The immigration system in America is beyond broken; it is in crisis. Because it is not simply a crisis limited to issues of documentation and border enforcement, but rather one that is tearing at the very fabric of individuals, families, and communities, it is a crisis that the church is, in my opinion, compelled to address.
The Hebrew prophet Micah declared that God’s expectation of the faithful is to “do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” We take in part, from that mandate, the understanding of bringing both justice and compassion to circumstances of human need. And also we understand the need to soberly, humbly, and prayerfully consider the response from the church to this crisis in order that far more light than heat is added to the present dialogue and subsequent solutions.
I commend Congress as it begins the “heavy lifting” of crafting legislation that is fair and comprehensive, that keeps our nation secure, and that preserves family values as well as strengthening the economic and social fabric of our society.
But I also come to you today with a pastor’s heart, and with the deeply held concern that any laws enacted consider the very American tradition of compassion. The heart of what we teach, preach, and live is anchored in the Good News, Christ’s saving and liberating love and compassion that has not built walls, but “broken every barrier down.”
Family, in its strongest and most stable structure, is an essential pillar of our society. Within the church the institution of family is supported, encouraged, and applauded. In my own congregation, I see again and again – and am truly thankful for – the examples of family strength and values in the homes and lives of those who have immigrated to the United States.
The limitation of family-based immigration by the reduction of family reunification visas would impair that family structure in significant measure. Siblings, adult children, and parents (those directly affected by any potential reduction) are in many examples and cultural contexts core, and not merely “extended,” family. It is also important to note here the idea of “chain” immigration, the concept asserting that immigrants sponsor an uncontrollable number of family members, is without basis. In reality, only immigrants who have already gained legal permanent residency or U.S. citizenship are able to sponsor relatives, and on average only 1.2 family members are sponsored.
It is within the structure of families that immigration reform can wield the most enduring benefits. Through a process of restitution, integration into the larger community, and a pathway to earned citizenship, we will do away with a system that has kept millions of hard-working individuals who wish to become productive, law-abiding members of our society in the shadows, and has prevented numerous families from being fully intact and stable (two conditions that benefit society).
Finally, let me say that many within the historically African-American church have made their voices heard in support of comprehensive immigration reform. Like the overwhelming majority of all Americans, African-American voters support immigration reform that includes enforcement and a path to citizenship. It is the legitimate continuing legacy of the civil rights struggle and part of the very nature of the African-American church that one should speak for those who have no voice, advocate for those who have no power, and stand for those who are not represented. But with a fair and compassionate earned pathway to citizenship, those who are now in the shadows will be able to speak, be empowered, and stand for themselves.
Rev. Derrick Harkins is Senior Pastor of the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. He previously has served as a pastor in Dallas, Texas, and as the Assistant Pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, New York. He is a member of the Board of Directors for World Relief, and a vice president of the North American Baptist Fellowship of the Baptist World Alliance. This post is adapted from his testimony to the Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security and International Law in the House of Representatives on May 22, 2007.