What will be the leading civil rights issue of the 21st century? According to Dr. Javier Elizondo, vice president of academic affairs at Baptist University of the Americas, “the mistreatment of undocumented immigrants from Mexico, Latin America and other countries to the United States of America is quickly becoming the leading civil rights issue of our time.”

This statement resonates with any reasonable individual who understands that we are living in one of the most dramatic eras in global migration in the history of the world.

The issue is close to my heart and experience because I am the grandson of an undocumented immigrant and migrant workers that carved out a life in the cotton fields of west Texas. My maternal grandmother came to the United States seeking a better life for her children and grandchildren.

We did find a better life. Baptists introduced my paternal grandparents to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and then introduced us to the Texas Baptist family. In 2005 the Texas Baptist family elected me to serve as its president, the first non-Anglo president in our 120-year history.

So I come to this issue with a heritage of undocumented immigration, a Texas Baptist heritage and a biblical and theological frame of reference as a third generation native Texan and Baptist Christian.

The current immigration reform debate should be informed by a question that goes to the heart of the issue: Does Jesus still have a mission to the poor, the prisoner, the blind, and the oppressed?

The last time I checked my Bible Jesus announced his agenda to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim freedom for those in prison, to give sight to the blind, and liberty to the oppressed (Lk 4:14).

In fact, my Bible also tells me that Jesus was an international refugee within the first year of his life. His father and mother took him from Bethlehem to Egypt to flee infanticide as well as political and religious oppression. The Bible does not specify whether or not Jesus’ parents were required to present immigration documents when they reached the Egyptian border.

The core issue at the center of the immigration reform debate is justice. Where is our American sense of decency, the value of basic human rights, our love for children and families and fairness toward under-privileged newcomers?

Texas Baptists have been asking this question for several years. Messengers to the 2003 annual meeting of the Hispanic Convention of Texas, with over 1,200 congregations. and messengers to the 2003 annual meeting of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, with over 5,700 congregations and over 2.5 million members, approved resolutions advocating compassionate ministry to the “alien” and the “stranger” in our midst, namely the undocumented and documented immigrant.

The Hispanic Immigration Task Force of the Baptist General Convention, formed in 2003, raised the issue of victimization and exploitation of undocumented immigrants, basic human needs and advocacy regarding pathways for citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

Christians must ask the justice question: Is it right for the United States of America to continue to operate a dysfunctional border policy that criminalizes under-privileged and undocumented immigrants seeking to earn a living to provide basic subsistence to their family while allowing American businesses to employ these workers at lower wages?

Can we honestly overlook the fact that the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 was never really enforced? Carlos Guerra has rightly noted that “In 1999, only 417 Notices of Intent to Fine were issued to errant employers, a number that dropped to 100 in 2001, and to three in 2004.”

We tend to enforce the law on those that may not break the law purposefully and we have a track record of rewarding those who ignore the law to generate wider profit margins. Our current laws put both the employer and the worker between the proverbial rock and a hard place producing an obvious ethical dilemma.

Have we thought about the impetus for migration to the United States like American international business practice that employs workers in other countries to work for sub-standard wages to increase profit margins for shareholders? We can’t have it both ways and maintain integrity with our own laws much less the agenda of Jesus.

We need to open our eyes to the reality of this situation, open our Bibles to read about Jesus’ agenda before we articulate our convictions and open our hearts to the Jesus that placed the poor, the prisoner, the blind and the oppressed at the center of his mission.

Jesus only had 1,000 days to do his mission and he chose to spend two of those days with a broken, marginalized, underprivileged Samaritan woman and her family in the town of Sychar in Samaria. What does that tell us about how we should be spending our time?

What does the “good news” of Jesus mean to the undocumented immigrant in the United States today? What is the God of redemptive history trying to tell us about the Great Commission with 12 million undocumented immigrants in our communities?

To argue compliance with current U.S. immigration law while ignoring the agenda of Jesus is myopic, self-serving and legalistic. I love the United States of America and her laws. My question to those with an eternal perspective: Isn’t it time that our laws reflect the agenda of Jesus?

Protect our borders? Absolutely! Mistreat the poor? Absolutely not!

Albert L. Reyes is president of Baptist University of the Americas and immediate past president, of the Baptist General Convention of Texas.

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