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“What do you think should be done about illegal immigrants? I honestly don’t have an answer.”

A good friend asked me this after my Facebook post about the El Paso shooting and ICE raids in Mississippi.

I’ve spent time listening to people on multiple sides of the immigration debate. I grew up in agricultural Central Washington state, and then spent an immersive year in Honduras and two years working alongside Latin American immigrants in Boston, followed off-the-beaten-paths through Central America and Mexico, and did master’s coursework on immigration and religion. This is what I’ve come to understand as the core of the conversation.

Undocumented labor sustains the economy

First, undocumented immigrant labor is integral to the US economy. Demand for ‘low-skill’ labor (the Department of Labor’s term is unfortunate, as jobs like picking fruit, construction, and landscaping are not easy) is not being met due to declining birth rates, low wages, and increased rural-urban migration.

Undocumented immigrants are responding to a demand and, in this political climate, they are pawns in a much larger system of supply and demand.

When I talk with conservative orchardists in Washington state and dairy farmers in Iowa, both note the need for short-term, renewable visas (similar to H-2A and H-2B visas) that would allow migrants to come legally and leave as needed. Orchardists are letting fruit drop to the ground and dairies are contracting with robotics companies from the Netherlands, all for lack of labor.

The availability of visas for low-skill laborers has historically shifted in response to political feeling. Laws surrounding short-term work visas tightened significantly after 9/11, exacerbating the ‘problem’ of undocumented immigration. When fear grows of not being able to return to the US via a renewed visa because of restrictive immigration policies, the rate of migrants overstaying visas increases.

The system is broken (and it has been for a while)

Our restrictive immigration system is a bipartisan issue, but the current administration is amplifying the problem of migration instead of talking about the opportunity it presents. The administration is trying to restrict asylum requests to only a few places on the Southern border, create additional bureaucratic hurdles for immigration hearings, and cut aid to Latin American countries. These moves will manufacture a real and imminent crisis of frustrated migrants arriving at an under-resourced border.

It is unworkable and ineffective to try to reduce the flow of undocumented migrants via harsher migration policies for undocumented immigrants. Most undocumented migrants do not enter illegally by crossing the Southern border. Instead they overstay a visa for one of several reasons: because they know they have a slim chance of being granted another one; they leave a job they depend on for legal status because an employer cheats them; or they lose their protected asylum status because they are not allowed to work while the multi-year hearings are in process.

If the US immigration system is too complex or unfair, migrants who are desperate for work and employers who are desperate for workers will find a way to make it work, legal or not.

Let’s refine pathways for visas and invest internationally

I am a strong advocate for creating a legal path to citizenship for those who do not have felonies or serious misdemeanors (and even some who do—criminal justice reform is desperately needed).

DACA is low hanging fruit, an excellent first step which provides a path for legalizing the status of children and young adults who have gone through the US education system and are ready to enter the labor force.

Next, create a simple path to citizenship for those who have been residing here through a TPS visa for many years (Haitians and Salvadorans, for example). Then, create a clear path for undocumented migrants and their immediate families who are already participating in the work force to apply for visas that allow them to work legally, receive fair wages (most undocumented immigrants are already paying taxes, with no hope of receiving this back via social security benefits), and return to their countries as needed. Undocumented migrants and migrants employed under single-entry visas cannot return to their host countries, even in the event of a death in their family.

As we create paths to citizenship for undocumented migrants who are here, we should work to redirect the flow of undocumented migrants who are still coming. This can be done in part by making ‘low-skill,’ low-cost visas accessible, but we should also support long-term international development work in Central America.

The Association for a More Just Society (AJS) is doing incredible work in Honduras fighting corruption and gang violence in order to create an environment that doesn’t produce caravans of Hondurans making the choice between death via extortion, poverty, and domestic violence or fleeing to the States. The current administration has decreased foreign aid to Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, which–barring new funds–will require AJS to cut its staff from 140 to 40.

I’ve talked with enough undocumented migrants crossing through Mexico to know that a wall will not stop them from leaving their countries. But a resurgence of safe neighborhoods and decent jobs at home would mean they wouldn’t even consider it. Unfortunately, these long-term strategies don’t make either Democrats or Republicans look good in the short term. Migration raids like those in Mississippi which separate families and detain necessary laborers are short-term ‘solutions’ with long-term consequences for families, communities, and local economies.

What can I do?

As a Christian, a citizen, and a friend of undocumented immigrants, I try to vote for politicians that value long-term solutions: providing US-aid in the form of smart development work in Central America; push for realistic paths to citizenship for undocumented migrants; and view immigrants as a blessing rather than a threat. I support agencies like AJS and relief organizations that reunite families separated at the border.

I avoid reductionistic answers (“open borders” or “build a wall”) which tend to shift blame or appeal to a political base. And finally, I keep listening to neighbors on all sides of the conversation, letting that listening lead to action.

Nathan Groenewold

Nathan Groenewold is an ordained minister in the Christian Reformed Church and founding director of Cohort Detroit, a ministry which aims to raise up a new generation of young leaders who love God deeply, work for justice, and humbly serve marginalized Detroit communities. He fills the cracks in his summers with disc golf and gardening. 


  • Rev. David Zomer says:

    Well written and thoughtful. I am sharing this with my congregation. Thank you.

  • James Brink says:

    Thank you, Nathan, for the light and clarity your post provides on this complex subject.

  • Well said. You try to have a discussion instead of yelling slogans.

  • Marty Wondaal says:

    Thank you for a reasoned, unemotional, and thoughtful essay on immigration. While I’m sure we disagree on some things (border security, immigration limits, and other details), your ideas have much merit and would be a great place to begin debate.

  • Helen P says:

    It would be interesting to know how much these folks are paying in taxes that they will never get back in Social Security benefits…money which is basically a gift to the government coffers. If it was known would it be a large amount (I’m guessing it it) and would the threatened loss of that funding be an incentive to those arguing against any type of good, humanitarian reform of our very broken and inhuman system?
    Thank you for this well though-out article.

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