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Our first article addressed the importance of shaping attitudes toward immigrants, both those with and without legal status. In this article, we want to address the practical implications.

Many Christians approach this issue asking, What do we do with immigrants who are present unlawfully in the United States? After all, Scripture seems clear that we must submit to the governmental authorities “instituted by God” (Rom. 13:1, see also 1 Pet. 2:13-14). How can we reconcile the commands to welcome immigrants with the reality that many—though a minority—-currently violate the law?

For pastors and church leaders, the outreach piece is actually quite simple. Nothing in federal law or in the laws of Illinois, where we both live, places any restriction on ministry to immigrants, regardless of their legal status. There is no requirement or expectation that we report individuals suspected of violating immigration laws to any government authority, and we can minister freely in any of the ways that a church normally might—teaching English, helping kids with their homework, providing food assistance, advocating to change laws and, most centrally, proclaiming the gospel—without running afoul of the law—or of Romans 13. Churches may only run into legal problems—in most states—if they employ an immigrant without valid employment authorization.

Of course, laws can change, and ministry to immigrants could be declared unlawful. In fact, elements of the tough new immigration laws in Arizona and Alabama would seem to make it a crime to knowingly transport someone who is present unlawfully—-which has adversely affected church ministries in those states that pick people up for youth group, church services, or other events. This may present a tough choice where Christians are forced to ask themselves if civil disobedience is biblically warranted—-when, like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego when commanded to worship an idol (Dan 3:16-18) or Peter when told to stop preaching the gospel, “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).g

Conflicting Commands

Immigrants themselves who are here in violation of law, of course—whether they have overstayed a visa or entered unlawfully across a border—may read Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 differently than we do. They are out of subjection to the law of the United States, and, for the vast majority, the only way to rectify their situation under the law is to return to their country of origin without any hope of return (contrary to popular misconception, there’s not a “line” in which most would-be immigrants are eligible to wait under current law).

We know some believing immigrants who have made the decision to return to their country of origin, trusting God to provide, and we admire their conviction. But others who want desperately to fully obey Scripture—like a neighbor from Mexico, an active member at a Baptist church who is theologically educated and the father of five children (three of them U.S. citizens), but who entered the U.S. unlawfully more than 20 years ago—are anguished by this command. He desperately wants to make things right with the government, but he also says that if he returns to his village in Mexico—from whence he fled desperate poverty two decades ago, with fewer children to support—he could not provide for his family, and he is not sure whether his children are best off staying behind with a relative or accompanying him. For the time, he’s decided, reluctantly, to stay where he is, risking “the sword” that the government does not bear in vain (Rom 13:4) rather than failing to provide for his immediate family and thus becoming, as 1 Timothy 5:8 puts it, “worse than an unbeliever.”

Better System

It’s not completely clear which is the right, pastoral response to this dilemma. Certainly the circumstances vary between the many believing immigrants who are present unlawfully. But there is a growing desire in the evangelical community to find a better and more updated immigration system, one that does not force immigrants who want to work hard and support their families to choose between doing so and following the law. Our current system—a law so out-of-touch with our labor market that both Republican and Democratic administrations have practiced only selective enforcement for decades—mocks the biblical ideal of the rule of law that we find in Romans 13.

Some in our community have suggested a policy change that would allow this believing brother to come forward, pay a monetary penalty for his offense, and then earn the right to stay lawfully with his family by showing over the course of several years that he is working, paying taxes, avoiding criminal activity, and working toward learning English (activities that most undocumented immigrants are already currently engaged in). Requiring the payment of a significant monetary fine would shows a respect for the rule of law (as the Southern Baptist Convention’s Richard Land has noted, it is by definition not amnesty, which is free grace) without resorting to the unrealistic and incredibly costly response of mass deportation.

A balanced policy—rejecting the extremes of either amnesty or mass deportation—would, as John Piper says, both “give honor to the law and show mercy to the immigrants,” reconciling the biblical commands. Combined with policies to make it harder to immigrate and work illegally but easier to immigrate and work legally when there are jobs available in the United States, this sort of proposal is what is meant by the comprehensive immigration reform that groups such as the National Association of Evangelicals and the Southern Baptist Convention have said should be an urgent priority for our legislators.

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