Updated: Nov 20
I recently joined several Holy Post cohosts and pundits for an immersion experience along the U.S.-Mexico border. I’ve visited different points along the border at least a dozen times, but each visit leaves me wrestling with the question: What can be done?
Plenty of political pundits have simplistic solutions. Build (more) walls and close the border altogether. Tear down walls and open the borders to all. Those solutions, paired with carefully-selected images and emotional appeals to either fear (“they’re bringing drugs and committing crimes”) or outrage (“borders are racist”) sustain attention for those selling TV ads, but they’re not realistic policy solutions.
There’s no perfect immigration policy, and the Bible certainly doesn’t offer a specific prescription for U.S. legislation. But there are ways that our government could dramatically improve the status quo in ways consistent with biblical principles: affirming human dignity, demonstrating compassion for the vulnerable, maintaining family unity and respecting government’s God-ordained role in maintaining order and restraining evil. To get there, though, we need to understand what’s actually happening at the border and how dynamics have changed.
Two decades ago, most individuals apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border were adults from Mexico, motivated by economic opportunity, who sought to sneak past the Border Patrol. Most were successful: the Department of Homeland Security estimates that, in 2003, the Border Patrol apprehended only about one-third of unlawful entrants and roughly 2 million people entered the U.S. without being caught.
Frankly, while those people violated a U.S. law, they’re mostly people whom I’d love to have as my neighbors (in fact, those are many of the neighbors my wife and I have chosen to live among in our mostly-Mexican neighborhood). There’s a lot of evidence that undocumented immigrants, who either entered unlawfully or overstayed temporary visas, commit crime at far lower rates than native-born U.S. citizens, are more likely to be Christians than native-born Americans, and have a net positive economic impact on the United States.
While no one who has entered the U.S. unlawfully via the U.S-Mexico border since at least 1975 has taken the life of an American citizen in a terrorist attack, it is a liability to have unvetted individuals enter the U.S. Thankfully, the Department of Homeland Security now estimates that the vast majority of those who seek to cross unlawfully between ports of entry – between 78 and 87 percent in recent years – were either apprehended or prevented from entering.
There are a number of reasons for this dramatic increase in the interdiction rate over the past twenty years, including improvements to the Mexican economy, more employer-sponsored temporary visas for Mexican nationals, and huge federal expenditures on Border Patrol staffing, physical barriers and technology across both Republican and Democratic administrations.
But what’s probably made the biggest difference is the reality that, in recent years, a very large share of those who arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border are not trying to evade detection by the Border Patrol: they’re looking for the Border Patrol in order to seek asylum in the United States.
Under longstanding U.S. law, an individual qualifies for asylum if they can reach the United States (on a temporary visa through an airport or by reaching the border) and can demonstrate that, if returned, they face a well-founded fear of persecution on account of their race, religion, political opinion, national origin or membership in a particular social group. Notably, the law offers these protections to those who can reach U.S. territory “whether or not at a designated port of arrival.”
But why wouldn’t everyone just walk up to the lawful port of entry and begin their asylum request, avoiding a dangerous, unlawful crossing that usually requires availing oneself to the costly “services” of a criminal smuggler tied to a cartel?
Since 2016, a variety of different policies under the Obama, Trump and now Biden administrations (some more humane than others) have limited asylum seekers from making such requests at ports of entry. Desperate families – largely from countries other than Mexico, wait in border communities like Tijuana for weeks, months or even years for the chance to begin an asylum request, often relying on church-based shelters like the one that World Relief supports. But others hear (sometimes from profit-motivated smugglers who spread partial truths via social media) that they could also begin an asylum claim if they cross unlawfully, between ports of entry.
So do these people actually qualify for asylum? Are they genuinely fleeing persecution? Or are they manipulating our system? It’s complicated.
In FY 2022, about half of those encountered crossing between ports of entry were either deported to a country of origin or returned to Mexico almost immediately, but hundreds of thousands were temporarily detained, background-checked and then allowed into the U.S. with a notice to appear in immigration court, where they can present their case for asylum. They’re in legal limbo – allowed to remain lawfully but only while awaiting a final court disposition.
On average, asylum seekers will wait four years, given the backlogged state of our immigration court system, and most are ineligible for employment authorization for the first 6 months they are in the country. This has created a tremendous challenge in cities like New York and Chicago, where individuals find themselves unable to pay rent unless they work without authorization.
In FY 2023, about 40 percent of asylum applicants decisions by immigration judges were approvals. Simply closing off access to asylum, as some argue is the solution to border challenges, would mean sending these individuals back to situations where they reasonably fear being persecuted.
And even those who lose their cases are not necessarily misrepresenting their situation: they may just not have the documentary evidence to persuade immigration judges, who make subjective decisions based on both the evidence available and their own biases. Others denied asylum may have missed the notice to appear for court, having moved in the course of the years-long wait and failed to update their address. Many of those I’ve met at the border actually have no idea who technically qualifies for asylum. They have heard the United States offers refuge and opportunity to those “yearning to breathe free,” which is the language of iconic American poetry but not current immigration law.
So, what’s the solution? Here are a few options:
1.Expand legal immigration - At a time when the U.S. has 9.6 million job openings but only 6.5 million people looking for work, this would be a win-win both for people abroad desperate for work and for the U.S. economy, where labor shortages have contributed to inflation. We could also address the immediate challenge for asylum seekers with pending court dates by allowing them to work lawfully more quickly.
2. Expand refugee resettlement If we believe that human life is precious, made in God’s image, we should never turn our back on the principle of asylum, ensuring due process for those who profess a well-founded fear of persecution. But we could minimize the number who have no choice but to reach the U.S. to make that claim by expanding refugee resettlement. This way, individuals who meet the same legal definition can have their case considered abroad, and then come to the U.S. on airplanes where they are welcomed by a resettlement organization like World Relief and are authorized to work from the day that they arrive.
3. Expand port of entry capacity. For those who conclude they have no choice but to reach the border, we could invest in more processing capacity at ports of entry to facilitate lawful entry and processing for asylum seekers and disincentivize unlawful entries. We should also hire far more asylum officers and immigration judges, so it would not take years to get a decision on an asylum case. We should also invest in staffing, infrastructure and technology both for Border Patrol – minimizing the risk of someone intent on doing harm entering the U.S. surreptitiously – and at ports of entry, which is actually where 90 percent of fentanyl comes into the U.S., largely carried by U.S. citizens. (Cartels are evil but not dumb, so they almost never put their valuable contraband on asylum seekers who want to be caught by Border Patrol).
Here’s the good news: there are both Republican and Democratic Members of Congress who are serious about fixing these problems. The Dignity Act currently has 25 cosponsors in the House of Representatives. It’d put $35 billion into border security improvements (both at and between ports of entry), significantly increase legal migration avenues, and dramatically increase asylum adjudication capacity. It would also provide longtime undocumented immigrants – who mostly came a decade or more back – the chance to earn permanent legal status and eventual citizenship if they’d pay a significant fine as restitution for their violation of U.S. immigration law.
I’ve personally spoken to both Republican and Democratic cosponsors of the Dignity Act. Neither of them love every element of the bill, but they’ve done the hard work of forging a consensus that both Republicans and Democrats can get behind, which is the only sort of bill that could possibly become law, and thus actually change the “crisis” status quo, in the current political environment.
Evangelical groups have joined Catholic leaders, business leaders and Latino civil rights organizations in affirming the bill, and the key provisions of investing in border security and creating a restitution-based path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants are also supported by 78 percent of evangelical Christians, according to Lifeway Research. But the bill will need a lot more visibility and support before it has a realistic chance of passing. And it faces fierce opposition from those who are not just against illegal immigration, but against most legal immigration as well.
Instead of the Dignity Act, the House has passed and the Senate is reportedly considering a proposal, that would dramatically roll back due process for asylum seekers, a bill that leaders from World Relief and Open Doors US have warned could “slam the ‘golden door’ on persecuted Christians” and others fleeing persecution.
1. Add your name to this longstanding call from the Evangelical Immigration Table for immigration reform including a restitution-based legalization process for the undocumented.
2. Call your Member of Congress and urge them to support legislation like the Dignity Act.
3.Do your homework and respectfully correct inaccurate information when you hear it.
4.Spend some time immersed in what the Bible says about immigration.
Even if Congress fails to resolve the policy dysfunctions at our border, the church can care for the victims of this dysfunction. You can join World Relief in coming alongside local churches on both sides of the border to care for asylum seekers and other migrants. And in cities across the country, where those with court dates are arriving. And in countries around the world where local churches are addressing the root causes of poverty, conflict and environmental disasters that lead so many to feel they have no choice but to leave their homelands.
Our elected officials have work to do if they’re serious about solving the border crisis. But the church need not wait for the government’s permission to love our neighbors.
Matthew Soerens is the VP of Advocacy and Policy for World Relief, the national coordinator for the Evangelical Immigration Table and coauthor of several books, includingWelcoming the Stranger: Justice: Compassion & Truth in the Immigration DebateandInalienable: How Marginalized Kingdom Voices Can Help Save the American Church.