The Other Side of the Fence
By Fernando Soto-Dupuy
Was it right and legal when Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob crossed the Canaanite border on several occasions? The Canaanites would have said no.
Was it right and legal when the children of Israel crossed the border into the promised land? The Philistines and Ammonites would have said no.
Was it right and legal when the Assyrians and the Chaldeans crossed the Israelite border? The Israelites would have said no.
Was it right and legal when the Greeks crossed the western border of Persia? According to the Persians, the answer would have been no.
Was it right and legal when the Romans crossed the border into the Hellenistic Empire? We all can guess that the Greeks would have said no.
Was it right and legal when the Barbarians crossed the Roman Empire’s northern border? No doubt about it, the Romans would have said no.
Was it right and legal when the Moors crossed the Iberian Peninsula border? If you could have asked the Spaniards, you would have heard “no.”
Was it right and legal when the Spanish conquistadores crossed the New Land border? The New World Indians said no.
Was it right and legal when the (North) Americans crossed the borders of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California? The Mexicans would have said no.
Is it right and legal when Latino-Hispanic Americans cross the U.S. border without a visa? If you ask the (North) Americans, they will say no.
And so on. . . .
What’s Your Perspective?
Your answer to questions like these all depends on what side of the fence you are on. I am responding to this issue from the perspective of a naturalized U.S. citizen born in South America. My wife, a Mexican-American from Texas, grew up along the Mexican border. Her house was less than a mile from the Rio Grande River (those who live south of the river call it the Rio Bravo). Her family sometimes had to feed and take care of illegal immigrants who crossed the border at their backyard.
Did they really cross the border or did the border cross them? Texas used to be a Mexican state and due to historical situations—which are not for us to discuss—the border was moved farther south. In the minds of many Mexicans, they did not cross the border, but the border crossed them.
The same thing happened in California where an “American” border was created between Alta California (which became the states of California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, western Colorado, and southwestern Wyoming) and Baja California (which remained part of Mexico). By the way, Spanish and English were both official languages of the state of California until 1879.
Are borders established by God? If they are, then Christians should support border legislations, border patrols, and border vigilantes. But if it is not in God’s purpose to create imaginary lines between countries, my guess is Christians should not be so fanatical about particular territories and frontiers. Every time I see a U.S. weather map, I laugh because it’s obvious weather phenomena stop and start right at the U.S. border—non-U.S. weather is totally ignored. (Thank God Google Maps allows one to see the earth as God sees it.)
What Is Our Job?
Now, before my (North) American brothers and sisters become too upset at my lack of respect for borders, I want to assure you I am not in favor of open borders or any kind of anarchy. I just want the church to do her job and let the government do its job. On this issue I really support the separation between church and state.
Our job as the church of Christ is not to ask for documents from immigrants who come to live with us. Nor is our job to denounce them or condemn their legal status. The most powerful government in human history—which has the means to find Osama bin Laden on the other side of the world—is sophisticated enough to track all kinds of people and deal with this issue in its own bordered land. It doesn’t need the church’s help to chase undocumented immigrants. I am convinced the U.S. government can do whatever it wants to do regarding this issue. If it wants, it could reform the immigration law right away, or it could deport millions of undocumented people in a couple of months.
Why doesn’t it do one thing or the other? I have no idea, but my guess is the government likes the status quo. Politicians are in no hurry; businessmen see no emergency, for they profit from cheap labor, collecting taxes without providing benefits—although some people want to convince us that undocumented people take more than they provide to our nation. If that is the case, let the mass deportation begin and we’ll see our economic future bloom.
On the other hand, candidates seem to warm up to undocumented immigrants during election years. Again this year they will hear promises of amnesty, new laws, reform, and more. Then, after the election, we may remember the truth of Jeremiah 17:5: “Cursed is the one who trusts in man.”
What’s Our Mission?
The great majority of Hispanic congregations in the U.S. have a very high percentage of undocumented people. (The term “undocumented” is preferable to “illegal”; acts can be illegal, but people are undocumented). Forty percent of the people in the congregation I serve in Anaheim are undocumented. My guess is that in other Latino congregations the percentage might be higher. Some of our undocumented members have been in the country for 20 to 25 years; their children were born here, and they speak perfect English. Some of them own houses and have been paying taxes. Sadly, they live in fear, especially that when they retire, they won’t have any financial support from the government.
I have noticed that undocumented people tend to live very moral and law-abiding lives. They know they risk deportation if they get into trouble. Many of them drive without a license, so they are extra careful not to call the attention of authorities. They are good neighbors and good workers; they do not want to be evicted or lose their jobs.
We, as the church of God, have a mission to fulfill regarding this huge chunk of our population. Various sources estimate the undocumented population in this country at 12 million. Are we welcoming them into our churches? Do they feel threatened when they mingle with white Americans? Are we proclaiming a gospel of integration or are they receiving the bad news of separation? Do these undocumented folks look at the church as a government agency or as a city of refuge?
Some years ago we talked about the issue at a special Hispanic pastors meeting. We invited an immigration officer who worked in the deportation department to talk to us. He assured us the government does not have the capability to deport every single undocumented immigrant. Government agents don’t go from house to house asking for papers. They do eagerly look for and deport those who have committed crimes, especially domestic crimes against their spouses or children. Other kinds of undocumented individuals, such as those who were caught working without papers or who were denounced by a neighbor, are not looked at as a priority.
Can an undocumented Christian man become an elder? Can he hold a public ministry? Can he be hired as pastor? Well, Abraham, the wandering Aramean, became the father of the faithful. His great-grandson Joseph, an undocumented slave, became a prime minister in the most powerful country of his time. A young man became one of the major prophets in the Bible when in exile. And don’t forget Esther, who became a kind of Miss Latina USA of her time.
Finally, an undocumented family—a young son, his mom, along with his stepfather—fled the violence of a military regime and entered the relative safety of a neighboring country; that boy grew up to become our Lord and Savior. These persecuted immigrants have a way of always looking for a place of refuge. Woe to us if we do not provide that place and expect them to succeed.
I encourage you to look at this issue with a compassionate mind-set. There are several admonitions in the Old Testament about how to treat a foreigner while he or she is in your country. And the New Testament challenges us to see the foreigners from a missional point of view. The undocumented people among us represent a way God is bringing the need to us, instead of sending us to them.
And please, if you reread the questions at the beginning of this article, do so from the point of view of the person standing on the other side of the fence.
Fernando Soto-Dupuy is the Hispanic pastor of Anaheim (California) First Christian Church. He teaches at Crossmont Bible Institute and teaches Spanish for Hope International University, Fullerton, California. He and his wife, Nona, have been married for 28 years and have three children and three grandchildren.