Paving a path to immigration reform

The time has come to resolve our nation’s immigration situation. With an estimated 12 million men, women and children living and working illegally in the United States, it is no less than a crisis.

Acts of mercy by the church have been and will remain insufficient to repair our broken immigration system. Nor is the church’s responsibility equivalent to the government’s responsibility. While Southern Baptists, other Evangelicals and members of the faith community in general will do their part individually and collectively to reach out to those here illegally, only a proper government response can resolve our immigration crisis.

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Currently, the two extremes of deportation or amnesty are being played against each other, breeding ever greater mistrust and frustration. Neither of these extreme solutions is acceptable. To force those who are here illegally to leave is neither politically viable nor humanitarian. To offer amnesty to those who have broken immigration laws of our country fosters disrespect for the rule of law. Furthermore, neither solution has enough support among the citizenry to be enacted politically.

During the last four years, the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission has repeatedly called for comprehensive immigration reform. In a Baptist Press article in April 2006, I laid out the parameters of a holistic approach that rests on three broad pillars: a secure border, enforcement of internal immigration laws and a path to legal earned status and an expanded guest-worker program.

The first issue that must be resolved is securing the border. That means controlling, not closing, it. The federal government must prove to the American people that they have secured the border with measurable and agreed-upon metrics. Under both Democratic and Republican administrations, the federal government has failed to fulfill its responsibility in this area, thereby fueling severe consternation among a sizable constituency of Americans and fostering the immigration crisis we face today.

The second pillar of comprehensive immigration reform is a commitment by the federal government to enforce the laws within the country, which include cracking down on businesses that employ workers illegally. Here, too, the federal government has failed. Americans know the government is quite capable of enforcing laws it truly wishes to enforce — the Internal Revenue Service comes to mind.

Finally, the nation must enact a compassionate and comprehensive immigration policy that acknowledges we are both a nation of immigrants and a nation of laws. Such a policy would put otherwise law-abiding undocumented persons on one of three paths: One leads to pursuing earned legal citizenship or legal residency; one leads to acquiring legal guest-worker status; and one leads back across the border, including a swift process for the deportation of undocumented felons.

Within this proper reform, an illegal immigrant who desires to remain legally in the U.S. will undergo a criminal background check; pay fines and back taxes; learn to read, write and speak English; and get in line behind those who are attempting to migrate legally into this country. After a probationary period of years, he or she could earn legal status. They must also pledge allegiance to America’s governmental structure, the duties of citizenship and our core values as embodied in the Declaration of Independence. People who fail background checks or who refuse to comply with this generous opportunity to earn legal status should be deported immediately.

This is not “amnesty.” Amnesty is what President Carter gave the draft dodgers who came home from Canada with no penalties, no fines, no alternative service, no requirements whatsoever.

The reality is we are a nation of immigrant settlers and the descendents of such settlers, who braved oceans and many obstacles to come to this matchless land of opportunity to become Americans. The overwhelming attraction of America is her freedom.

Whether our ancestors came early or late, we are Americans, whatever nationality may be used to describe our heritage before we arrived. We should, and we will, always have room in this great nation for those who are willing to embrace the American dream and the American ideals that both inspired that dream and define it. The time to forge a compassionate and comprehensive consensus on this issue is now.

Dr. Land is the president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.