In January, I ate at the home of an immigrant family in Phoenix in which the dad recently became a Christian because of the hardships he has endured while living in the U.S. The undocumented immigrant father has been attending church every week to draw closer to God because he lives in fear of being separated from his two young children, who are U.S. citizens. He feels torn about living in the United States illegally, but he also feels that God has called him to stay in the United States for a reason and struggles every day to reconcile those two feelings.

This man considered moving his family back to Mexico because life was so hard in Phoenix, but was concerned about his two young children who would go back to a country they never knew. They fed us generously with freshly made tortillas and pulled pork as the children ran around the yard, yelling at each other in a mix of Spanish and English, much like the children of any immigrant parents who grow up blessed by knowing two cultures.

During the same visit, my colleague met an undocumented immigrant woman named Maria whose son was killed by a drunk driver; she cannot press charges because of her undocumented status.

This immigrant family and Maria find themselves in an even more complicated situation because of the strict immigration law signed by Arizona Governor Jan Brewer two weeks ago. Arizona often acts as the prime testing ground for immigration policy across the country because they share miles of border with Mexico and have thriving industries that depend on immigrant labor. While most people would agree that illegal immigration is wrong and our federal immigration laws need to be reformed, this new Arizona law was written to stop illegal immigration through attrition, making Arizona such a poor environment to live in that these undocumented immigrants will be forced to move to another state. Although federal immigration laws should be enforced and the border secured, addressing illegal immigration by making immigrants' lives miserable would worsen the quality of life for U.S. citizens who are in families with undocumented immigrants and would be ineffective in curbing illegal immigration as it is intended to do.

I have read the entire Arizona law and fear that there will be many unintended consequences that will impact not only hundreds of families in Arizona, but also Christian ministries and churches that serve immigrants in Arizona.

The law in its original version, for example, stated that if a law enforcement official has "reasonable suspicion" that someone is in the U.S. illegally, the officer may immediately arrest and detain the individual. How would a law enforcement officer determine "reasonable suspicion"? I can think of no other reason than to base this suspicion on the color of someone's skin or their ability to speak English. This would include not just undocumented immigrants but U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents—anyone who may be an immigrant, legal or not, and does not carry the proper identifying documents with them.

Article continues below

Lawmakers made changes to the original law to reduce the chances for racial profiling, so an officer could only ask about an immigrant's legal status while enforcing another law. For example, the officer would be required to ask about the immigration status of an individual if pulling them over for speeding, loitering, or some other offense. The law also was changed to remove theword "solely" from the following sentence: "The attorney general or county attorney shall not investigate complaints that are based solely on race, color or national origin," so that officers will not "solely" use race, color, or national origin as grounds for suspecting that someone is in the country illegally.

These changes in the law reflect Governor Brewer's recognition that the law in its original version could have led to racial profiling. However, these changes do not mitigate other negative effects of the bill. For example, for the first time, the law empowers all local law enforcement officials in Arizona to check the immigration status of anyone they deem suspicious while carrying out their normal law enforcement duties.

Verifying the legal status of an individual is the responsibility of the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) division, which has a system in place in which undocumented immigrants who entered the country illegally are detained and deported. In the past year alone, DHS has deported a record 387,790 individuals from the United States.

Since immigration is regulated by federal law, carrying out immigration enforcement should be the sole responsibility of the federal government. Only in certain cases has the federal government contracted with local law enforcement officials (under the 287(g) program) to identify, detain, and deport undocumented immigrants. Although the Government Accountability Office has found serious problems with the 287(g) program, these agreements  clarify the responsibilities of federal and state officials. The Arizona law, however, circumvents this process by directly requiring local law enforcement officials to implement federal immigration law. Federal courts have previously ruled that state and local laws similar to Arizona's are unconstitutional because only the federal government has the power to regulate immigration.

Article continues below

Many local law enforcement officers, including the Arizona Association of Chiefs of Police, have since opposed the Arizona law because they believe that questioning the legal status of individuals would distract them from targeting harmful criminals and diminish trust between police officers and immigrants, who are often essential partners in fighting crime. The new law also makes it a state crime to live in or travel through Arizona illegally and increases penalties for employers who hire illegal immigrant day laborers.

The implications for churches and Christian ministries will also be substantial. The bill defines "smuggling of human beings" as the "transportation by a person or an entity that knows or has reason to know that the person is not lawfully in this state." Therefore, a local group like Neighborhood Ministries, led by Kit Danley in Phoenix, or a church that picks up an undocumented immigrant for Sunday services, could be charged with a misdemeanor and have their van impounded. If, for example, a church volunteer picks up a group of 10 immigrants, he or she could be classified as a felon and incur a $1,000 fine for each immigrant in the van.

There are approximately 3.1 million U.S. citizen children in families in the United States with at least one undocumented member. In Arizona, these mixed status families could be arrested if driving together. A wife whose husband is undocumented could be charged for driving with her husband to the grocery store.

The law also states that it is unlawful to "conceal, harbor or shield an alien from detection in any place in Arizona, including any building or means of transportation." If the government of Arizona interprets helping an immigrant with legal services as an attempt to "shield an alien from detection," or having immigrants worship together on Sundays as "harboring an alien from detection," many churches in Arizona will be engaged in unlawful activity.

While many groups that support the law have said that it would not necessarily target churches, the language is so broad that there will likely be unintended consequences that could deter well-meaning individuals and organizations from engaging in the very acts that they feel compelled to carry out because of Christian love or duty.

Article continues below

This law should trouble conservatives because it greatly broadens the government mandate and could add a fiscal burden to the state. In some studies, for example, the setup and operational costs of having local and state immigration enforcement programs has been $4.8 to $5 million a year. Also, many churches that minister to immigrants by integrating them as the newest members of society may be charged with carrying out unlawful activity.

The law will probably be ineffective in curbing illegal immigration because it does not increase border security or provide temporary visas for future immigrants to come to the U.S. Instead, the law will likely drive immigrants further into the shadows of society, especially the many who have family members who are U.S. citizens. Immigrants currently living in Arizona may leave the state and end up in states where they feel more welcome and are able to work. While the majority of Americans want to end illegal immigration, targeting families and churches that are ministering to the strangers in their midst is a step backward in addressing illegal immigration by preventing the integration of the newcomers, restricting the churches' ability to share the Gospel with these new neighbors, and deterring focus off of effective solutions that will fix the broken immigration system.

In the early 1800s, when Irish immigrants were coming in boatloads to America's shores, they were scorned and discriminated against, and encountered many difficulties finding jobs.  Many stores had signs that said "No Irish Need Apply" in their windows. These new Americans were initially not welcomed because they were different from the Anglo-Saxon, Protestant Americans who had settled the land before them. When we look back on previous immigrants who came to the U.S. and consider the unwelcoming environment to which they first arrived, it is also important to remember that these immigrants' descendants are considered full-blooded Americans who integrated and contributed to our country in immeasurable ways.

This new Arizona law highlights the need for the White House to lead, and for Congress to enact, comprehensive immigration reform that will increase border security, provide more responsive legal avenues through which future workers can come to the U.S., and require undocumented immigrants currently in the U.S. to earn the right to stay in this country while paying appropriate penalties.

Article continues below

Every day that the federal government fails to enact comprehensive immigration reform, families continue to live in fear in our country. Florida pastor Joel Hunter got it right when he testified before Congress, saying, "In the end, I believe our nation will be not be judged by the productivity of our budgets, or the genius of our laws, or even the earnestness of our faith communities. We will be judged, both by history and by God, by the way we treated people, especially those who needed our help."

Jenny Hwang is director for advocacy and policy for World Relief's Refugee and Immigration Program. She is co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate.

"Speaking Out" is Christianity Today's guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the publication.

Related Elsewhere:

Christianity Today previously interviewed Jenny Hwang and reviewed her book Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate, which is available at and other retailers.

Previous CT articles on immigration include:

Migrating Focus | After Congress's health care vote, activists see a revival of interest in immigration reform. (March 22, 2010)
Evangelicals Endorse Immigration Reform | The National Association of Evangelicals' board overwhelmingly approved a resolution to seek 'faith and equal treatment' of immigrants. (October 9, 2009)
Counting Controversy | Hispanic evangelical leaders debate participation in 2010 U.S. Census. (October 17, 2009)

CT follows immigration and other political developments on the site and on the politics blog.