10 Things Christians Should Know about Immigration

  • Sarah Quezada
10 Things Christians Should Know about Immigration

Hot, dusty episodes of forensic dramas had shown me desperate families crossing the U.S.-Mexico border along with gang members and drug cartels. But the factors that influence international migration worldwide are many, and the reasons undocumented immigrants are present in the States can be as unique as the individuals themselves.

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Why Do Immigrants Migrate to the U.S.?

Still, generally speaking, migration is characterized by several “push and pull” factors. Push factors are the events and characteristics of the home country that “push” residents to leave. Poverty and lack of jobs are big ones. In Mexico and Central America, trade policies like the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) decimated rural farmers, whose corn crops could not compete in the local marketplace against imported U.S. corn, which is subsidized by the federal government. As rural farmers were forced to abandon their livelihoods, they often relocated to nearby urban centers such as Mexico City and Tijuana. Many of them then headed north to the United States to seek employment and find ways to support their families, who often remained back home.

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Violence Pushes Immigrants to Leave their Homeland

Violence, particularly in Central America, has also been a significant push factor for many families fleeing to the States. In the 1980s and ’90s, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala were entrenched in bloody civil wars. Guatemala’s war took more than two hundred thousand lives and didn’t end until 1996, as Billy had reminded me. Similarly, Nicaragua and El Salvador signed peace accords in 1990 and 1992, respectively. Then the rise of local gangs—often in symbiosis with U.S. gangs—unleashed a new season of terror that continues today.

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A Terrifying Experience Does Not Guarantee Immigrants the Ability to Stay in the U.S.

Alexia Salvatierra, a pastor with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, told me the story of an evangelical Christian woman who owned a small business in El Salvador and had distant relatives in the States.

Gang members, who often extort small businesses in the country, came to her and said, “We want $500 from your rich relatives.” She couldn’t get money from the States, but she scraped together everything she owned and gave them $500. They immediately responded with a demand for $1,000 and the threat that if she called the police, they would ‘get her.’ She left the house, went a distance away, and called the police. Then the gang members and the police showed up at her house and raped her multiple times.

Her eight-year-old was in the next room, and they told [the woman], “Your daughter is really pretty. She’s perfect for selling.” So they ran. The mother and her eight-year-old fled El Salvador and entered the U.S.

Salvatierra laments that this mother and daughter are still not safe. Today they are in danger of being deported back to the very country where they were terrorized. Unfortunately, their experience does not guarantee they will be granted permission to stay in the United States for safety, and it is too common a story to illicit any extraordinary response from the immigration officials deciding their fate. 

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Factors, Such as Job Opportunity, Pull Immigrants to the U.S.

Meanwhile, “pull” factors are the events and characteristics of the destination country that draw immigrants across the border. The American dream has been exported worldwide, and many people are drawn to the life they imagine for themselves in the States. On the surface, it appears to be available to anyone willing to take a risk and work hard. And the reality for many immigrants is that there are more job opportunities in the States than in their home country. Businesses actively recruit Central American workers through local radio and newspaper ads, and offer promises to handle transportation needs and provide visas if immigrants come to work for their company. Connection to family is another strong pull factor. Children, spouses, and siblings are drawn to the States to find and reunite with family members who left years earlier to find work abroad.

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Why Don’t Immigrants Just Come “the Right Way?”

These push and pull factors are only some of the many reasons—collective and personal—that immigrants leave their homes and head to the United States, even if it means entering illegally. But why don’t they just come “the right way”? Shouldn’t they go through the process and wait in line for legal entry? At a 2017 speech in Texas, U.S. attorney general Jeff Sessions put it this way: “We have a lawful system of immigration. You should do what over one million other immigrants do each year: wait your turn and come lawfully.” This comment embodies what many Americans feel. There is a system, and it’s okay for the government and the people of the United States to expect people to use it.

While this sentiment may seem straightforward, it sidesteps the outdated nature of our immigration system, which, unfortunately, does not account for the needs of the United States or the needs of immigrants. The reality is this: there are simply very few ways for new arrivals to immigrate legally. “For many would-be immigrants, there is no ‘turn’ they can wait for, and no line to stand in,” write Michelle Mark and Diana Yukari in a 2017 article for Business Insider. “The U.S. immigration system is designed to only admit newcomers who fall into very specific categories. If someone falls outside those circumstances, lawful immigration will be challenging, if not impossible.”

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Three Legal Avenues for Immigration Are “Blood, Sweat, and Tears”

Three of the legal avenues for immigration are sometimes referred to as “blood, sweat, and tears.” These three paths are the primary options for gaining legal permanent residence (commonly known as a green card). “Blood” refers to a U.S. citizen relative applying for an individual to gain status. Priority is given to husbands and wives and to parents applying for their children. However, adult children can also apply for their parents, and siblings can sponsor other siblings. But those petitions are lower on the priority list.

Companies can sponsor immigrants (“sweat”) and eventually support their access to legal permanent residence. This avenue is generally reserved for specialized positions that cannot be filled by current U.S. citizens. In fact, each year there are only five thousand visas available for “low-skilled” workers such as farm workers or laborers. To put that number in context, in 1910, approximately five thousand low-skilled workers entered through Ellis Island every day.

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Asylum Seekers Apply for Protection Once they Arrive in the U.S.

Finally, “tears” is the pathway for cases like that of the Salvadoran woman and her daughter who fled to the States for safety. Asylum seekers are running from violence in their home country. Their process is different from that of refugees in that refugees apply for status while outside of the United States. Refugees who are accepted are assigned a new home and offered resettlement support and certain benefits upon arrival. Asylum seekers, on the other hand, apply for protection once they’ve already arrived in this country. This category is challenging because applicants must prove their life would be in danger if they were to return to their home country, which can be very difficult to demonstrate. If they are approved, they do not receive any benefits or support.

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Immigrant Parents Are Desperate to Provide a Safer, Better Life for their Children

These three options for legal immigration are limited, and many people who do not fit into these narrow categories still come to the United States. They do whatever it takes to protect and provide for their families while taking the risk of a lifetime. Increasingly, these unauthorized travelers are women and children. In 2016, the secretary of Homeland Security noted that “the demographics of illegal migration on our southern border has changed significantly over the last 15 years—far fewer Mexicans and single adults are attempting to cross the border without authorization, but more families and unaccompanied children are fleeing poverty and violence in Central America.” In the year between October 2015 and September 2016, almost sixty thousand unaccompanied children were apprehended crossing the southwest U.S. border.

When I consider the desperation of parents who would send their children to cross the border unaccompanied, I think of Moses’s mother, who hid her baby from authorities for three months before putting him in a basket in the river, where he floated to safety (Exodus 2:2-5). I think of Mary and Joseph fleeing to Egypt after an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him Jesus’ life was in danger (Matthew 2:13-15). Parents will do whatever it takes to try to keep their children safe.

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Immigration Is a Life and Death Journey

Whether you are a child or an adult, crossing the border is literally a life-and-death journey. According to the New York Times, the combined number of people killed in Hurricane Katrina and the September 11 terrorist attacks is still fewer than the number of border-crossing deaths between October 2000 and September 2016. During that time, the Border Patrol documented more than six thousand lives lost in the southwestern border states. Migrants from Central America face additional treacherous circumstances while traveling first through Mexico, including risks such as anti–Central American sentiment, corrupt police, gang activity, and the common practice of riding on top of trains to cover large distances quickly.

But sneaking across the border, whether in a major city or in the rugged desert, is not the only way immigrants enter the country illegally. Many pay smugglers, also known as coyotes, to serve as guides and bring people safely to the States. Methods may include folding into camouflaged compartments in the trunks of cars, hiding underneath cargo in delivery trucks, traveling underground through the complex system of tunnels that burrow underneath the border, or posing as the children of consenting U.S. couples as they drive home across country lines.


*For an accessible book and the story of one such Central American migrant, see Sonia Nazario, Enrique’s Journey: The Story of a Boy’s Dangerous Odyssey to Reunite with His Mother (New York: Random House, 2007).

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Many Immigrants Want to Work with the Government to Stay Legally

But not everyone is trying to evade law enforcement as they enter the country. Many arrivals, particularly women and children, cross into the country and immediately approach border officials to declare their intent to seek asylum. They are not dodging federal agents. Rather, they are hoping to work with the U.S. government in order to stay legally via the previously mentioned “tears” pathway.

These immigrants have been fleeing violence and terror, and their arrival is a bit like reaching a place of refuge. Here, they hope, they can slow down and announce their arrival. Here, they hope, they can receive a bit of compassion and mercy. Here, they hope, they can rest and heal and begin a new life.


Excerpted and adapted from Love UndocumentedRisking Trust in a Fearful World by Sarah Quezada. (Herald Press, 2018) All rights reserved. Used with permission. HeraldPress.com;  www.sarahquezada.com

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10 Things Christians Should Know about Immigration