Do you know of jobs for people like me? D. asks, typing out the sentence in Spanish into the translating app on her phone.
People like her. D. is Venezuelan, one of the millions of migrants who has arrived at the United States’ southern border over the last few years. She came with her husband on a perilous journey, desperate for her children to have a chance at the sort of life I take for granted for my family: food each day, an education, electricity, and healthcare. And now she’s sitting across from me at my kitchen table.
I met her a few months ago, not long after she arrived in town. A local friend of mine, Pastor E., was sheltering migrants at his church, a Spanish and English-speaking evangelical congregation here in Midland, Texas. The migrants at his church were granted permission by the United States to enter and pursue asylum claims, Pastor E. told me, but they typically have to wait six months or more for permission to work.
While they wait, Pastor E., his wife, and their congregation provide shelter and meals to some of the migrants who lack other connections in the US, and they also help them find cash-paying jobs with people who can be trusted to treat them fairly.
I type my next question for D. into the translation app on my phone, even though I know the answer: Do you have permission to work here? She shakes her head no. So far, all the migrants in Pastor E.’s care are still waiting for work permits.
I ponder her question: Do you know of jobs for people like me? I would know how to help D. find a pediatrician and enroll her child in school. I could help her find a math tutor or a realtor. But though we live in the same town, we are in two different worlds. And I do not know how to help her find a regular, fair, safe job in the world she inhabits.
I’m blessed, I start to type, my evangelical Christianese bubbling up reflexively. But the word looks dirty on my screen. I’ve heard D. singing hymns in Spanish. Is it God’s blessing that has put each of us in our respective places? I backspace and try to be more precise.
I’m fortunate, I say instead. Afortunada. Since I was born here, I do not have experience finding jobs that don’t require legal permits, and I’m not sure how to help.
As I tip the phone to show her my explanation in Spanish, my phone dings, and a text pops up. It’s a political ad: “Carrie, this is Amber with Texans for Strong Borders. Texas is facing an invasion due to the Biden Administration’s refusal to secure the border.” An invasion of people like D.
Disputed territory. That’s where it sometimes feels like I live as a follower of Jesus in a place saturated with both cultural Christianity and deep faith in Jesus. In West Texas, like much of America, political persuasion is predictable by zip code, and policy preferences can come as a package deal with church membership. It can be easy to forget or ignore the tension of conflicting values, even when national allegiance slowly consumes kingdom loyalty.
Like me, Pastor E. was born and raised in West Texas, though his family’s life has always meandered back and forth across the border with the languid ease of the Rio Grande itself. Politically conservative, E. is as red-blooded a Republican as your average West Texan. He can make a compelling case for why migration should be severely curtailed and the border made more secure.
And although E. doesn’t like former president Donald Trump’s abrasiveness, he appreciates his hardline stance on immigration, which he believes is more humane than Biden administration policies which extend an oblique welcome but leave it almost impossible to immigrate safely and legally.
At one point in each of our lives, E. and I shared a comfortable certainty in the common Republican refrain: I support immigration, but they need to enter legally. It seemed to draw a clear and even moral line of demarcation through the border crisis with the certainty of a topographer. Black and white. Right and wrong. Us and them.
But now that migrants sit at our kitchen tables, we’ve both learned it’s more complicated than that. Some migrants E. knows were granted permission to enter the United States more than two years ago and are still waiting for work permits.
“They have to create a subculture in order to survive,” he told me, describing the modern-day indentured servitude into which some migrants are ensnared. E.’s words hang between us, because we both know we’d take the same risks if that’s what it took to feed our own families.
“Immigration has never been addressed. Republicans and Democrats do not want to touch it,” E. told me, sharing that his political frustrations cut both ways. In fact, the relief work he’s doing brushes up against enough legal gray areas that attorneys counseled me and the editors at CT to keep E.’s identity anonymous to protect him from possible legal repercussions.
That this is even a concern—about a church ministry helping legal immigrants—reveals the cruel absurdity of the current asylum process, which many migrants pursue because it’s the only broadly available, licit immigration path for unskilled workers without family in the US: We allow migrants to enter the country, but don’t simultaneously give them permission to work.
This legal limbo exposes migrants to real dangers, including potential trafficking and labor abuses. And at the same, it requires them to navigate an inefficient and often inexplicable immigration process, though they typically don’t speak English, can’t afford a lawyer, and may not even be literate.
Rather than address the systemic problems in our immigration policies, politicians on both sides of the aisle use migrants as political fodder, doing nothing to care for these fellow image-bearers. The hard reality is this: We are living in a system where we rely upon illegal labor, yet we demonize those who provide it. To assuage our consciences, we pretend not to see, passing by on the other side of the road (Luke 10:25–37).
Pastor E. sees the migrants in our town now, and he’s committed to helping them though this act of kingdom loyalty is also civil disobedience. Yet by his own admission, E. spent years mostly ignoring the migrants who come through West Texas, confident in his politics and busy in his ministry.
Then, last fall, E. was driving in Ciudad Juárez, the Mexican city across the Rio Grande from El Paso where he helps shepherd three other churches. Along the river, he came upon a large encampment of migrants. A few blocks from the end of the rail line many had ridden north, they’d staked claim to a narrow patch of gravel between the water and a busy Mexican highway. Visible across the river was El Paso’s modern skyline, close yet impossibly far from the migrants’ makeshift tents of tarp and scavenged pieces of cardboard. Above the camp flew a Venezuelan flag.
Usually, he would have passed by. But this time, E. stopped and found himself asking God: What is our part in helping them? How did you call us to make a difference? He went home to Midland and, over the next two weeks, woke up nightly between 3 and 4 a.m. after dreaming of sheep and goats, migrants and the Shepherd who protects and sorts.
Each night, he’d wake with the words from Matthew 25:35–36 filling his mind: “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”
Each night, he’d try to go back to sleep with one clarion instruction from God reverberating in the quiet: “Don’t ask me why they came; ask me what to do now that they are here.”
E. grew more and more convicted that the “church had taken its eyes off what was needed,” he said—that he had taken his eyes off what was needed. “We had become so methodical in our way of doing things for God that we had lost his heart for those who really needed it.”
His political opinions about immigration have mostly stayed the same. But E.’s heart has changed. “God told me, ‘I want you to be my hands. My feet. My mouth. My eyes,’” E. said. “‘I want you to love them. Embrace them. Make them feel that they have a refuge, a family, and a place to learn about me.’”
With his partner congregations in Mexico and their pastors, E. soon built that refuge in a vacant building near the camp. Some church members cleaned. Others cooked. They fed spaghetti to nearly 300 migrants the first day and have served a meal every day since.
Within a week, the church teams installed five sinks with fresh water outside the building, giving the migrants a place to bathe their babies, wash their hands, and brush their teeth. Within ten days, the churches built showers and bathrooms; though migrants still lived in tents, fewer of them had to defecate outside.
As the weather grew colder, church volunteers pushed the tables and chairs against the walls at night, bringing in around 20 people to sleep inside, out of the cold. When the Mexican government began cracking down on migrants sleeping outside, they renovated a part of the building where the roof had collapsed so that more could move indoors. They designated spaces for single women and children, families, and single men, and now the building doubles as a day center for hundreds of people each day and a dormitory for around 130 people each night.
In the first four months, Pastor E. estimates nearly 15,000 migrants—from Venezuela, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and even African countries—passed through. And when some migrants were given permission to enter the US but had nowhere to go after crossing the border, E. converted his Midland church into a shelter, spreading inflatable mattresses on the Sunday school floors, adding on a shower room to the existing bathrooms, cooking meals in the church kitchen, and trying to help the migrants find work. That’s how I met D.
“I doubt if it is the duty of any private person to fix his mind on ills which he cannot help,” C.S. Lewis once wrote. “This may even become an escape from the works of charity we really can do to those we know.”
The political power available to American Christians makes this difficult advice to follow. Especially in positions of leadership or influence, it’s easy to fix our minds on ills we cannot help, to stamp political platforms with a divine seal of approval and let our politicking replace—rather than complement—our concrete Christian responsibilities. I’ve mourned this many times, especially with issues, like immigration, that seem utterly intractable in the political sphere but can be tangibly addressed in our local communities.
But there is a different way, one I’ve watched Pastor E. traverse this last year. I’ve watched as he’s gone down the ladder of power rather than up, trading his political certainty for repentant humility and loving his neighbors instead of wishing they weren’t here. Rather than fine-tuning his personal stance on US immigration policy, E. is wrestling with a more profound and complicated question: What does love require of me?
This doesn’t mean he’s happy with our immigration policy—he’s not—or that he wants open borders—he doesn’t. But E. has grown to understand that questions like that aren’t his primary concern. Neither are they mine, nor, most likely, should they be yours. Most of us will never be in a position to steer US immigration policy, but we will have opportunities to love our neighbors well.
In her farewell newsletter for The New York Times, CT contributor Tish Harrison Warren observed that we all have a tendency “to prioritize the distant over the proximate and the big over the small. We can seek to have all the right political opinions and still not really love our actual neighbors, those right around us, in our homes, in our workplaces or on our blocks.”
When we busy ourselves with political debates we cannot solve and shrink the flesh-and-blood call to love our neighbors into a mere philosophical exercise, we make our lives, as Warren wrote, into an “abstraction”—a digitized, isolated, dehumanized existence. The incarnational way of Jesus is different. As Eugene Peterson puts it in his Message translation of John 1:14, “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.”
This is the way for us as well. We must embrace, as Warren concluded, the “fleshy, complicated, touchable realities right around us in our neighborhoods, churches, friends, and families.” That’s what Pastor E. did, and in the process, he opened the doors for those of us around him to wrestle with the same complicated reality, sometimes at our own kitchen tables.
It’s easy to label D. an “invader” when you’re sending a campaign robo-text. It isn’t so easy when you’re sitting across from her, watching as she wearily massages her temples and rests her eyes. In that moment, I don’t know how to reform US immigration law. But I do know she looks more like a sister than a threat.
Carrie McKean is a West Texas-based writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, and Texas Monthly Magazine.