How Should Churches and Seminaries Respond to Immigrant Pastors Who Minister in the US Illegally?
Kedri Metzger is senior attorney with Religious Worker Immigrant Legal Services of World Relief, based in Baltimore.
Immigrants are strengthening the church and revitalizing some denominations with significant growth. Many of these churches are started by local leaders who emphasize evangelism and know the culture and language of the growing immigrant population in the United States. But some of these pastors lack valid immigration status and face a complex and painful dilemma.
Alex and his family crossed the border illegally when he was an infant. Years later, after becoming a Christian, he began a ministry in his community that has grown into two separate church sites. Alex serves as a volunteer, unable to work since he does not have the necessary immigration papers. He has a family, including a child with Down syndrome who is a U.S. citizen. This complicates his situation even more: If Alex leaves the States, his child would lose access to crucial medical care. Alex has considered bringing himself to the attention of immigration authorities to plead his case before an immigration judge. But this would risk for being deported away from his child, to a country he doesn't remember.
Like Alex, some pastors came to the United States as small children. Some intentionally crossed the border undetected, while others entered on valid visas and later lost their immigration status through technical mistakes made by themselves or church leaders. Under current law, there are no remedies for these mistakes.
Those without valid immigration status are required to complete the immigration process abroad. If a pastor leaves the country to do so, he will likely face a 10-year bar from applying for reentry. This leaves pastors stuck: unable to correct their status from inside the United States, and barred from reentering if they leave.
How should a church denomination respond? The first step is to locate competent immigration legal advice. It cannot be left to ethnic ministry directors, church planters, pastors, and other church leaders to advise these individuals on their immigration legal status.
If the church helps, are they violating the law? Church leaders often worry that they are not submitting to authorities by allowing pastors or other volunteers to participate in church life. But the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) does not require church leaders or members to report pastors who are here illegally. Currently, the ina says churches cannot employ individuals who do not have permission to work inside the United States.
Churches and denominations have a great deal of freedom to develop policy and practice. We must challenge ourselves to pursue the facts and understand the biblical perspective. The church should seek to balance care for our brothers and sisters with their responsibility under the law. We must wrestle with our commitment to the mission of the gospel and consider the kingdom purposes of these "fishers of men" in our midst.
Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, is author of Taking Back the United Methodist Church.
Churches are called to minister to all persons to whom they have access. This includes persons who are in this country illegally. Outreach includes gospel proclamation, inviting others into the life of the church, and charity when needed.
When it comes to illegal immigration, the church should teach compliance with the existing law, even to those who are pastors and ministry leaders with significant responsibility. Such counsel may include helping illegal immigrants seek legal status. Or it may mean suggesting a vocation that requires returning home, where the need of service may be greater. The church also needs to reach immigrants from non-Christian backgrounds, which is more challenging but probably more important.