Each day the gap widens between people on opposite sides of the immigration debate. Those who would advocate for closing borders, building walls and fences, and across-the-board deportation of everyone in the country who is here unlawfully are with an increasingly negative and hostile tone making their position known and presence felt. Those who would advocate for comprehensive immigration reform, increased financial support for backlogged immigration courts, respect for the God-given dignity of each human being, and a pathway to citizenship for those in the country unlawfully who qualify have, in their own way, acted in a hostile manner toward those on the opposite side of the aisle. On the left and right, and somewhere in the middle of this issue sits the Christian. As I will explain in detail in a later post, I am in favor of the latter – bipartisan immigration reform which acknowledges the dignity of the individual, respects the rule of law, protects the integrity of the immediate family unit, guarantees secure borders, and establishes a pathway to citizenship/and or legal status for those who wish to become permanent residents.
It is important for the Christian to be truthful in their speech and hospitable in their actions toward others – including those with whom they disagree. To ensure we do not allow erroneous stereotypes, political soundbites, and the talking heads of cable news to drive and shape our understanding of who is at the heart of the immigration debate, a few definitions may be helpful.
An immigrant is a person who comes to a country for the purpose of permanent residence. It is this permanence that causes many people so much heartache. Immigrants can enter either legally – through official ports of entry and according to the rules established by the host country – or not. Those who choose to come in by other means are often referred to as “illegal.” Usage of the term “illegal” in this context may not be the best word to communicate the truth. The term “undocumented” speaks more clearly to the actual status of the person and not to the actual person. “Illegal” carries a derogatory tone, suggesting by definition the person in question is guilty of a crime or is prone to a life of crime. This is simply not the case as I will explain in a later post in this series. Most desire to establish a legal status and residency, but the present broken immigration system does not offer clear avenues to do so. Daniel Carroll, in his book, Christians at the Border, wrote, “What these people lack is proper documentation required by Washington and the workplace. They [immigrants] are not criminals. At the same time, the label alien can evoke the sense of someone unchangeably foreign and other, without hope of reconciliation or mediation. Illegal immigrants, therefore, is unhelpfully prejudicial. Undocumented immigrants are a more just label and better represents the present reality.”
What people tend to forget is that we are a nation of immigrants. If you live in North America you are likely an immigrant or the descendant of an immigrant. Those who would rail against others for not being “from here” are likely unaware they too are not “from here.”
An alien is defined as any person not a citizen or national of the United States. An alien could be an immigrant, but not necessarily. An immigrant may or may not be an alien. According to the US State Department’s website (www.state.gov), an alien may lawfully be within the United States through a visa – a conditional authorization granted by a country to a foreigner, allowing them to enter and remain within the country for a defined period. Visas are granted for a myriad of reasons. Categories of visas include business, student, performing athlete, medical treatment, teacher, and temporary agricultural worker, to name a few. Provision and permissions exist for an alien to legally be in the United States.
A refugee is defined as someone who has been forced to flee from his/her country because of persecution, war, or violence and has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. They are likely unable to return home or are afraid to do so. Around the world, the leading causes of refugees leaving their country of origin are war and violence (ethnic, tribal, and religious). A refugee’s status is somewhat different from that of the immigrant – largely in part due to their desperate situation. To be eligible for entrance as a refugee, a person must be otherwise legally permitted to come to the United States. Refugees can legally work and apply for a green card after a defined period of time. They can stay in the country indefinitely depending on whether conditions in the native country that drove them to seek asylum in the United States changed. There is also a process for refugees to apply for U.S. citizenship.
An asylum seeker is an individual seeking asylum, which is “a protection granted to foreign nationals already in the United States or at the border who meet the international law definition of a ‘refugee’” according to the American Immigration Council. Asylum requests are processed by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Those seeking asylum have already made it to the United States and contend they need to stay because of conditions in their native country. People seeking asylum could be fleeing persecution for factors like their race, religion or political views. U.S. Customs and Immigration use the standards of “credible fear” and “reasonable fear” when determining an asylum request. This is often a lengthy process involving multiple government agencies. Both asylees and refugees have to make their case they face credible persecution for the same kinds of reasons. Asylees have their status determined after they arrive in the United States while refugees must obtain clearance to enter the country before they arrive.
As you can tell, the language as it pertains to immigration status is nuanced. One can begin to understand how difficult it must be at a port of entry to determine a person’ status, intent, and needs. The “one-size-fits-all” approach to immigration is impossible at best and reckless as worst. Blanket statements that people crossing the border are here for the same reasons and they should all be treated the same demonstrates a lack of understanding of the overall process at best, and a lack of concern for the individual at worst. As we continue in this series, we will examine what the Bible has to say about immigration and the treatment of the foreigner.