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Fix the Broken Immigration System by Focusing on Families


[1] As we take on the complex challenge of understanding and recommending ways to fix our broken immigration system, it is important to step back and get our bearings. Some good reference points are religious and national values concerning migration, family, and the law.

[2] Lutheran Values. Lutherans “recognize and affirm the responsibility of the government to regulate immigration in a godly manner while considering the many factors that deserve careful attention.”1 Lutherans insist “that family reunification should be the primary objective of immigration laws.”2 Like many other people of faith, Lutherans view all people, including newcomers, as gifts, as children of God, created in God’s image, with innate, God-given dignity.3 Lutherans recall that God’s people in the Exodus were a migrant people and that Jesus was part of a migrant family fleeing from certain death at Herod’s hand.4 Those who migrated with their families after World War II recall that they were among the one in six Lutherans in the world at that time who was a refugee or displaced person.5 With this immigrant heritage as families and as church, Lutherans identify with newcomers and are moved to “not oppress the stranger… for [we] were strangers in the land of Egypt”6 and to treat “the stranger who sojourns with [us]…as the native[s] among [us].”7 Recalling our own family stories, we are moved by Jesus’ call when we see families fractured by migration to welcome the stranger, as we would Jesus,8 calling for national immigration policies that are “fair and generous.”9 At the same time, Lutherans believe strongly in restoring the rule of law in a situation in which so many people are in the United States without documentation.  
[3] American Values. As Americans, we value practical, workable, fair systems consistent with our values that will lead to an America that is:
  • a diverse, integrated, welcoming immigrant nation,
  • built on the foundation of strong families and communities,
  • promoting the general welfare (including care for the most vulnerable),
  • rooted in inalienable rights, and
  • protected by laws that respect individual rights, serve the general welfare, and reflect order but also proportionality.
Grounded in values, we next try to understand the human toll that the broken system is taking and to identify changes that will make it better reflect the above values.
[4] These Are Our Families. The United States has 12 million unauthorized immigrants.10 Who are they? With the eyes of faith we see through the dehumanizing label of “illegals.” We see gifts, God’s children like us. We see hardworking, resilient immigrants like our forebears. And though often depicted as a nameless, faceless mass of individuals, we see families. Each undocumented person is part of a family--with a family portrait and a family tree. Some are part of families whom they continue to support with remarkable sacrifice in their home countries.11 Over 70% are part of families in the United States. Many of these families have deep community ties, including U.S. citizen and legal permanent resident spouses and children.12 These so-called mixed status families constitute over 10% of all U.S. families.13 
[5] These Individuals and Families Are Good for America. Experience tells us that the overwhelming majority of immigrants who come here are good for America. President Bush and many others have said that the same is true of this group. He sees our current immigration system as outdated “with laws that punish hardworking people who want only to provide for their families”14 and he has said point blank that the U.S. economy “could not function without them.”15 Indeed, they comprise over 4% of the U.S. workforce, making up especially large percentages of manual laborers (e.g., 19% of agricultural workers).16 Nonpartisan government studies document their overall positive benefit to the American economy17 and complementary benefit to the American worker.18 This includes over $520 billion that they have contributed to the Social Security fund with no expectation of receiving benefits in return.19
[6] Lutheran pastoral and social service experience tell us that united families, in themselves, are good for America. Family is “the first community for us as human beings” and “the strongest building block for creating stable, productive societies.”20 Families lie at the core of societal protection, providing meaning, stability, and fullness to a person’s life. “Reunited families can turn their faces forward and fully devote their energies to starting over and forging new lives in a new land... [making them] more likely to achieve lasting self-sufficiency.”21
[7] The Broken System Leaves Families between a Rock and Hard Place. If individuals and family reunification are good for America, why don’t they just migrate here legally? The short answer is that they would get documents if the system provided a workable way to do so. Nobody wants to be undocumented. It often means working for unfair wages and in unsafe conditions. It means that the family is marginalized from the rest of society and living in uncertainty and fear. People are unable to get authorized because the current system does not provide enough visas and timely access to visas for close family members to unite or for employers to get needed workers. Even for a legal permanent resident, it takes up to five years to get a visa for a spouse or minor child. A lot happens in five years of family time—babies are born, children grow up, people get married, people die, spouses drift apart. For work visas, many manual laborers are undocumented because there are only 5,000 such visas available a year, when the annual need in recent years has been up to 700,000.22
[8] For people who are here without authorization, their decisions to leave home were often the most difficult decisions in their lives. Most love their home and country as we do ours. Yet for some, their countries are wrought with war, violence and human rights violations. Staying home means threats to their lives or their family members’. For others, their countries’ governments and economies are underdeveloped and make it impossible for them to support their families. For others, they were pulled by the promise of abundant work opportunities, the chance to make a better life for their families. For many, migrating is the only way to achieve family unity. As they live with their decisions, they have found that the U.S. immigration system does not support them in responding to those positive personal choices. The broken system puts them between a rock and a hard place. As fractured families, they now suffer either the high price of separation across international boundaries or of family unity in the United States at the price of living in fear and marginalized in the shadows. They live in fear of U.S. government raids of their homes, workplaces and communities—which often leave families divided, children without parents, and our country without needed workers. 
[9] Reform Principles Must Begin with Family Unity. One sign that our system is broken is that people are here without authorization. But the harm is not so much that undesirable people are here without authorization but that the people that American communities and families need to have here have insufficient channels to achieve authorization. To make a just, humane fix, we need to restore compliance with the system, not by deporting this group, but by altering the system so that it is consistent with our values. We seek to reconcile undocumented people now with the system through earned legalization; and avoid having undocumented people in the future by having more visas that will enable unification of close family members and admission of needed workers. We thereby recognize that those who are undocumented violated the system and need to be accountable, but also recognize that they are decent people, that they and their families are part of us, and that we seek reconciliation as one community.
[10] LIRS Immigration Principles for Fixing the Broken System.  “In difficult and threatening times, churches and all Christians have an obligation to stand with the word of God against those who use fear to deny fundamental human rights and dignity to the stranger in our midst.”23 LIRS continues to advocate for reform of our broken immigration system, working with our partners, who include faith-based, immigrant, business, labor, and human rights groups. We reject an enforcement only or enforcement first solution of constant raids and deportation. Instead, based on our religious and national values, we urge reforms aimed at reconciling the individuals and their families with the community. Reform must be based on four principles:
·     Unite families
·     Protect human rights and worker rights
·     End the marginalization of the undocumented and their families making it possible for them to come out of the shadows and live without fear
·     Give them a path toward permanence
[11] As Lutherans stated some thirty years ago: “Families are entitled to protection from forces that would tear them apart.”24 Just, humane reform would provide such protection. 
[1] E.g., Dr. Gerald B. Kieschnick and Rev. Matthew Harrison, “Joint Statement Regarding Immigration Concerns,” (The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, June 2, 2006).
[2] “A Message on Immigration,” Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, November 16, 1998, p. 7. Issues/Messages/Immigration. aspx
[3] “So God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” Genesis 1:27, New Revised Standard Version.
[4] See Exodus; and Matthew 2:13-15, NRSV.  
[5] “A Message on Immigration,” ELCA, p. 1.
[6] Exodus 23:9, NRSV.
[7] Leviticus 19:33-34, NRSV.
[8] Matthew 25, NRSV.
[9] “A Message on Immigration,” ELCA, p. 2
[10] Jeffrey S. Passel, “The Size and Characteristics of the Unauthorized Migrant Population in the U.S.,” Pew Hispanic Center, March 7, 2006, p. i.
[11] For example, Mexicans send $16.6 billion per year to help their families in Mexico. An estimated 80% goes for food, clothing, health care and other household expenses. M. Angeles Villarrreal, “US-Mexico Economic Relations,” CRS Report for Congress, July 11, 2005, p.3.
[12] Ruth Ellen Wasem, “‘Unauthorized Aliens’ Access to Federal Benefits: Policies and Issues,” (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, May 21, 2008) p. 3.
[13] Michael Fix and Wendy Zimmermann, “All Under One Roof: Mixed-Status Families in an Era of Reform,” The Urban Institute Research Report, October 6, 1999, p. 1.
[14] President George W. Bush, “State of the Union,” Address to the 109th Congress, February 2, 2005.
[15] President George W. Bush “State of the Union,” Address to the 109th Congress, January 31, 2006.
[16] All statistics in this paragraph except the last one are from Jeffrey S. Passel, “Unauthorized Migrants.”
[17] E.g., Council of Economic Advisors, Economic Report of the President (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2007), p. 201.
[18] Council of Economic Advisors, “Immigration’s Economic Impact,” (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, June 2007) immigration_062007.html.
[19] “Undocumented Immigrants as Taxpayer,” Immigration Policy Center, 2007.
[20] Rev. Paul Stumme-Diers, ELCA Bishop of the Greater Milwaukee Synod, quoted in “Lutheran Bishops and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service Express Grave Concern That Senate Immigration Deal Devalues Families,” Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service News Release, May 18, 2007. 
[21] Ralston H. Deffenbaugh Jr., “Family Reunification – At the core of refugee protection,” From the President’s Desk, LIRS, August 2001. RD200108.htm.
[22] “Rethinking Global Migration New Realities, New Opportunities, New Challenges,” Pew Hispanic Center and Immigration Studies at NYU, September 14, 2006.
[23] Bishop Mark S. Hanson and Ralston H. Deffenbaugh Jr., “Evangelical Lutherans Call for Fair and Just Immigration Reform,” Joint Statement from the ELCA and LIRS, March 2006.
[24] “Human Rights: Doing Justice in God’s World, A Social Statement of the Lutheran Church in America,” Lutheran Church in America (Ninth Biennial Convention, Chicago, Illinois, July 12-19, 1978).



© December 2008
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 8, Issue 12