Editorial: Immigration reform and the Gospel
by JAMES A. SMITH SR.
Executive Editor

Article Date: Feb 6, 2013

Momentum for immigration reform legislation in Washington seems to be growing. Remarkably, a possible consensus is very similar to the principles Southern Baptists affirmed in 2011. But no matter what happens in terms of changes in public policy, a Gospel imperative remains for all followers of Christ.

Undoubtedly spurred by the 2012 presidential election results, renewed efforts at immigration reform are front and center in Washington. A bipartisan group of Senators, including Florida Republican Marco Rubio, recently announced agreement for a comprehensive plan. President Barack Obama has also outlined his views on the matter. With such activity, there is hope that a compromise may be reached on a subject that has vexed the nation for many years.

Needless to say, this issue is especially important for Florida, where there may be as many as 1 million persons living and working here illegally, with the Sunshine State ranking fourth in the nation in number of undocumented persons, estimated to be as much as 11 million.

Rubio—a rising star in his party and a pivotal voice on immigration reform as a son of Cuban exiles—has staked out what he believes are conservative principles on the controversial subject including modernizing the immigration system, creating enforcement mechanisms and dealing with undocumented persons.

“Most of these are people who will be here for the rest of their lives with or without documents, so it is in our best interest to deal with them and to make sure this never happens again,” Rubio wrote recently on RedState.com, defending his approach from conservative criticism.

Rubio insists that undocumented persons must come forward and undergo a background check. Those who have committed crimes must be deported. Those who have not may return to their native country, wait ten years and then apply for a green card. For those who decide to stay, they will do so “under the equivalent of a non-immigrant work permit by paying a fine and back taxes” and will not qualify for any federal benefits. These persons will not be able to apply for a green card for a “substantial period of time. And they will not be able to apply until the enforcement mechanisms” are implemented.

Rubio stresses his convictions about immigration reform are not driven by politics, including the results of the last election.

“I’m doing what I can because I believe it’s important for our country, because conservative principles can make this legislation better, and immigration is one of the few issues where government has a legitimate and central role to play,” he wrote.

To conservative critics who believe his proposal amounts to amnesty, Rubio responds, “To leave things the way they are now is de facto amnesty and a barrier to accomplishing important government reforms in other areas. It is no way to run a nation of immigrants.”

Charles Krauthammer reflects a sentiment widely held by conservatives—including many evangelicals—in a recent column when he stressed the enforcement aspect of getting immigration reform right.

Writing in The Washington Post, Krauthammer is concerned the “enforcement trigger” before green card status is a distinction without a difference. 

Under the bipartisan plan endorsed by Rubio, Krauthammer argues undocumented persons will have the “functional equivalent of a green card. They got that on Day One [of a prospective new immigration law]. That matters more than anything to those living here illegally: the right to continue living here without fear. Forever. That’s the very essence of amnesty.”

Krauthammer insists the legal status should only be granted after a fence is completed protecting America’s border.

Like Rubio, Krauthammer argues immigration reform should not be first a political issue.

“Enforcement followed by legalization is not just the political thing to do,” he writes. “It is the right thing to do—an act both of national generosity and national interest. It has long been the best answer to the immigration conundrum. It remains so.”

Immigration reform is not—or should not—be a political issue for evangelicals. Of greater concern than the electoral implications of action or inaction, Christians should first be concerned about what makes for a properly ordered government. 

More critical still, it’s about the Gospel.

This balance of good government and Gospel imperative sums up the SBC resolution on immigration reform. Indeed, it’s remarkable how similar the growing, bipartisan consensus in Washington on immigration reform is to the principles affirmed by Southern Baptists a year and half ago.

Adopted by a wide margin during the 2011 SBC annual meeting in Phoenix, the resolution urges government authorities to prioritize securing the borders and holding businesses accountable for hiring, and to implement a “just and compassionate path to legal status, with appropriate restitutionary measures”—only after the borders are secured.

The clause affirming a path to citizenship elicited an amendment from the floor to delete the language. The amendment produced strong debate and was only narrowly defeated. In response, the Resolutions Committee proposed and messengers accepted an additional clause clarifying the “resolution is not to be construed as support for amnesty for any undocumented immigrant.” 

I’m not the only person to recognize the parallels between the SBC statement and Rubio’s principles. Jimmy Scroggins, pastor of First Baptist Church in West Palm Beach and a member of the 2011 SBC Resolutions Committee, recently tweeted that Rubio is “promoting almost exactly what Southern Baptists affirmed on immigration policy in 2011. I am thrilled.”

Of course, a denominational resolution stating broad principles is far from detailed legislation that will be required to actually change the law.

Still, the resolution’s emphasis was far more about how Christians must respond to this issue as a Gospel duty than it was about public policy.

The resolution urges churches to “be the presence of Christ, in both proclamation and ministry, to all persons, regardless of country of origin or immigration status;” repudiates “any form of nativism, mistreatment, or exploitation” as “inconsistent with the Gospel of Jesus Christ;” and “deplore[s] any bigotry or harassment against any persons, regardless of their country of origin or legal status.”

Additionally, Southern Baptists resolved to “pray for our churches to demonstrate the reconciliation of the Kingdom both in the verbal witness of our Gospel and in the visible makeup of our congregations” and affirmed “that while Southern Baptists, like other Americans, might disagree on how to achieve just and humane public policy objectives related to immigration, we agree that, when it comes to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to His church, the message, in every language and to every person, is ‘Whosoever will may come.’”

It should be noted, none of these duties are dependent on anything our government does or doesn’t do to address immigration reform. Gospel ministry should never be contingent on public policy.

Thankfully, as recently released data from the North American Mission Board demonstrates, Southern Baptists are increasingly committed to ethnic diversity, certainly an aspect of ministry application to the debate on immigration reform. Since 1998, the number of non-Anglo congregations in the SBC has jumped by more than 66 percent, with Hispanic congregations increasing by 63 percent. Non-Anglo congregations are now one-fifth of the SBC.

As on so many of these important ethical matters, Russell Moore, dean of the School of Theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, is an important voice helping Southern Baptists understand their biblical duty.

“Immigration isn’t just an issue,” Moore recently wrote. “It’s an opportunity to see that, as important as the United States of America is, there will be a day when the United States of America will no longer exist. And on that day, the sons and daughters of God will stand before the throne of a former undocumented immigrant. Some of them are migrant workers and hotel maids now. They will be kings and queens then. They are our brothers and sisters.”

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