Breaking Down the Walls

Happy May Day (and International Worker's Day)! I'm very pleased to feature this conversation with Alexia Salvatierra, a pastor and key national leader for immigration reform in the United States. Her work over the past 30 years, including with the Evangelical Immigration Table, has influenced national policy and intersected countless lives at the local level. Watch for an upcoming article from Alexia to be featured in Leadership Journal, advancing the ministry/immigration conversation. -Paul

Paul: Stereotypically, what are the biggest evangelical misconceptions about immigration? How can we educate around those?

Alexia: Evangelicals often share the same misconceptions of the general public. Most people who don't have regular contact with the immigration system assume that it is similar to the system which was in place when many of our grandparents arrived. Until 1924, there were no immigration quotas and few restrictions. We were the land of opportunity for many young people seeking for freedom and a better life. Now, only very specific and limited categories of people can apply to immigrate. The vast majority of people interested in immigrating to the United States have no line to stand in. This is particularly true for young people who were brought to this country as small children. Even if these young people fit into a qualifying category (e.g. immediate relatives who are American citizens), they are affected by a law passed in 1995 which mandates that anyone who has been in this country without legal status for more than a year must return to their home country for 10 years before being considered for immigration.

The categories determining immigration eligibility are often illogical. For example, over the history of the U.S., we have imported the vast majority of our agricultural workforce. (Slavery was a giant program to import agricultural labor.) However, since 1995, we only allow 5,000 visas per year for all unskilled labor, including all agricultural labor. (In comparison, in 1910, 5,000 individuals, primarily low-skilled workers, entered per day.) As Richard Land, former president of The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) says, we gesture "come on in" with one hand and "stay back" with the other.

Another common misconception is that undocumented immigrants are a drain on our economic system. The Social Security administration estimates that 75% of undocumented immigrants use a false social security number. The withdrawals from those numbers are placed into a special account (an average of $8 to $12 billion per year) which then goes back into our Social Security system. Those who use the false numbers will never be able to collect on any of the funds deducted from their paychecks—even if they later obtain legal status. The IRS has special income tax-paying options for undocumented workers as well as small business owners. Immigrants start small businesses at nearly double the rate of native born citizens. National Academy of Science's classic 1997 study reported that the average immigrant will contribute $80,000 more in taxes than they receive in benefits. The only government benefits available to undocumented families are public education and emergency health care. Public education is an investment in children and youth which equips them to contribute more effectively to our society. Emergency health care is often the most expensive form of health care but is often the only option available to families living in the shadows.

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