When Jenny Hwang first began working at World Relief in Baltimore, she wasn't sure she even believed what the relief arm of the National Association of Evangelicals was teaching about domestic immigration policy. "I had a lot of concern, because these immigrants broke the rule of law," she says. "How come they couldn't come the legal way? If I'm going to be advocating for immigration reform, I need to believe in it."
A graduate of Johns Hopkins University, Hwang had studied immigration laws in Spain (with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees) and Costa Rica. But she didn't delve into U.S. immigration policy until becoming WR's director for advocacy and policy for the refugee and immigration program in 2006. Now her book (with Matthew Soerens), Welcoming the Stranger, tells what she's learned in the position and the stories she's heard. She recently spoke with CT assistant editor Katelyn Beaty.
Why have World Relief and the National Association of Evangelicals been more outspoken on domestic immigration reform in recent years?
We recognize first and foremost that this is not just about policies but about individual people, people who are [often] part of the body of Christ. At World Relief, we get calls almost every day, not just from immigrants themselves (whom we serve in our 22 offices), but also from pastors who are dealing with a significant number of undocumented immigrants in their congregations. They can meet their spiritual needs, but sometimes can't meet physical needs or social needs because the immigrants are stuck in a system where they can't become legal in our country.
A lot of these immigrants are actually legal immigrants who are having problems with the current immigration system. For example, their parents have been deported and their children have U.S. citizenship. We see a lot of broken families because of the broken immigration system. We want a change so that more resources are allowed to bring families together rather than keep them apart.
Currently there are about 12 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. We [at World Relief] feel there should be a process for them to recognize that they broke the law, come out of the shadows, admit the infraction, and register so we know who they are. They learn English. They learn civics. They pay back taxes. They pay fines. And then we offer them, if they are able to earn it, the right to actually be here legally, eventually [working] toward citizenship.
But wouldn't some immigrants say, "Why would I come out of the shadows when things are working for me and I don't have to pay taxes now?"
I actually think many immigrants would want to pursue legal status because a lot of them are exploited, because they don't have the protection of the rule of law. The employers think that because [the immigrants] are not legal, they can't report any abuses to any authorities. And there is a growing fear in immigrant communities of deportation, so they do want to get right with the law. When you get to know a lot of these immigrants, they have actually tried to come legally, but they weren't able to because of our severely limited visa system.
Also, it's a myth that undocumented immigrants don't pay taxes. A majority of them actually do. A lot of immigrants are paying taxes into Social Security right now. A lot of them use fake Social Security numbers, so they get taxed but they cannot file tax returns. They don't ever receive the taxes in their refund because their Social Security numbers aren't matching. The Social Security Administration has over $2 billion from uncollected refunds, mostly from undocumented immigrants. In addition, a lot of immigrants buy houses and pay into real estate tax.
Most undocumented immigrants don't qualify for any federal benefits at all—no welfare, no Medicaid, no assistance whatsoever. The only two benefits are that children who are undocumented can go to school and they can receive emergency medical attention. It's really difficult even for a lot of legal immigrants to receive any federal assistance.
Is it fair that illegal immigrants' children are benefiting from an educational system to which their parents are not contributing?
A lot of these young students came to the U.S. undocumented through no fault of their own. They came here because of their parents. Also, when you look at even their kids that are going through school, they are learning English and integrating faster, studies have shown, than previous generations.
At the same time, there should be policies in place that direct federal government funds to state and local communities so that the effects of having immigrants in local communities, which are overwhelming for some, can be addressed. This is something many state governments have asked for, to get the money that the immigrants actually pay and have it funneled into local communities.
How have you seen the immigration debate change in recent years?
We think there is a middle growing. When Congress was debating this issue in 2006 and 2007, all the polls showed that 70 to almost 80 percent of Americans supported some kind of pathway for legal status for the undocumented, if they meet general requirements.
The people who are pro-immigration are not saying, "Let's toss out law enforcement and just have compassion on these immigrants, because that's what we're supposed to do." A lot of them want border security, but at the same time they recognize that it's going to be impossible, unless we reform current immigration laws, to get any sense of a balanced system.
And for a lot of enforcement-only people, there is a growing recognition that deporting everyone is completely unrealistic. There are about three million families right now that have one family member who's a U.S. citizen and one who's an undocumented immigrant. When you talk about deporting 12 million people, there's cause for alarm in that. These are mixed-status families, so you can't just deport everyone.
We tend to talk about the economics or the politics of immigration—which we need to address in public policy—but I think when it comes down to it, regardless of where we stand on policy issues, we need to see having immigrants in our communities as opportunities to bring them to Christ. A lot of them are living in poverty and lack the protection of the rule of law; it leaves them very vulnerable. That vulnerability opens a door for them to hear the gospel. We've seen a lot of churches grow significantly because of their outreach to immigrants, and we see immigrants becoming stronger believers.
So you're seeing American churches grow both in numbers and in spiritual vibrancy because of immigrants?
That's right. When you talk to the Southern Baptist Convention, for example, or the Evangelical Free Church of America, they say that if it weren't for immigrant churches, their denominations would be dying. Immigrants are planting a lot of immigrant churches in different communities.
A lot of immigrants have had to leave family members behind, or they're working really hard but getting underpaid. When they share their testimony of how God is faithful to them, I think it speaks volumes to the way God really works. As Christians, there's no greater testament to God's transformative power and the power of the gospel message to reach all people than to really know immigrants and to see how God moves in them as well as in us.
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Welcoming the Stranger is available at ChristianBook.com and other book retailers.
CT also has a special section on immigration.