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Parker Richardson: Immigrants are our neighbors
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Parker Richardson: Immigrants are our neighbors

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Immigration has a significant impact on North Carolina, where immigrants have been the main drivers of population growth. But North Carolina is also a state where most residents are influenced by their faith, including more than one-third of the state’s voters who are evangelical Christians.

As an evangelical, I’m concerned with immigration policy because North Carolina’s 900,000 immigrants are my neighbors, whom Christ commands us to love as ourselves.

Irma Chavez is a married mother of four who leads a business networking initiative in the small Arkansas city that she calls home. It's a long way from her life as a live-in housekeeper in a California suburb, and further still from a childhood working in El Salvador's coffee fields.

In fact, as a pastor, my job description originates in the New Testament, and one job requirement, as the Apostle Paul said, is to be “hospitable.” While we may think of “Southern hospitality” as having friends and relatives over for barbecue and sweet tea, the biblical definition of hospitality — in the New Testament Greek, philoxenia — is literally the love of strangers, not just our friends and family.

As we welcome “strangers,” they become us. Immigrants form a growing and integral part of local churches like the one I lead. Christians’ advocacy for immigration reforms is often motivated by relationships: by people we know whose ability to flourish as God intended is limited by structural problems.

For example, a key concern for Elevation Church in the Triad is access to quality education. But for children brought to the country without legal status — a decision most were too young to have made themselves — even if they excel in school, they eventually discover their options for college are limited, as they are ineligible for federal financial aid. Even if they make it to college, paying their own way through or on private scholarships, lack of work authorization usually prevents them from utilizing their degree.

The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program has provided hope for 30,000 such “Dreamers” in North Carolina. But it’s only a partial solution; DACA recipients who have lived in North Carolina almost their entire lives must still pay out-of-state tuition at public universities. A recent bill would give them the chance to pay in-state tuition, increasing access to higher education.

But even this will not be enough, because DACA was created by executive action and is only a temporary fix. Congress alone has the authority to allow these Dreamers to apply for permanent legal status and citizenship.

There’s hope on this front. The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed legislation that would do just this. Sens. Lindsey Graham and Dick Durbin have introduced a bipartisan bill in the U.S. Senate. I’m praying that North Carolina’s U.S. senators, Richard Burr and Thom Tillis, will join this effort to finally resolve this situation for immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.

Ultimately, though, Congress also must address the many undocumented immigrants who arrived as adults. Many evangelicals are uncomfortable with the idea of amnesty, which would simply overlook the reality that these individuals consciously violated U.S. immigration laws, eroding respect for the rule of law. That’s troubling for Christians who believe that God ordained civil government to maintain order. A recent poll found that 70% of North Carolina evangelicals oppose amnesty.

But that doesn’t mean evangelicals want undocumented immigrants to be deported; it means we want a solution that honors the law and is compassionate, keeping families together. Thousands of evangelical Christians have endorsed the idea of restitution-based immigration reform, which would require undocumented immigrants to pay a fine, then allow them to earn permanent legal status and, eventually, citizenship. Most North Carolinian evangelicals say they support this plan. We’re looking to our congressional leaders to forge the bipartisan consensus necessary to make it a reality.

Whether or not our government pursues such changes, however, my church and many others throughout North Carolina are committed to loving our foreign-born neighbors. Christians believe that we’re headed for a future when people of “every nation, tribe, people and language” will gather together to worship Jesus. As immigration has made North Carolina an increasingly diverse state and our churches begin to reflect that diversity, we have the opportunity to experience a foretaste of that moment.

Parker Richardson is a pastor at Elevation Church in Winston-Salem.

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