in the context of comprehensive immigration reform.” At times, the phrase “comprehensive immigration reform” is code for “some kind of amnesty for undocumented workers.” At other times, the phrase points to the huge need for the United States to deal with illegal immigration, not as a one-problem issue, but as a multi-faceted issue that comprises a multitude of problems and challenges. The ultimate “big goal” of those who talk about “comprehensive immigration reform” appears to be legal and social change that leads to merciful treatment of immigrants and potential immigrants.

For other Christians, the “big goal” is the well-being of the United States of American and its citizens. Whatever happens with those who are in the country illegally and with those who would like to immigrate to this country, the “big goal” is the security and prosperity of our nation. Once we’re well on our way to this goal, then can we establish a wise policy for immigration and for dealing with those who are in this country illegally.

Some folks try to find middle ground, arguing that treating undocumented workers and their families mercifully, thus allowing them to remain in this country, is, in fact, the best way to advance the well-being of the United States. Middle-ground people point to our need as a nation for workers who are willing to do various kinds of manual labor, as well as the contributions to American society made by undocumented workers and their families. The “big goal” of middle-grounders is the well-being of both undocumented workers and American society at large.

We find ourselves at an impasse when it comes to the issue of illegal immigration in part because we embrace different “big goals.” As I listen to a wide variety of voices, I find that most differences of opinion can be boiled down to a difference over the “big goals.” Some care most about the well-being of undocumented workers and their families; some care most about the well-being of the United States. Once you know somebody’s “big goal,” you can more or less predict their views on a wide range of issues related to illegal immigration.

As I think about this issue from a Christian perspective, it seems to me that something “big” is missing. We are missing an even “bigger goal” that flows from the teaching of Scripture and that can redirect our thoughts and efforts in a more fruitful direction. This “bigger goal” is suggested at first in Genesis 1 and God’s instruction to human beings to be “fruitful.” It is glimpsed again in Jesus’ announcement of the kingdom of God and his efforts to bring wholeness to broken people. In the Gospel of John, Jesus explains his mission in this way: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). God’s intention for us, both individually and corporately, is that we live fruitful, abundant lives, both now and in the age to come.

Thus, as we think from a Christian point of view about the plight of illegal immigrants and their families, our goal should be that each one has the opportunity to live a fruitful, abundant life. How could we want anything else for these human beings who are made in the image of God?

Yet here’s where we come to a problematic assumption that is often not expressed, even though it is made by people on both sides of the immigration debate: It is highly unlikely that undocumented workers and their families will be able to live truly fruitful lives in their own countries. The realities of poverty, political oppression, economic injustice, poor education, and poor medical care, just to name a few, make it very difficult for millions upon millions of Hispanics to flourish in their homelands. Their only hope of a fruitful life is in the United States. So they come to this country, making large sacrifices and braving many dangers, because they expect a better life here. And, for the most part, if they can make it here and settle, they will have a better life . . . as will their relatives back in the homeland, who receive money from their kin in the United States.

As I think about this situation from a Christian perspective, I find myself wishing for a radically different reality. Wouldn’t it be best for everybody if no person from Latin America ever needed to come to the United States in order to flourish? Isn’t the best-case scenario one in which every individual in Latin American had the opportunity to be fruitful in his or her own land? Many might still choose to immigrate to the United States, of course. But nobody would come out of a desperate need for food, decent education, quality medical care, liberty, and so forth. All would have the freedom and opportunity in their own countries to life fully fruitful lives.

Wouldn’t this solve the problem of illegal immigration, even more than building a giant fence? Even more than comprehensive immigration reform? Even more than adding more troops at the border? Even more than penalizing employers who hire undocumented workers? Even more than providing a legal way for these workers to remain in the United States? Even more than sending them and their families home? Even more than any particular solution to any particular problem associated with illegal immigration?

As a Christian who is committed to the fruitfulness of each human life, I would argue that we need far more than comprehensive immigration reform. We need comprehensive hemispheric social, economic, legal, and spiritual reform. We need a hemisphere, not just a country, in which all people have the chance to flourish right where they live. Some may, of course, choose not to do this. But, ideally, nobody would be forced to live in poverty and oppression.

Yes, yes, I know that what I’ve just proposed is not just a “big goal,” or even a “bigger goal,” but rather a “humongous goal.” And I can well imagine that some will accuse me of being hopelessly idealistic. So be it. But, as a Christian, I am not motivated by what is humanly possible. Rather, I believe that all things are possible in Christ, even social reform that seems hopelessly idealistic.

I’m not suggesting that the United States should ignore the problem of illegal immigration and focus only on hemispheric change. Nor am I suggesting that we should not have some sort of widespread immigration reform. Nor am I suggesting that the United States should not work to secure its borders. Nor am I suggesting that the United States, as a nation, should be the exclusive or even primary mover for hemispheric reform. Rather, I am speaking now as a Christian to Christians. I am envisioning the church of Jesus Christ across the Americas mobilizing so as to improve the well-being of all peoples in this hemisphere. I am imagining Christians in church leadership, business, government, education, medicine, and other fields coming together to work on the “humongous goal” of hemispheric change that would make illegal immigration simply unnecessary. (In fact, many Christians are already doing this very thing. But there is so much more that needs to be done.)

So, there you have it, a “humongous goal” which flows from the biblical understanding of human life and the kingdom of God. Is it crazy to envision such broad change in our hemisphere? Perhaps. But I am encouraged by something Jesus once said when he spoke of something that seemed to his followers to be impossible: “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.”

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