Time to fess up. I am an illegal. And I’ll bet you are too!

It’s time for me to fess up, to come clean on my status.  I am an illegal.  As if that were not bad enough, I’m a repeat offender.  In fact, I am currently attending a conference at Elmbrook Church in Wisconsin on how churches can provide legal aid to immigrants (sponsored by World Relief) and I became “an illegal” again on my way to this event.

The term “illegals,” when applied to those who are undocumented is a dehumanizing term.  It is a term that turns a person into a thing or a problem.  Not only is it dehumanizing, it is also grossly unfair when applied to undocumented immigrants, forty-five percent of whom entered the country legally but over stayed their visas.

The act of crossing the border illegally is a misdemeanor.  By definition, a misdemeanor is a violation of law that does not result in the loss of one’s civil rights.  Similar misdemeanors include reckless driving, trespassing, public intoxication, possession of small amounts of marijuana, and various traffic violations.

Applying the standard that is often applied to undocumented immigrants, it isn’t a matter of whether you have ever been convicted of these crimes; all that matters is that at some point, maybe once, you committed the crime.  If you’ve ever driven recklessly, drank too much in a public setting, trespassed on someone’s property, or possessed a joint of marijuana you are an illegal.

 The act of being in the country without documentation is a violation of civil law, not criminal law.  It is inappropriate to call an undocumented person a criminal unless they have committed some other criminal offense.  Violations of civil law typically involve administrative matters and can’t result in imprisonment.  Examples of civil offenses include parking too close to a fire hydrant or on the wrong side of the street, leaving your car running and unattended, violating a minor building code, illegally downloading music, avoiding a toll booth, and failure to properly bury a dead horse.  If you’ve done any of things (I’ve done all of them!) you, like me, are “an illegal.”

Undocumented immigrants are caught in a broken system, some by no fault of their own.  A first step in solving fixing our broken immigration system is to recognize the humanity of those who are here without documentation.  A second step is to recognize that not only are they human, they are our neighbors and in many cases our brothers and sisters in Christ.

The vast majority would come legally if we had a system that allowed them to do so in a timely manner.  The average wait time for a green card for a lower skilled person from Mexico is well over 10 years, and up to 131 years in some cases according to the Department of State.  These unreasonable wait times are created by bureaucracy and ridiculously low numbers of available green cards for low-skilled workers.  Only 5,000 work-related green cards are granted annually for low skilled workers from Mexico.  Another 5,000 such green cards are available to people from the rest of the world.

On the way here, as I drove through Chicago, I was in the far left lane as I approached a tollbooth due to clear and authoritative instructions coming from my smart phone (not smart enough to know that the cash lanes were on the right).  Not only did I feel a twinge of guilt, I also once again became “an illegal” as I passed the booth without paying.  As I drive home I’ll try to do better.  I’ll also be thinking about how the church can step up to this issue and make a heavenly difference.  I’ll be thinking of a store-front ministry in Waukesha, Wisconsin called James Place where members of nearby Elmbrook Church provide free legal aid and help immigrants fill out complicated immigration forms.  They volunteer their time because (using the words of Darryl Leedom of the Salvation Army) “they care about the things that break the heart of God.”

As I drive home I’ll be thinking about a question cited by Karen, the volunteer director of James Place, a question that led the members of Elmbrook Church to step out of their comfort zone and launch a unique ministry to immigrants.

“If your church vanished tomorrow would anyone in your community weep?”

In Waukesha, Wisconsin the answer is a resounding “Yes!”

* For a great video and several essays on the challenges of coming legally check out the resources at G92, an organization started by evangelical university students to promote ministry to immigrants and advocacy for comprehensive immigration reform. 


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