The Progressive Christian Approach to Immigration Reform
by Rev. Paul J. Bern
My message for today revolves around what the media and our politicians are saying regarding the topic of immigration reform, as opposed to what the Bible says. We have all heard both sides of this issue from Republicans and Democrats, from conservative to progressive to liberal, as well as independent voters like myself. First let me say that I was formerly on the conservative side of this issue due to the fact that had once lost a good job in the computer/IT profession due to my being replaced by workers who had just arrived in America. So, I was understandably bitter because I had lost my job to a worker with a green card despite the fact that I was more qualified. Actually it wasn’t just myself either. The company I was working for as an independent contractor had laid off everyone in the branch office where I worked and replaced us all with a batch of workers from the Philippines with green cards. At the time I felt like my career had been stolen right out from under me, and all attempts to replace this job of mine had yielded only temporary jobs that lasted from several months duration to as little as one day.
Then one day in the late spring of 2008, I took yet another temporary job out in west Texas, and so I put most of my things in storage with the intention of coming back to Atlanta where I live after my contract job expired. I had never been to Texas before, and I found a completely different culture than what I was accustomed to back east. There were three things I noticed immediately soon after my arrival. The first was the oppressive heat and humidity, the second was that people ate burritos in place of burgers, and the third was that approximately one third of the population was Hispanic (or Latino, take your pick). The first thing I remember thinking when I saw that one third of the population spoke only Spanish was that this must be ground zero for so-called illegal immigration, or so I thought at the time. But I spent four months out there in Texas, and as my days turned into weeks and then to months I began to notice little things that seemed insignificant in and of themselves. For example, I saw Latino men – and as few women as well – hanging around temp agencies, construction sites, and even at a U-haul truck rental company in the hopes of getting a job at least for that day. I remember being struck by the parallels between what those Latino folks were having to endure as they searched for work and a piece of the so-called American dream compared to my own job search experiences. Some of these workers lived at homeless shelters, others in campers or vans, and the more prosperous ones lived in rented mobile homes or apartments. I saw the same thing day after day, with hundreds of workers gathered around in groups of as few as eight or ten, and as many as several dozen folks. And so I found myself beginning to question my own intense dislike of these immigrant workers.
Before I go any further with this message, I think I should point out that my basis for resenting many of these immigrant workers was economic rather than racial, and more cultural than social. Nevertheless, my beliefs and opinions were heavily slanted towards an American rather than a world view, and so I found myself beginning to question my motives for feeling the way I did. So I did some research on-line and at the local library regarding this issue, and here is what I found out. The average worker in Mexico earns the equivalent of about $50.00 per month USD, and this is so because of reasons that I was previously only generally aware of – namely, the differences in currency valuation between the two countries, and the fact that Mexico is by and large a third world country that happens to border the United States. When these same workers come to the US they make minimum wage, more or less, which is currently still stuck at only $7.25 per hour. Since a sizable chunk of these workers make less than minimum wage while being paid in cash under the table, I’m going to use a rounded out number of $7.00 hourly. A 40-hour work week at seven dollars an hour yields gross pretax earnings of $280.00 per week before taxes and Social Security. But since many of these workers don’t work full time their take home pay is even less. At any rate, this works out to gross earnings of $1,120.00 per month. If each worker pays a regular tax rate as we Americans do, and many don’t because their employers are cheating the tax man by paying in cash, they wind up with an average net take-home pay of approximately $740.00 per month.
I challenge anybody out there to try and live even for only a month on substandard pay such as this! The bottom line is that this is impossible while still paying our bills on time. In order to better understand this, instead of Mexico and the US being the two countries involved, let’s use the US and Canada instead. If any given American working professional were offered a job in Canada, what would that be in relation to the US and Mexico? For any Mexican/Latino who emigrates to America, the jump from fifty bucks a month to 740 dollars equals a pay increase that is 11.4 times the going rate in Mexico or, for that matter, any central American country. Now, let’s contrast that to an American jumping ship and leaving the US to go and work and live in Canada. With an average net earnings of $35,000.00 annually (before taxes) for American workers, if any of us were to be offered a job in Canada – or for that matter any other developed or emerging country worldwide – at 11.4 times the going rate here in the US, that would amount to an increase in take-home pay to $399,000.00 annually before taxes. OK, so let’s ask ourselves a simple question: Would you or I be interested in a pay increase of 11.4 times the amount we have been earning previously? The obvious answer is that of course we would. So, now you know why the Latino folks are migrating – legally or not – to the US in search of work. It’s not because they are foreign invaders on an economic and social offensive to overrun America. It’s because they are economic refugees from the third world who are searching for a better life for themselves and their families! So, instead of resenting or even hating this influx of foreign workers, the Christian thing to do would be to reach out to the Hispanic communities in all fifty states and minister to them. I don’t mean giving them a handout, either. Like so many long-term unemployed here in America, they don’t want a handout, they simply want to go to work. But I felt convicted in the Holy Spirit for harboring such negative and bitter thoughts at all.
Showing compassion to foreigners and strangers is central to biblical teaching and morality, and there are quite a few Christians who have started joining the fight to pass immigration reform, including myself. Congress needs to pass this into law because it is the morally right thing to do. Those whose position on reform is based on political fear, unacknowledged racial prejudice or worries about losing primaries to far-right ideologues are too often the same people who trumpet their religious convictions as guiding their decisions in public life in violation of the First Amendment’s separation of church and state. Politicians who are professing Christians need to consider what their faith has to say about immigration. If they oppose reform and refuse to offer compassion to our immigrant brothers and sisters, they should justify their positions on moral grounds (if they can). We join with other faith communities in asking for a moral and religious conversation about immigration reform – not just a political one. God’s passionate, abiding concern for immigrants and foreigners, strangers and travelers – and for our neighbors – is obvious to anyone reading through Scripture.
It is the biblical call to “welcome the stranger” and Jesus’ concern for “the least of these” that inspires and motivates us. “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself … ” (Leviticus 19:33-34). The biblical word “ger” for the foreigners in our midst occurs an astounding 92 times in the Hebrew scriptures, with the consistent instruction to protect them. In the New Testament, the stranger, and all who are vulnerable, are at the very heart of the Gospel (Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan is just one example of many). In the book of Matthew, Jesus offers a vision in which caring for them is the defining mark of God’s kingdom: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me” (Matthew 25:35-36).
That evangelical as well as mainstream Christians would finally act to reform the immigration system should surprise no one who has a conscience, and not just for theological reasons. Undocumented immigrants have joined our congregations; we understand the problem firsthand. They are our brothers and sisters in the body of Christ. And we know that by reforming our immigration laws, we can create a system that also reflects the best values of our nation and the highest ideals of our faith. We act because, as the book of James reminds us, “faith without works is dead.”
For me, I think the biggest change hasn’t been in the pulpit, it’s been in the pews and out in the streets. It’s one thing when 11 million people are a statistic. The other thing is when one of those 11 million is your friend, a human being who you now know as a father, as a husband, as a mother, as a worker, as a worshiper. Our faith has always been about compassion and it compels us to do something. If we take the principle of compassion out of the Bible, it wouldn’t be the Bible any more. Compassion is indeed all over the Bible. I pray it will also be found in the House of Representatives and the Senate. It’s time for Christians in Congress to stand up in support of immigration reform, or to explain why they won’t — as Christians. If they follow their faith, we will see the miracle we need. And let’s remember that there is no such thing as an illegal human being.