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The so-called "immigrant problem," or what has now become the immigrant rights movement, is producing disagreement among religious conservatives and leaders. Some, like Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, are arguing for stiff penalties against illegal immigrants along with beefed up efforts to secure U.S. borders. Many Catholic leaders have argued for citizenship grants and “justice,” some white evangelicals have weighed in via surveys saying immigrants are a burden and a threat to American values and stability, Hispanic evangelicals are noting their support for pro-life, pro-marriage, and other issues dear to evangelicals and, thus, expecting some reciprocity. Still others like Focus on the Family have uncharacteristically stayed out of the fray.

I would qualify as a “religious conservative,” and I’m already on record as generally supportive of immigrants’ desire for American citizenship. I do not consider immigrants a threat to American values and way of life.

But clearly the current situation needs to change. While both Republicans and Democrats posture on Capitol Hill, offering quick “solutions,” the current immigrant issue remains a complex one. We did not awaken one morning and discover that as many as 12 million illegal immigrants entered the country over night. Porous borders, ineffective policy, and sporadic enforcement have co-existed for a long time.

I don’t understand evangelicals who make illegal immigrants sound like terrorists. It’s not too much of a stretch to surmise that a handful of illegal immigrants are connected with terrorist cells, but certainly not 12 million of them. Categorical rejection of these people borders on ethnic prejudice and parochialism. I don’t consider these attitudes Christian.

This issue calls for statesmanship, rationality, and measured response. Immigration is nothing new. We are a nation of immigrants, and we’ve developed reasonable legal processes before. We can do it again.

At a minimum, Congress needs to do the following:

--Recognize that the vast majority of immigrants do not want to come to the United States to blow it up. They want to come to secure the prospects of a better life for them and their children via the freedom this country and economy affords.

--Secure American borders from those who wish to do us harm. This means we must develop a more sophisticated, coordinated, and administered system of accepting or rejecting internationals who wish to enter this country.

--Develop a guest worker program that makes sense and is easy to administer.

--Create a process through which illegal immigrants presently in this country can work systematically toward American citizenship.

--Develop a better and more extensive approach to teaching English as a second language and require immigrants seeking American citizenship to enroll, learn, and pass conversational English tests.

The recently named “immigrants rights movement” needs to demonstrate some leadership and established values as well:

--They need to more clearly and consistently convey their desire to become Americans, not simply legally recognized residents of the United States. There is a difference. Americans buy in to the ideals this country represents, speak English, and evidence gratitude for the blessings this citizenship affords. Legally recognized residents seem to work harder to maintain their distinctive heritage than they do to assimilate.

--Assimilation is not a bad thing, and it does not mean a person must reject his or her heritage. It means that the person who wants to become a citizen of this country works to develop basic knowledge and skills that allow him or her to function productively in this free country.

I am not anti-Hispanic or anti-Spanish language. Far from it. I’m simply saying that when I travel to the Dominican Republic and certainly to France, I am expected to at least try to speak their language—and I’m just a tourist. Surely if I took up residence in those countries and sought Dominican or French citizenship, I would be expected to learn the language of my adopted country,

Expecting immigrants to learn English is not a form of cultural imperialism. It’s a practical economic and social necessity. Those who do not learn English are forever hindered in their ability to better their condition and support themselves. Those who learn the language of their adopted country can then fully participate in the freedom of opportunity this capitalistic system offers. They can earn and they can contribute.

So, as a religious conservative and as a white evangelical, I do not reject illegal immigrants carte blanche. I do not think that as a category they are a threat to what makes America great. I think they are an asset who should be assisted, treated with dignity and respect, and then given certain incentives or expectations for attaining citizenship. If they do not respond to these overtures, then they can be sent back to their country of origin. But if that happens, it will result from their choices, not our walled off rejection.


© Rex M. Rogers - All Rights Reserved, 2006

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