Cite as "AILA InfoNet Doc. No. 06072460 (posted Jul. 24, 2006)"
Interfaith Comprehensive Immigration Reform Conference and Advocacy Day
July 12, 2006
Remarks of Bishop Allan C. Bjornberg, Rocky Mountain Synod
Evangelical Lutheran Church of America
Our theological and biblical perspectives are a distillation of our and our ancestors' human experience of God. And so it is appropriate that we come together to share our experience, and to learn from one another. Moreover, we are all created and called to be in community with one another. We are called to work for the common good, as legislators, as citizens, as people of faith. And we are all frequently called to another place, geographically, culturally, spiritually. As our faith journeys converge, we must encourage and learn from one another.
1. The immigration system is broken.
The immigration system is broken. I receive the same report from our pastors and congregations, from our Lutheran social service agencies, and from Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS), our church's national cooperative agency serving and advocating for the most vulnerable refugees and immigrants.
The system is broken. Willing, needed workers cannot get authorization to work and are thus vulnerable to exploitation. Families fractured by migration are unable to get documentation for immediate family members and the impact on the family, especially children is profound. With no mechanism for documenting them, a whole marginalized class of workers and families lives in fear in the shadows.
Our current immigration enforcement system is broken, too. It relies more and more on mandatory detention and removal schemes that are not prudent financially and that are inconsistent with the fundamental right to fair process. This has impacted our systems for providing safe haven for asylum seekers, who are often detained upon arrival. They are often retraumatized by the experience and are left to navigate the complicated proceedings on their own. Further, overly broad security provisions are currently blocking deserving refugees and asylum seekers from getting protection in the United States.
What do we do?
2. Immigration reform is not merely a policy debate.
As we struggle to answer that question, one thing is clear. Immigration reform is not merely a policy debate. It's a profoundly moral and theological issue. The measure of a just society is how it treats its most vulnerable members. The issue is not a simple one but the principles are clear that we must create a system that welcomes the stranger while providing for the common good.
3. Welcome the stranger.
Where does the principle of welcoming the stranger come from? Migration is a common human experience. The decision to move to a strange land is difficult and often life altering. People are motivated by powerful forces like family, work and freedom-to unite with loved ones, to take up employment or to seek refuge from persecution. Migration often includes an element of necessity-sometimes a matter of life or death, a matter of living in dignity or not, or a matter of reaching our full human potential.
Our own experience and faith tradition tell us that we encounter God in the migration experience; the theology of migration is an effort to describe and reflect on the encounter.
As Americans, we recall the family stories of how and why our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents came to this country and of how they were transformed by the migration experience and how they transformed their new land.
As a Lutheran, I am moved by the description of mass migration by the end of World War II, when one in six of the world's Lutherans was a refugee or displaced person. That forced migration was a powerful experience for the migrating faith community and for the hosting communities. Among other things, it led to the formation of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS) that continues its work today with the most vulnerable newcomers of all races, nations and beliefs. As a Lutheran, I am also keenly aware today of the presence of many newcomers in our congregations, including in the Rocky Mountain States and across the country.
Within the Judaic-Christian tradition, we are keenly aware that migration is a common experience for faith communities. The central event of the Old Testament, the Exodus, is a mass migration of the Israelites, a refugee people. Jesus, the center of the New Testament and of Christianity, began his life as an infant fleeing from persecution, and lived his final years as a migrating, itinerant preacher, with "no where to lay his head."
Whether regarding our own families, our faith communities, or our faith tradition, the reflection is the same that we have known the vulnerabilities of being a newcomer and that we should show empathy, compassion and welcome to newcomers in our midst. Our basic approach is to open our hearts and welcome newcomers.
The reminder comes clearly from the bible: "You shall treat the stranger who resides with you no differently from the natives born among you; have the same love for him as for yourself; for you too were once strangers in the land of Egypt." Leviticus 19: 33-34.
4. Just laws serve the common good.
At the heart of Christian theology is the notion that we are loved and blessed by God and that, at our best as Christians, we live a life of love for others in response to being loved, to being full of God's grace.
In its Message on Immigration, the ELCA recalls Martin Luther's challenge and call, "How do we know that the love of God dwells in us? If we take upon ourselves the need of the neighbor." (Message on Immigration, p. 4) Further, "We encourage our members, in light of our history and our ministry with newcomers, to join with other citizens in our democratic society to support just laws that serve the common good." (p. 6).
5. Policies that meet these four principles will serve the common good.
Comprehensive reform that fulfills these four principals contributes to the common good.
Reunite families-Strong families make strong communities. Current policy separates or marginalizes families for years. It weakens families; it weakens communities.
Provide worker and human rights-Christians believe that every human being is a child of God, full of God-given dignity and worth, and having inalienable rights such as protection against arbitrary detention; freedom from compulsory labour; and the right to procedural guarantees. Worker rights include fair wages, the ability to change jobs, and safe working conditions. Such common rights for all promote the common good of all.
End the marginalization of workers and families-When people have no legal status and no viable means to attain it, they limit their participation in societal structures for fear that visibility would put the ongoing residency of them or their families at risk (Journal of Lutheran Ethics, Volume 6, Issue 7, July 2006, p. 5). Contrary to the common good, parents fear going to their children's schools, sick people fear going to the hospital. Moreover, by getting those out of the shadows who mean us no harm, we can focus energy on those left in the shadow who mean us harm. That serves the common good.
Provide a path to permanence--Part of the genius of our nation is that we have found a way to make it possible for an immigrant to become a citizen, for a stranger to become the one providing hospitality. Proposals that would leave no options for workers to achieve a permanent place in society could create a permanent underclass-a development contrary to the common good.
"The newcomers in our church from around the world remind us that all of us are sojourners [in this life]…. As we journey together through the time God has given us, may God give us the grace of a welcoming heart and an overflowing love for the new neighbors among us." (Message on Migration, p. 9)
People do the best they can with what they have. If we are aware of the theological realities, the economic realities, the social and cultural realities around immigration, we must share them. And we must learn all we can as well.
The gifts of God come in the person of strangers. And God works most often and most effectively through human beings. As strangers become fellow pilgrims and companions on this life journey, the gifts of God come abundantly even to us.