From ‘Zero Tolerance’ to ‘Welcoming the Stranger’

On the southernmost point of the United States is a town with an apt name: Pharr, Texas. In Pharr, the U.S.-Mexico border—and all the challenges it raises—is never far away.

Pharr is next door to McAllen, Texas, the site of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security centralized processing center, the largest in the country. Nearby is Living Word Evangelical Free Church whose pastor, Ruben Martinez, sees firsthand the effect of legal and illegal immigration every day, and walks a fine line in response.

Martinez reminds his congregation that Christians support the rule of law. At the same time, his family worked the fields every summer, and his heart goes out to the waves of desperate people heading north with little more than the shirts on their backs.

“We need to make it clear that as Christians we, the church, have a mandate, which is to honor the government, to honor law and order,” says Martinez, who started Living Word 31 years ago after training at Dallas Theological Seminary and Westminster Theological Seminary. “But we have another mandate, too. To love people, aliens or not.”

The conflict is one many Christians face when it comes to figuring out what stance to take on the world’s current immigration and refugee crisis.

For a crisis it is.

A Human Tide Worldwide

On any given day, more than 44,000 people across the globe are being forced to flee their homes, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The estimated total for displaced people worldwide is 68.5 million. Of those, 40 million are internally displaced people (forced to flee their homes, but remaining within their country); 25.4 million are refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18; and 3.1 million are asylum seekers. (See “Definition of Terms” below.)

“The world is in the middle of the largest forced migration of people ever recorded in history,” says David Husby, director of Covenant World Relief, the humanitarian relief arm of the Evangelical Covenant Church.

The causes are many: armed conflict, terrorism, failed governments, persecution, poverty, drought, disease, natural disasters or a combination of these issues.

Most of the human tide of migrants are from just five countries: Syria (6.3 million), Afghanistan (2.6 million), South Sudan (2.4 million), Myanmar (1.2 million) and Somalia (986,400). But they surge up on all shores around the globe.

The countries that have hosted the largest number worldwide are Turkey (3.5 million), Pakistan (1.4 million), Uganda (1.4 million), Lebanon (998,900), Iran (979,400), Germany (970,400), Bangladesh (932,200) and Sudan (906,600).

The United States of course has historically been a major destination of choice. Today between 43.7 million and 44 million foreign-born people live in the U.S., according to 2016 statistics from the Pew Research Center and the Migration Policy Institute, respectively. That represents about 13.5 percent of the total U.S. population.

Mexicans account for a quarter of all U.S. immigrants. That’s down from the peak of 30 percent in 2000. The next largest origin groups are from India (6 percent), China (5 percent), the Philippines (4 percent) and El Salvador, Vietnam and Cuba (each 3 percent). Those from the Dominican Republic, South Korea and Guatemala (under 2.5 percent each) round out the top 10, according to 2016 data.

An estimated 3 in 4 (about 70 percent) of immigrants have valid legal status, primarily either as naturalized U.S. citizens (44 percent) or as lawful permanent residents holding “green cards.”

That means 1 in 4 (24 percent) or 12.1 million are unauthorized or undocumented immigrants. Between 40 and 50 percent of these people entered the U.S. lawfully, with a nonimmigrant visa, but then overstayed the allowed time; the rest crossed a U.S. border illegally.

Mixed Opinions

Undeniably, the issue of immigration (legal or not) in the United States is a contentious topic. Martinez says he’s worried about people being either on one extreme or the other. “They’re not aware of things—either what’s really happening to immigrants or the biblical teachings. People are just going by their emotions.”

While 85 percent of all Americans say immigration is a good thing, evangelicals generally aren’t as enthusiastic.

Recent polls suggest that 40 percent of all evangelicals say immigrants and refugees coming to the United States present the church with an opportunity to show love. However, 48 percent think immigrants are a drain on U.S. resources, and 29 percent say they’re a threat to law and order.

In its annual American Values Survey published in October 2018 by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), 57 percent of white evangelical Protestants stated that accepting immigrants runs the risk of derailing American values and customs. The same stance was taken by 48 percent of white mainline Protestants and 47 percent of white Catholics.

A 2016 PRRI poll noted a more positive attitude: Among young white evangelical Protestants, 55 percent said that newcomers from other countries strengthen American society.

That opinion was reflected in the 2018 polling among black Protestants and Hispanic Catholics, who agreed that the U.S. is being strengthened by immigration (67 percent and 76 percent, respectively).

A majority of white mainline Protestants (55 percent), Catholics (56 percent), nonwhite Protestants (63 percent) and religiously unaffiliated (69 percent) Americans oppose a law that would prevent refugees from entering the United States. White evangelical Protestants are divided, with roughly as many in support (44 percent) as opposition (44 percent).

When it comes to church leadership, senior pastors are more likely to agree that Christians should care for refugees (86 percent said so), but 72 percent admit they have not discussed ways to help locally.

What makes the strongest impact on the stances evangelicals take? Apparently it’s not the Word of God or the church. In a Christianity Today report published in 2015, researchers asked evangelicals to list which factor had most influenced their beliefs about immigration. Only 1 in 10 chose the Bible; 2 percent named their church.

‘Something Has to Change’

Perspectives can change, though. Blaine Derck is one pastor whose attitude toward immigrants and refugees has shifted. Derck was reared in eastern Pennsylvania in what he says is “as white a church as you can imagine.” He has served for more than three decades in pastorates across the United States.

After he and his wife, Lynnette, attended a course offered by a large local Presbyterian church on serving the immigrant community. “We began to realize we had really narrow views,” he says.

“What I heard unsettled me. I thought, This is not right. Something has to change,” says Derck. “I determined that it bothered the Holy Father too. As God did a work in us, we could see needs opening up.”

Derck went on to serve at Mosaic Church of Aurora, Colorado, a multiethnic congregation in a neighborhood where, within a two-mile radius, more than 100 languages are spoken. Now he’s executive director of The Immigration Alliance (TIA), a national coalition of volunteers working with churches to establish free or low-cost legal and other services for immigrants. He also is executive director of Oasis Ministries of Colorado Springs, a nonprofit ministry in partnership with Immigrant Hope, a social justice ministry of the Evangelical Free Church.

TIA is one of a range of Christian organizations that has risen up to develop policy stances (from conservative to moderate) and offer services and support based on what they believe are biblical perspectives. They include The Evangelical Immigrant Table, G92, Hispanic Coalition for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, National Association of Evangelicals, National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference and Voices of Christian Dreamers. (See “Resources” below for more.)

‘Love Them as Yourself’

What then are the “biblical perspectives”? What is the responsibility of the church when it comes to the “strangers among us”?

The place to start, says Matthew Soerens, is not with emotions or politics but with the Bible. What does Scripture teach as the foundation for our attitudes and actions?

Soerens, who is World Relief’s U.S. director for church mobilization, says being grounded in God’s Word enables Christians to frame the discussion by eternal principles rather than current passions.

“It’s not an issue of political policy. It’s an issue of people,” says Soerens, co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion and Truth in the Immigration Debate (IVP, 2018). “Simply put, we are called to love people.”

Soerens points to the Hebrew term ger, which means foreigner, alien or immigrant. It is mentioned 92 times in the Old Testament in the context of caring. (The Christian student-led immigration advocacy group,, named itself for those 92 mentions.)

God’s directives concerning the ger require justice, compassion and hospitality—the opposite of xenophobia. Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Joshua and many other biblical characters were migrants, and God makes that point when telling the Israelites how to think of outsiders. “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God” (Lev. 19:33–34).

God’s instructions are also specific and practical. See, for example, Deuteronomy 24:19–21. During harvest, the Israelites were to not be thorough but to allow an overlooked sheaf, olives that remained in trees, grapes left hanging on vines. “Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow” (v. 21).

And of course Jesus himself was taken as an infant by his parents to Egypt when they fled persecution. His disciples left homes and family to spread the gospel. Less than 40 years after Jesus’ crucifixion Rome destroyed the temple and Jerusalem, and scattered the Jewish people throughout the Roman Empire and beyond.

For people of faith, empathy for the displaced it would seem ought to come naturally, almost intuitively.

Nations at Our Doorstep

The mass migrations of peoples throughout the Bible accomplished God’s purposes. Luke points to that truth in Acts 17:26–27. “From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.”

In Matthew 28:19, the resurrected Christ instructs his disciples to “make disciples of all nations.” With refugees arriving on our doorstep, the nations are coming to us, rather than the other way around.

“What is the likelihood that refugees from India with Hindu backgrounds, or from a Middle Eastern country with Muslim backgrounds, would ever interact with Christians in their home country? Not much,” says Soerens. “There’s an immense opportunity here.”

It’s also true that many undocumented immigrants in the United States are Christian brothers and sisters. The government does not collect information on religious affiliation among immigrants, but a Pew Research Center 2013 report estimates that the overwhelming majority of them (83 percent) have identified as Christian. That’s higher than the 73 percent (as of 2016) found in the general population.

The rest are from non-Christian cultures, and Soerens believes refugees may judge Jesus by how they’re welcomed by a “Christian” country.

“Some may be drawn to Christ through our actions,” says Soerens.

Beginning With Small Steps

Moving from concepts to concrete action takes leadership and intention.

Soerens and others acknowledge that the current political climate makes it more difficult to address the immigrant topic in a dispassionate, nonpartisan way than it was a few years ago. There can be resistance in a church that has never examined the issue before.

Pastors and church leaders need to begin with themselves before introducing something new to their congregations. For example, after grasping what the Bible teaches about immigration, Soerens advises first taking time to listen to the immigrants in your community. “What are their experiences? What are their needs? They will vary. Not all are from Latin America; not all will be Spanish-speaking,”

Derck suggests inviting the pastor of a local evangelical immigrant congregation to coffee. “Dialogue. Put yourself in the learner position. Ask, ‘Help me understand what you’re facing in your world.’” he says.

“Immigrant communities are all over and in unexpected places. You will begin to see them. Then reach out to the leaders. Invite them to coffee with yourself, and then with your staff. Then perhaps introduce them to your congregation,” says Derck.

Pastors can next identify members of their congregation with hearts toward the “least of these” and together lay out specific intermediate steps. That might include setting up study groups on the topic of immigration, inviting in a special speaker, finding volunteer opportunities with existing agencies such as the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services.

Churches that begin to get a vision could host a refugee Sunday. With minimal cost and effort, they could set up English-as-a-second-language (ESL) classes or training for the citizenship process, or offer to serve as a location for an already existing agency. Mentoring, or simple friendship, can go a long way toward helping a foreign-born neighbor adjust to a new world. All emigrants have to learn a new language, new culture, new geography; are separated from family, friends and personal history; and face the demands of assimilation.

Volunteers new to the scene may wonder if it is illegal to help “an illegal.” “You can’t employ one, you can’t help one evade law enforcement. But you can help them survive,” says Soerens. “Being undocumented is not a criminal offense; it’s a civil offense. There is no legal requirement to turn in an undocumented immigrant.”

Going Deeper

Undeniably, the U.S. immigration legal system is overwhelmingly complex. How much more so is it for non-English speakers or those with limited language skills or little formal education? Severe consequences exist (detention, separation from family, deportation without the chance to talk to an attorney) if there are errors or oversights.

“People have been taken advantage of,” says Pastor Martinez of Pharr, Texas. “They’re afraid.”

That’s why Living Word Church went through the hundreds of hours of training to be qualified to set up a low-cost legal center through which it can assist immigrants with their questions and applications. The church serves a dozen people a month, Martinez says, and could help more if people weren’t wary.

Such centers, regulated by the Recognition & Accreditation program through the U.S. Department of Justice, do not require participants to be attorneys. But the centers must meet federal requirements and have their accreditation regularly renewed.

Derck says this is a crucial goal for any church or faith-based organization desiring to assist immigrants in their community. “We believe that legal needs are the biggest hurdle for an immigrant to tackle.”

While humanitarian help doesn’t automatically include advocacy, “we need to be Christ’s hands and feet for those whose hands are calloused and feet are blistered,” says Derck.

As churches become more immersed in the issues, they could turn to the numerous evangelical umbrella groups such as the Evangelical Immigration Table (EIT) and the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), which have issued various appeals, statements and resolutions on refugees. Checking these organizations out and determining what to align with can be a next level of involvement.

Any discussion about immigration and refugees becomes complex very quickly. But for Christians there is a bottom line: Those whom God brings to our neighborhoods are our neighbors. If they are in need, we need to respond.

“If the immigrant is near to God’s heart—and it’s obvious from Scripture that that’s true,” says Derck, “then shouldn’t they be near to our hearts?”

For more of our coverage on justice issues see the January/February 2019 issue of Outreach magazine or go to