- - Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Americans are ready for just immigration reform that keeps our borders secure, respects the rule of law and creates a pathway to earned legal status for our hardworking neighbors who lack documentation. This earned legal status should include temporary worker visas and citizenship.

As an evangelical leader, I applaud leaders in Congress for recognizing that a better immigration process is urgent. Republicans in particular are showing leadership by prioritizing the debate.

As the House of Representatives holds a hearing Tuesday to take up the challenge of creating a better immigration process, evangelical Christians across the country are participating in their own challenge: to reflect on what the Bible has to say about how we treat our immigrant neighbors.

My own contemplation has led me to conclude that we must unite behind an immigration process that is fair, that respects every human being’s God-given dignity, that protects the unity of our families and that preserves our standing as the world’s standard-bearer for freedom.

As members of the Evangelical Immigration Table affirmed in June, just immigration reform will strengthen our economy and our communities. Policy that reflects our shared principles — accountability, fairness, dignity and hard work — will strengthen us.

The principles that a bipartisan group of Senate leaders announced last week represent a solid start. Now is the time for our legislators to move beyond partisan rancor and come to consensus that honors our heritage.

Immigrants always have contributed to our country. Both our history and our legacy call on us to enable American immigrants to come out of the shadows and participate fully as American taxpayers, voters, workers and leaders.

Establishing a challenging but achievable path to citizenship is key. There are only three options for addressing undocumented immigrants: deportation, amnesty and a middle, more reasonable alternative that provides an opportunity for earned legal status. Mass deportation would be impossible and morally wrong. Amnesty would flout the law. Let me be clear: I oppose amnesty. What I do support is providing an opportunity for earned legal status that allows people to come out of the shadows and participate in the American dream.

It should include appropriate penalties, waiting periods, background checks, evidence of moral character and a commitment to full participation in American society through learning English. Yet for our hardworking, undocumented neighbors who aspire to be fully American, it must end with citizenship — not a permanent second-class status.

Such a path also reconciles the rule of law in Matthew 25, where the Bible teaches us that by welcoming a stranger, we may be welcoming Jesus: “I was a stranger and you invited me in.” Whatever we do for the least among us, he teaches, we do for him.

In hundreds of evangelical churches across more than 40 states, evangelicals are considering how these words apply to our relationship with our immigrant neighbors by participating in the “I Was a Stranger” challenge. Each day for 40 days, we are reading a different short passage of Scripture that speaks to God’s compassion toward immigrants, and we are praying for our immigrant neighbors.

The Bible presents a stark choice between two paths: welcoming the stranger leads to eternal bliss; not welcoming the stranger leads to eternal punishment.

These teachings speak to us in our lives. They help us see that no matter how we got here, we are all created in God’s image and all worthy of God’s love and of one another’s respect.

As we take God’s Word to heart and honor it in our lives, we must acknowledge that as a beacon of freedom, the United States has attracted immigrants who move here to improve life for themselves and their families — today, as throughout our history. Nearly all of us have ancestors who came here from somewhere else to build a better life.

That is the promise of America, and that is our pride. We are a nation of hope for people of courage who leave behind lives they know because they believe in the opportunity for better lives on our shores.

We must continue to prove that the American dream we idealize is more than a mirage — that people from diverse backgrounds can come here, and that all of us can live in peace with our neighbors, pursue our dreams and succeed.

As Congress embarks on the difficult challenge of creating a just immigration process, we support their efforts to have a respectful debate, and we rededicate ourselves to a process that shines freedom’s light more brightly.

In so doing, we will honor God’s will and bring God’s blessing on our country and its inhabitants, each created in God’s image — no matter where we were born.

Mathew Staver is chairman of Liberty Counsel and chief counsel of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference.