Undocumented, Central American children flooding across the Rio Grande Valley border and being messily relocated by the federal government across the United States is unsettling.

It’s a humanitarian calamity and a political debacle–and a moral challenge for the Christian community.

More than 37,000 children–most without accompanying parents–have crossed the border this year.

Between 60,000 to 80,000 are expected to enter the country in 2014, many from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

Some have said the children are fleeing from violence and poverty in their own countries.

Others have said the Obama administration has sent the wrong message to Central America that whoever crosses the border gets to become an American citizen.

In response to that criticism, U.S. Customs and Border Protection announced last week a public awareness media campaign, telling Central Americans “no permisos,” no path to citizenship for those who cross the border without permission.

Those who do will be returned to their country of origin.

Wherever the fault lies in the most visible dynamic of the immigration issue in 2014, one thing is clear: These ingrained images quickly become prevailing and transformative narratives.

That is, the images become a universalized understanding of immigration, even if that understanding is an exception or distortion.

They suggest an “open border,” which isn’t true. They suggest a failure of the federal government to secure the border, which is obvious.

The images make immigration reform even more difficult anywhere, anytime in the foreseeable future.

Rather than dismiss the issue of border control, as some pro-immigration Christians have done with their platitudes about how “we should just welcome the stranger,” we need a more morally robust response to the matter of national boundaries.

The situation and the border present both a humanitarian and moral challenge to the church.

Rightfully, Christian organizations–such as Faith in Action Initiatives at Baylor Scott and White Health–are responding to the humanitarian needs with medical supplies. Texas Baptists Men are providing laundry and shower facilities.

Yet in terms of engaging the debate, Christians would do well to remind the public about the unmistakable biblical imperative to welcome the stranger, to treat the immigrant with justice.

Regrettably, Protestant moral reflection is rather thin when one comes to what it means to welcome the stranger:

− Does it mean opening the border to anyone who wants to enter the country?

− Should the U.S.-Mexico border be no different that the border between Texas and Arkansas?

− What are the immediate moral consequences of a borderless society?

Catholic moral reflection offers us some substantive help.

Anthony Taylor, bishop of the Diocese of Little Rock and an interviewee in “Gospel without Borders,” wrote in a pastoral letter that “borders are necessary creations.”

He said that nations have a responsibility “to safeguard the rights” of its citizens.

Taylor identified eight reasons borders are required:

− Creation of order between countries

− Identification of the geography in which states and other institutions have a responsibility to seek the common good

− Provision of national security and assurance of rights and protection of its citizens

− Safeguard against the state military aggression

− Prevention of crime

− Advancement of economic interests

− Control of disease spread (humans, farm animals and plants)

− Assistance in the smooth flow of commerce, tourism and immigration

Borders, then, are markers for ensuring the common good for a society.

The moral challenge for pro-immigration reform Christians is to find ways to pursue the imperative to treat the undocumented well without ignoring the good that results from borders.

Platitudes about welcoming the stranger devoid of acknowledgment of the need for working national boundaries are unhelpful–probably counterproductive–if we ever want comprehensive immigration reform.

Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. Follow him on Twitter at RobertParham1 and friend him on Facebook.

Editorial Note: EthicsDaily.com has numerous immigration resources available. Columns, news articles and editorials can be found here. “Gospel Without Borders,” our documentary on faith and immigration, can be ordered here.

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