Editor’s note: In light of ongoing debates and looming legislation regarding the status of immigrants impacted by DACA, the travel ban and other related issues, as a former missionary, and one who still supports and affirms missions, the author shares what she views as inconsistencies in Evangelical thought and practice regarding immigration, particularly as it relates to missions.
A group of friends—a married couple, their newborn and their two young, single friends—get three-month visas to visit the United States. They are Muslim missionaries, passionate about America and really want to share the truth of Islam with this people group. They’ve been praying over these Americans for years and speaking about them in mosques to raise support for their mission. They are so excited to share the prophet’s teachings.
They arrive in the U.S. with their three-month tourist visas and when asked by customs agents about the purpose of their visit, say they’re here to see America and visit friends. They’re not outright lying. They will go see a few museums and national parks. They just omit fundamental details about the true intention of the trip—converting lost Americans to Islam.
Perhaps they also fail to mention that they in fact intend to stay for a few years, to focus on language and culture. They would really love to start some Quran studies in the community and maybe even start a new mosque, if things go really well.
They know they will have to renew their visas in a few months, but have a plan for a few different avenues to try when the time comes. Maybe they will try to get business visas. Or, if that doesn’t work out, they could see about enrolling in a school that can fix visas for them. Sure, they might overstay their visas in the time it takes to figure this out—but, no sweat. They are working for God. He is in control. The logistics and the laws come second when you are following God.
Reading that story, you might have felt shock or outrage. America is a country of laws, after all. You might feel that people who flout immigration rules don’t deserve to stay, particularly people coming in to disrupt our traditions, beliefs and values.
Now, the above scenario is unlikely—American immigration rules are incredibly difficult to flout. Visa processing, particularly for people in the Middle East, involve rounds and rounds of screening, interviewing, evidence checking and cross-checking. But replace our hypothetical Muslim missionaries with Christian missionaries and swap the United States with an African or Middle Eastern nation, and you’ve just described the basic operating procedure for a large number of Christian organizations—missionaries, evangelists and service teams. This includes me, as well.
When it comes to Christian missions and service, we grant ourselves benefits we would deny others, and flout rules abroad that we fervently demand adherence to at home. We are immigration hypocrites.
When I lived for two years in a closed country in North Africa, many people in my ex-pat community had immigration woes. The government didn’t smile so much at Westerners and didn’t let a whole lot of us in, and didn’t let us stay without good reason. It wasn’t always easy for people to get a visa, and it became increasingly difficult the longer people were there to prove their legitimacy in the country. People had to get really creative about how they acquired visas, resorting to student visas, business visas and NGO work visas. As a last-ditch attempt, some even went home and got new passports, and started the process all over again.
The two years I was in this North African country, I received my visa through a language school. While I was technically there to learn Arabic, I had an ulterior motive—a noble one, arguably, but ulterior nevertheless—to work at a street boys’ center helping vulnerable children grow in their education and skills and opportunities.
While my visa was legitimate, it didn’t reflect my true motivation or vocation in that country. “Working” was not allowed on my visa, so we said I was “volunteering.” But I was being paid, by churches and friends outside the country who were supporting me to work with these boys. If anyone ever asked, we said my time at the boys’ center was for language practice.
Many missionaries are legitimately in other countries. There are a few countries that even have special missionary visas. But these are a minority; most of these countries are “reached,” as they say. In the rest of the world, workers need a “platform”—also known as a legitimate reason—to be in the country. This is why many missionaries are also students, teachers, nurses, businesspeople or entrepreneurs, because they need to wear another hat to be in many countries that are not predominantly Christian. And, if a missionary is a student, teacher, nurse or entrepreneur, while on that visa, great! But I have lived in several different countries for various lengths of time and attended enough missions conferences and retreats to know that this is more an exception than the rule.
I know Americans (missionaries, among others) who jumped through dubious hoops as matter of course, paid bribes, overstayed their visas and lied to customs officials. I know people who have been on renewed tourist visas for years. There are some entire families, technically not allowed to work in the countries they are in, running schools or organizations on paper as volunteers that are on their sixth year of tourist visas.
In America, some would call these people “illegals.”
People I know, love and respect immensely have been in other countries illegally for weeks, months and even years. People feel entitled, or at least justified, because they are there for God. Or perhaps they believe it is unfair or unjust to be denied a visa and so choose to game the system, because the system is keeping the Good News out. They figure—like our hypothetical Muslim missionaries—that they are working for God, so the laws of man are, perhaps, secondary.
Ultimately, though, it comes down to privilege—the privilege of coming from wealthy and powerful countries.
While I don’t pretend to know the mind of government officials renewing visas abroad, having a powerful government on our side helps, as does the U.S. dollars lining our pockets—oftentimes a more reliable currency than local ones. Paying for expensive visas and contributing to the local economy can be a boon for countries that may not even want us there. Putting up with a bit of proselytizing is worth the value we bring into the country.
But political power counts, too. Even when I was interrogated in said closed country before my expulsion, I was treated very differently from my friends from Uganda, Egypt and other African countries. They were threatened and beaten, and I was not, although I was still terrified. I was treated less harshly because of my U.S. citizenship—and the threat that stands behind it.
These are the overt ways privilege plays out. But ultimately, we use our privilege to justify our behavior in moral terms: because of our nationality, other countries’ rules shouldn’t apply to us.
Sometimes, this moral argument is explicitly made. In South Sudan, with a few exceptions, my friends and I who were working for nonprofits had to pay $100 every month to renew our visas. It was a half day, each month, of waiting in several lines outside in the muggy heat, dealing with grumpy, distracted men in uniforms with large guns. We all hated the process, and most of us treated it with a lot of disdain—and shared stories over drinks on the Nile about how unfair it all was. We were coming here to help this country. Why should they make us jump through these hoops? Our virtue, we implicitly said, meant we should be exempt from obeying rules we saw as inconvenient.
But $100 and 3 hours every month or so—there was no Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to track down violators, so lapses weren’t uncommon—is practically nothing compared to the process for a South Sudanese to even try and come visit America, much less be allowed to live here indefinitely on false pretenses.
Our privilege blinds us to just how hypocritical all of this is. We say we want to take the gospel to all nations and people groups (many of these in closed countries), support people to do so and expect open borders for the sake of the Great Commission—but simultaneously close our borders to people fleeing these same countries we’re pursuing.
Our privilege makes us see the world upside down. Wealthy Western Christians have no inherent right to set up shop in any country of their choosing. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights says everyone has the right to seek and enjoy asylum in another country—and yet we deny refugees and asylum-seekers admittance to this country in the same moment that we attempt to get around other countries’ legitimate immigration laws.
If we’re going to eschew the laws of man in favor of the laws of God, then we should at least be consistent. If we take seriously Jesus’ directive to go make disciples of all nations, necessitating breaking the law in certain countries, then we should also take seriously his directive to welcome the stranger, the sick, the sojourner and the refugee.
If we are loud about going where the unreached and the hurting are, then we should be equally loud about allowing the unreached and hurting into our own borders—whether we are stayers supporting goers, or goers sent out by stayers.
My husband is an immigrant, so we know first-hand how complicated the immigration process to come to America is. On the day my husband was to have his green card interview at the U.S. embassy in the third country where we were living, I posted on social media asking for prayers because we had a lot riding on it: we’d sunk over $1,000 and countless hours over 11 months on paperwork alone, and I urgently needed to go back to the U.S. for my health. The outpouring of love and support we received was tremendous.
A former missions professor of mine, from a leading Christian university, replied to the post, too, having sensed an opportunity to talk politics. He posted flippant comments and false statements about emigrating to America, essentially defending a ban on certain migrants based on their religion. In his view, it was a good, Christian thing to defend the border from Muslims—even those with legitimate rights to visas through family, work or asylum.
I was extremely disappointed that a professor—of missions, no less—took a post from a former student, on the field and asking for prayer, and used it as an opportunity for political point-scoring. I knew we disagreed on many things, but I did not expect such behavior.
A few months later, the same professor posted on Facebook asking for prayers for he and his wife: they were missionaries in another country and needed help with their immigration status. They needed support—and seemed annoyed about it, too—because the paperwork was expensive and time-consuming.
The irony was not lost on me.
A person who had been extremely outspoken about his desire to keep America safe, block emigrants and ban people on the basis of bringing a foreign religion into the country, was himself seeking extended residence in another country so he could keep importing his faith. He expects open borders, as long as they are not his own.
He is an immigration hypocrite, and he is not alone.
Beth Watkins spent six years working with street children, refugees and other vulnerable populations in North and Sub-Saharan Africa. Beth holds a B.A. in Religion in Cross Cultural Studies and speaks regularly at churches about her experiences overseas. She is currently settling back in the U.S. with her immigrant husband. You can find her on her website, Facebook and Twitter.