A common prayer request in immigrant Latino churches is “please pray for my relative who is coming (crossing) tonight.” All of us in the prayer meeting know that this is code for crossing the border illegally. What should we pray for: that a humane border patrol agent catches the person, that she or he does not get caught, for safety in the desert or that the human smugglers not abuse the person who is crossing? The issue becomes more complex when the relative shows up in church the next Sunday thanking God for protection as he/she crossed. Was God protecting this person as he or she was breaking US law?
Working among the undocumented means being willing to minister in this ethical limbo. The undocumented come to the US because there are work opportunities and the US economy benefits from their labor. But changing US immigration laws, and their changing interpretation and application, mean that the legal system does not provide legal status and protection for those that the economic system attracts. Political expediency makes the undocumented scapegoats of multiple ills, though most are hard working and are contributing to the economy and social fabric of the country. One of the political throwaway lines is that “they should wait in line,” refusing to address the fact that, under current law, there is no line where the majority of the undocumented could hope to obtain legal permission to be in the country, no matter how long they were willing to wait.
The Christian ethical debate tends to focus around either the importance of obeying the law using Romans 13 as its biblical foundation, or it focuses on mercy, using the Old Testament mandates of caring for the widow, the orphan and the foreigner (Deuteronomy 10:18,19; Jeremiah 7:6; Zechariah 7:10). Yet both of these fall short when dealing with the complexities of the undocumented. Both point to part of the issue, but they tend to leave out a third part; what should a Christian do when human laws are either clearly unjust or, at least, disconnected from the reality of those who suffer under them? What should a Christian do when politics guides the debate and not the reality of those who live under the impact of the laws and their application? How should a Christian address human law when ministering among those whose mere presence near my church means they are breaking the law?
As a pastor among the undocumented I face the reality of a broken immigration system. For example, most states will not allow the undocumented to obtain a driver´s license, but then complain when the undocumented are uninsured. I have personally walked with many people caught in the immigration system where they have done all the that laws require, but are still denied legal status. I have had to talk to parents about what should happen to their US born children if they are deported. But I have also seen that many of the undocumented are people of faith and are sure that God is walking with them even as God walked with the migrant, Abraham.
At the end of 2005 Congressman James F. Sensenbrenner Jr. of Wisconsin proposed legislation (HR4437) that would have made it a felony to help the undocumented. At that time Cardinal Roger Mahoney, then Roman Catholic Cardinal of Los Angeles, stated that he would instruct the priests in his diocese to disobey this law, if passed.
On the other hand Southern Baptists in Alabama have found themselves in a dilemma. When Latinos began moving into the South in the 1990s they started many congregations among Latinos and began support programs, such as publishing and leadership development. But Southern Baptists strongly supported the anti-immigrant law in Alabama that caused many Latinos, even those with legal documentation, to leave the state. Their Latino congregations have been adversely affected. Yet local Southern Baptists are against an “amnesty” that would potentially give their brothers and sisters in Christ the chance to legalize their status, even though national Southern Baptist leaders are calling for immigration reform that would include the “dreaded amnesty.
Of course, immigration law is skewed. The undocumented may be “breaking and entering,” but when they enter they paint the walls, clean the house, cut the grass, prepare the next meal, fix the plumbing and take care of the children. And they pay in taxes much more than they ever get in benefits. So I not only have to ask legal or mercy questions, I also have to address justice issues.
So as a pastor I have to address legal issues; I work alongside those who might be able to legalize their status. But I also work to “fix” the broken system that continues to break up families and deny opportunity to young people who have lived most of their lives in this country. It is also my task to help those being deported and their families who remain. But that is not enough. As a Christian I need to have a prophetic streak and denounce the injustices of our political and economic systems. Yet even that is not enough. I also have to ask; how is God working in the midst of global migratory patterns? What is God doing in the world through the movement of the poor and how can I become a part of His work? In other words, whom would Jesus serve and whom would he “hang” with?