My favorite restaurant in town is El Sol King Pollo. The grilled chicken is marvelous. The chips are perfect. The burritos are magnificent, and the salsa is sublime. I’m no Spanish expert, but even I noticed that “The Sun King Chicken” does not make a lot of sense in English or Spanish. I asked the owner, who has become my friend, why he chose that name. He said he also owns the grocery next door: Tienda Del Sol. When he bought the restaurant, it was called “King Pollo”. Jose just combined the two names. Jose and his wife Nelva are creative with chicken, not with store names.
Over the last year or so I’ve made friends with just about every server in the place. I know them all by name. I asked them to only speak to me in Spanish so I can learn the language. They are happy to oblige. They seem to genuinely enjoy sharing their language and their food with me and the friends I bring to their restaurant. They are my “professors”; that’s what they tell my friends when we go there and they speak Spanish to me. When they talk to me at lunch, they treat it like a pop quiz in front of the other guests. One day, I realized that one of my favorite servers and professors wasn’t around. I asked Nelva where Anna had been. Nelva frowned and said that Anna and her family had moved away because they were afraid of the “new law.” I was stunned.
I never thought of my friends at King Pollo in the category of “legal” or “illegal” immigrant. I simply viewed them as a neighbor. My faith in Christ teaches me to love my neighbor, to view every human being as a person made in the image of God, and it teaches me to be good to the alien and sojourner in our midst. Anna is a friend. She has a husband who worked hard at the local chicken plant. Together, they are doing their best to raise two children. Our town lost something when they left.
In my home town, about 28% of the population is now Hispanic. It’s hard to get an accurate count because a lot of the Hispanics here do not have permission to be here. These neighbors are law-breakers because they have entered the country illegally, and a lot of my friends are pretty galled that they have crossed the invisible line that divides our country from theirs.
As I examine why it upsets people, I find that their anger seems to be rooted in the fact that these illegal immigrants are costing them money. These illegals are taking up American jobs, and they are siphoning off the American welfare system. As I have made it a life goal not to care too much about money, this doesn’t seem to bother me as much as it does others. My faith teaches me to be content with food and clothing, and so I strive to be (1 Timothy 6:8). Are you upset because illegals are costing you money?
I don’t buy it. Every last immigrant I know has a job, not a reliance on welfare. That’s a small pool of people, I realize. But it is true nevertheless. They come here and they spend; that creates and upholds jobs for others. Some second-generation legal immigrants, whose parents may be illegal, open businesses and pay taxes. The illegals pay sales tax, too. They are contributing to the economy. The numbers that we see regarding what an illegal costs us in welfare never reflects the amount of money they inject into the economy through their work and purchases.
Could we take a moment, then, to talk about law-breaking? I confess that it does bother me that people come here illegally. However we must consider that there is more than one law at play in your illegal neighbor’s life. First, life in Mexico can really be awful. If you read the news, you know that cartels regularly harass, and even behead people who defy them. Work is scarce and resources are hard to come by. It’s so bad there, that your neighbor probably had to entrust his life, and the life of his family, to a “coyote” or pollero in order to slip across that border. How bad would your life have to be to take that kind of risk? It could be that your neighbor was tired of living in poverty, that he was tired of seeing his family do without, and that he feared for the safety of his children.
My faith teaches me that a man who doesn’t take care of his own family is worse than an infidel (1 Timothy 5:8). Faced with the decision of an impoverished and endangered family versus sneaking across an invisible boundary to greener pastures seems like an easy choice. Everyone knows that some laws are more important than others. We all think child abuse is inexcusable, right? But speeding on the highway, well, we all do that. Speeding is breaking the law just like child abuse is breaking the law, but one of these is worse than the other, and anyone who cannot see the difference should be glad the police department can. I confess to you that if my family were hungry and endangered, I would be tempted to hop across the border and take whatever work I could find.
I don’t have the answer to illegal immigration. I just know that I must love my neighbor, and I hope that I do. I’ve coached their sons in soccer, and they were kind enough to come to my house for the team party. We’ve grilled chicken together, and we’ve laughed at my terrible Spanish and their terrible English. I also know that I don’t want my neighbor to have to go back if he doesn’t want to; I enjoy his company.
In the not so distant past, I grew up hearing and believing that the United States was the “land of the free and the home of the brave.” Is that still the country I live in? The very idea that the new Arizona law makes it “illegal for a church van to pick up undocumented kids for youth group” boils my blood, not only as a pastor, but as an American who cherishes liberty. Are we really going to require our churches to check documents before ministering to people? Does this look like loving our neighbor to you?
This political season, please try to remember that illegal immigrants are not money sponges who are looking to exploit our welfare system. They are men and women with families and dreams, and most of them are here to work and better themselves. They are image-bearers of God, and sojourners in our land: our response should be mercy, not wrath.
Illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne.