In my work with Immigrant Hope, anywhere from a quarter to half of my time is spent preparing for and running our biannual week-long immigration law class.
Right now, I am sitting in the sanctuary of Communion Chapel, an EFCA church in San Antonio, Texas, with a group of 32 students listening to an attorney describe how the government screens for fraud in marriage-based immigration cases. It’s not what I expected when I signed up as a missionary with the EFCA.
However, IMMIGRANT PATHWAY Institute is one of the major tools that we use to fulfill our great commission and great commandment mandates.
A biblical framework
When the Apostle Paul was imprisoned in Rome, he met a man named Onesimus, a runaway slave. Onesimus had broken a brutal, unjust law, but as a Roman citizen Paul was bound to turn him in. Many of us in Paul’s situation would see two options: follow the law and send Onesimus to his death, or flaunt the law to protect an oppressed man. Inspired by the gospel, Paul found a third way. He befriended Onesimus, eventually calling him “my son.” He led Onesimus to faith in Christ and made him a partner in ministry.
Then, he sent Onesimus back to his owner, but he did not send Onesimus alone. He put his own resources and reputation on the line to heal the fractured situation. Paul wrote a letter to Philemon, who was Onesimus’s owner, a Colossian Christian and a personal friend. He offered to pay any debt Onesimus owed. He reminded Philemon of their equality before God, of God’s redemptive plan and of the eternal debt Philemon owes both to Paul and to Christ. Paul used his education as a lawyer, his personal connections and his knowledge of the Colossian church culture to deftly and powerfully argue for compassion and reconciliation. Crucially, he did not base the argument on human rights, mitigating circumstances, or the unjust law, but on the grace and reconciliation God offered to us when we had done nothing to earn them.
A current issue
We used Paul’s example to dig into a similar situation today. On the one hand, immigrants entering the U.S. face a complex, archaic system with roots in racist exclusion laws and preference for white Europeans. Even the simplest cases – say, a U.S. citizen seeking a visa for a foreign spouse – require detailed legal analysis and dozens of pages of supporting documents. The government has selectively enforced immigration law based on its own interests and priorities. Many people get in trouble because they do not understand the law or do not know what they are eligible for as an immigrant. Immigration attorneys are rare and expensive; predators posing as experts are common. Consequences for simple mistakes can be severe: long-term detention, separation from family, return to war, persecution, or economic devastation. On the other hand, millions of immigrants are living in the U.S. without legal status; many of them intentionally broke and continuing to break the law.
Most people, even Christians, pick sides – condemning or excusing. Like Paul, we believe there is a third way.
Workers at non-profit organizations, including churches, can become government-certified immigration legal counselors and help vulnerable immigrants navigate the system. We can use the gifts and resources God gave us – time, education, access to resources, knowledge of U.S. law and culture – to provide immigrants with the resources they need to understand and follow the law and stand in the gap between broken immigrants and a broken system. In this, we have the opportunity to build relationships with our clients, show that we love them and make disciples.
This training is the first step toward certification to offer immigration advice. Many of our students share our vision and will work to start church-based, evangelistic immigration legal aid clinics. Others have different faith backgrounds, but will spend a week hearing from committed Christians motivated by the gospel of Christ, who share their passion for justice and compassion.
And that is why we are here.