Responding to the Issue of Legal Status

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. – Romans 13:1, NIV

Over the last few weeks, we’ve begun an exploration of the issue of immigration with a desire to understand how a Christian should begin to think about the topic. Through this lens, we’ve asked questions that are often unasked or overlooked with regards to immigration: Where should we begin a discussion about the topic? Where did our system come from? What does the Bible have to say about immigration?

Today, we have reached the question of legality. Using the information we’ve already looked at, we will be able to, hopefully, ask this question from a base that will allow us to consider the system and the people involved in it more thoughtfully than current rhetoric typically allows for.

Redefining a Romans 13 Mindset

There are currently an estimated 11-12 million people present in the United States without documentation. Whether these people crossed the border without papers or overstayed a legally obtained visa, they are all breaking the law through their undocumented presence in the U.S. Had this been the place where we’d started our discussion, the conversation would be over pretty quickly. They broke the law, let them pay the punishment. Many people will cite Romans 13 in this argument: We are to be subject to the authorities because “there is no authority except which God has established.”

Since we did not begin with a question of legality, though, we have a broader foundation that we are able to approach this issue with. We can ask questions about whether the current laws are just, about whether they promote the inherent dignity in every human, and whether other parts of the Bible apply to this topic. We should also remember what theologian John Howard Yoder say in his book The Politics of Jesus:

“The Christian who accepts his subjection to government retains his moral independence and judgment. The authority of government is not self-justifying. Whatever government exists is ordered by God; but the text does not say that whatever the government does or asks of its citizens is good.”[i]

Laws should be created that promote the well-being of humans because of their inherent dignity. We must also recognize that all laws will have to answer to God’s higher law. I submit that laws that do not adhere to these ideas could be considered unjust.

It is important to note that questioning whether the current system is just or not does not change the fact that it is the system that we currently live under, and there is still a legal issue with undocumented immigration. Many proponents of immigration reform do not suggest that undocumented immigrants should be free of any punishment for their actions, but rather that the punishment does not fit the crime. Almost all people present in the U.S. without legal status cannot apply for legal status. Leaving the country to apply for legal status immediately triggers a 10 year ban on entering the country. Undocumented immigrants are ineligible for many social services even though payroll taxes are deducted from their paychecks. Deportations can break apart families when one person is deported and not another, or when children of undocumented immigrants are American citizens. Immigrants can be held for extended periods of time in immigration detention facilities (prison) for not having papers.

We need to advocate for a change to the system. The issue that seems most pressing is creating some sort of way for people to obtain legal status, either as a resident worker of some kind or as a citizen. Luckily, since we live in a democratic country, we have a voice in the system. We have a say in who the authorities are who run and oversee the system. Politicians listen to the people they represent because we are the ones determining whether they will have a job.

There is no easy, one-step answer to the issue of immigration. Changes may lead to new issues, but we must remember that the current system has issues. One thing does seem certain: change is on the horizon. The question remains: What will that change be, and will the change help form a more just system?

Interacting with the Political System

The content from this post may lead to a question of how Christians should or can interact with a system that is not a Christian system. Additionally, not all of the people involved in the system or the country are Christians, or hold to the same Christian values. This is an important topic which, due to the size of the question, will be addressed in more detail in the next post.

Some content from this post was inspired by Welcoming the Stranger by Matthew Sorens and Jenny Hwang, and Christians at the Border by Dr. M. Daniel Carroll R.

This is the fourth posting in a series on immigration. Subscribe, like on Facebook, and follow on Twitter for more updates.

[i] John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, 207.


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