Why the Church Needs to Be in the Immigration Game

12.20.19 | Community Outreach | by Ben Johnson

Why the Church Needs to Be in the Immigration Game

    “You must think I’m a complete mess!” said Edna* as she sat in front of us. Despite living here for 64 of her 66 years, she never managed to become a U.S. citizen. As her hectic life began to calm, she decided to look into removing this nagging source of guilt and anxiety. She made an appointment to talk to Bill and me, immigration legal counselors working out of a church in her neighborhood.

    We quickly determined that her application for naturalization (becoming a U.S. citizen) would be straightforward and painless, relatively speaking. Yes, she would need to pay nearly $1,000 in fees, submit a two-dozen-page application, pass an interview and several tests, and wait more than a year. But unlike many immigrants, Edna had no red flags that could cause her to be denied or deported to a nation whose language she does not speak.

    Nevertheless, an hour into our 90-minute consultation, Edna was crying for the third time. We had already discussed her disabled parents’ flight from Nazi-occupied Europe, the discrimination her ethnic minority father faced across several continents, the lingering pride and bitterness of growing up as a foreigner, a failed relationship and a life-giving one, an adolescent secret never before told, a decades-long burden and, now, a too-fresh tragedy. 

    The emotional weight of it all had her convinced we judged her and found her unworthy of our time and attention. Yet Edna’s need compelled her to reach out and trust us.

    Need & Opportunity 
    Some immigrants face years of uncertainty and heartbreaking choices. Few topics pierce to the heart of a person’s life like their immigration status.

    Who better than the church to guide & comfort?

    Navigating the bureaucratic nightmare of our immigration system involves and affects their history, family, identity, relationships, education, employment, qualifications, income, crimes, infidelities, associations, healthcare, housing and future plans. Even people like Edna—capable and determined, with the most straightforward applications—are often overwhelmed by its magnitude and complexity. 

    Others face an even greater burden. Applicants for asylum must describe their most traumatic and intimate experiences before skeptical judges and adversarial government attorneys—their family’s survival hanging on their ability to tell a compelling story. Those seeking certain waivers must prove “exceptional and extremely unusual hardship” to family members. Stringing out the worst-case scenarios of their family’s looming catastrophe, they hope it proves dire enough to merit relief.

    Across the United States, people like Edna are looking for someone who will listen to their story and give them a straight answer about their immigration options. At Immigrant Hope, we do our best to walk with them. Some face years of uncertainty and heartbreaking choices. For others, the answers are simple and the path straight. Still, as we found with Edna, the person’s need for support is vast. 

    Putting Our Resources to Work
    By God’s grace we did have help to offer Edna. With our immigration legal training, we were able to set her mind at ease lay out a clear path. Being recipients of God’s gracious love and mercy ourselves, we were able to pass them along to her.

    Hearing people’s immigration stories allows us to bring the healing power of the gospel to bear.

    God had brought Bill and me through challenges and pain similar to those Edna described. He allowed us to hear her with openness and compassion, to speak words of comfort and encouragement and to model hope. We shared freely from Scripture and prayed together. Edna left us with a huge smile, overflowing with words of gratitude for our help and the church’s concern for people like her. 

    Hearing people’s immigration stories, armed with reliable resources and God’s heart for the lost, gives me and my co-ministers unparalleled access to their deepest needs, hopes, desires, fears and shame. It allows us to bring the healing power of the gospel to bear. We can offer God’s forgiveness and show His care for their whole person—physical, spiritual, emotional and social. We can introduce them to His family and invite them to join us.

    God has made His expectations for the Church clear:

    • Love the stranger, Deuteronomy 10:18–19
    • Welcome them, Matthew 25:35
    • Care for them, Psalm 146:9
    • Stand for justice, Zechariah 7:9–10
    • Fair application of laws, Leviticus 24:22
    • Make disciples, Ephesians 2:12–13
    • Bear their burdens, Galatians 6:1–6
    • Live and worship as one body, 1 Corinthians 12:13, 26

    You Can Help
    Immigrant Hope offers training and certification as an immigration legal counselor, but there are also many other ways to help: 

    • Teaching English or civics
    • Tutoring students going through school in a second language
    • Mentoring a family navigating a new society
    • Helping people translate their job skills to a new marketplace
    • Welcoming strangers to your home to learn each other’s culture

    God has given you unique knowledge, resources, access and influence. How are you answering His call to serve our vulnerable new neighbors and build His kingdom? Learn more at Community Outreach or 763-533-5887.

    *A pseudonym is used to protect the subject's anonymity.
    This article is a revised version from the EFCA blog.

    Ben Johnson attends New Hope Church and is a missionary with EFCA ReachNational. He serves as the director of Immigrant Hope and is a member of the All People Team. He also serves on the legal staff at Immigrant Hope in Bloomington, Minnesota. Ben was born in Kenya and lived in Sao Paulo, Brazil. He currently lives in Crystal, Minnesota, with his wife, Sarah and three sons. He is passionate about helping the church live out its full mission in the world.