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Welcome the Stranger: Convincing Evangelicals to Support Immigration Reform

Ray Suarez spoke with Jenny Hwang, the co-author of “Welcoming the Stranger,” a book published in 2009 urging evangelicals to look at comprehensive immigration reform based on biblical principles.

Recently, there has been a wave of support from this largely conservative community for immigration reform, including a pathway to citizenship. It was a hard argument to win over hearts and minds.

Hwang discusses the challenges she faced when approaching churches on immigration reform.

Ray Suarez: This is a conversation that has was a long time in coming, but I think is also right on time. What are you telling people who are not necessarily used to hearing this argument?

Jenny Hwang: Well, one of the things we’ve been saying especially for the evangelical community has been is that this is not an issue about them; it’s an issue about us. This is because one of the fastest growing demographics in the evangelical church is actually the immigrant church.

In fact, what they say is that if it weren’t for immigrants coming to our churches then our churches would be completely dying off. There is also a Biblical call to have those principles reflected in public policy and law.

Ray Suarez: When you look at a map of the ancient Near East — the nations, the peoples are tiny and constantly intermingling with each other so there’s a lot in scripture of people who are strangers in a strange land, taken captive by another people and what it means to be a foreigner in a place that’s not your own. How come it took so long for a scripture-centered community to start looking at the Bible in that way?

Jenny Hwang: Well I think there are a lot of challenges because on any tough social issue like immigration often times the only way you’re hearing about it is through the news or from your friends, but you really don’t hear talk about immigration from the church.

What I think has shifted especially for a lot of pastors and evangelical leaders has been “if I am responsible for my congregation and my community then I have to look at who is in my community” and often time there are immigrants.

Ray Suarez: But it’s not news to you that on any number of issues if you take the self-described evangelical population as a group they tend to skew conservative on issue after issue and have let’s say a fairly legalistic view of the law so when someone says to you what part of illegal don’t you understand? Or this is what the law says and you’re either with the law or you’re breaking the law?

Jenny Hwang: I think it is. I think the biggest question that a lot of Christians is how do you reconcile the desire to show compassion to immigrants with the desire to follow the rule of law?

What we’re seeing is that it shouldn’t be necessarily either or, but that there is a middle ground that we can take. For a lot of Christians there is nothing illegal you can do when showing compassion and really welcoming immigrants into your communities, but our government also has a responsibility to create good laws and when laws are not working for the common good they have to be changed.

Ray Suarez: One of the most uniformly evangelical parts of the country is the southeast quarter of the United States, which also was the place where the least immigrants went, historically.

But now, Alabama, Georgia, North and South Carolina are filling up with immigrant communities, hiring English as a second language teachers for the first time in their history. Is that more than coincidence that maybe people in this part of the country are also– now that they know people that are in this fix, they may take a different view of the law?

Jenny Hwang: I think that part of the reason why so many people feel so strongly about this now in support of reform, is that they’re not just talking about an issue that’s foreign to them, it’s actually about the person that they’re worshipping together with on a Sunday.

It’s about the person that they play soccer with, or kids that they know in their communities that are actually real leaders, but can’t go further in their education because they’re here undocumented. So it’s about all those issues. And in fact some of the most educational and transformative events that we’ve had has been in the Southeast.

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