Undocumented Persons and Refugees in the United States*

1982 Church of the Brethren Statement


The United States often has been described as a “Nation of Immigrants.” Except for Native Americans and persons brought here against their will, the country has been Populated by those who left their homelands for social, political, religious, or economic reasons. Even so, the U.S. has a history of ambivalence toward immigrants and refugees. In times of prosperity we offer hospitality: in times of recession or depression we react with hostility. It is especially felt by those citizens who are unemployed that too many immigrants have already come. The tension between these two groups of people can be resolved in the context of the Stewardship of God’s gifts, the knowledge that all resources come from God and are not the unqualified property of those holding them, and the recognition that all possessions are held in trust for the benefit of all humanity.

Historical Background

For the first hundred years of our history anyone could come to this country to stay; immigration was unrestricted. In 1852 the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo changed the immigration status of those who inhabited the Southwest. A border was created that divided families, beginning an ambivalent policy toward Immigration from Mexico and other Latin American countries. A period of restrictive Immigration thus began that lasted until 1920. Other restrictions were placed on Catholics, Chinese, Koreans and ultimately in 1917 upon all Asians.

From 1921 to 1964, numerical restrictions on immigrants were developed. The first specific limitation by country was imposed in 1921, holding the annual immigration to three percent of the foreign born persons of a given nationality who resided in the United States according to the 1910 population census. This quota effectively excluded not only Asians but also Africans and persons from other countries and continents.

The basic law governing current U.S. Immigration policy is the Immigration Nationality Act of 1952. Focused on a fear of communism, the Act set forth many repressive restrictions. From 1965 to 1980, minor revisions of immigration law were adopted. In an attempt to reduce discrimination, Congress substituted a limit of 20,000 immigrants per country for the National Origins System. The most recent reform effort, the Refugee Act of 1980, has produced mixed results in which refugees from Indochina are resettled under government plans while others seeking refugee status from Haiti and El Salvador are turned away. Further, many people wait in long backlogs to rejoin their families while others with no relatives in this country enter immediately.

Inability to enforce the existing law has led to a large population of undocumented persons, that is, those who enter the U.S. illegally or have overstayed their visas. Lacking legal status and fearing deportation these persons have become easy prey for those who want cheap labor or who offer unsafe working conditions. The outcry of the exploited and unemployed is increasing.

In light of these developments, matters of justice become a pressing concern in regard to U.S. immigration-refugees policy. It is clear that intercultural tensions, foreign policy, human rights, and the domestic economy all converge in immigration and refugee policy. A Christian response to these concerns becomes ever more urgent.

Theologies and Biblical Understandings

Through the media we see both generous and selfish concerns in the proposals advanced. In the midst of this Babel of fear, misunderstanding, generosity, and pride, we believe that the Gospel speaks a clear word of God’s love for all people. We seek to be faithful to the Word and call upon members of the Church of the Brethren to respond as it has done in the past to serve the spiritual and social needs of migrating; immigrating and refugee persons.

The concepts of stranger, alien, and sojourner furnish useful metaphors for interpreting the biblical and theological heritage of our church and God’s actions in human history. In the biblical tradition the alien is under the special protection of God. The alien is among those who receive the special protection because they do not have land. This means that the alien is to be dealt with in the same manner as the native. This is true of religious rights and of civil rights. Furthermore, that which is set aside for the alien, the widow, and the orphan (such as the gleanings of the crops) is not an act of charity but an obligation on the part of Israel, who, in truth, is an alien in God’s land.

The situation of the alien is described in the Old Testament in Genesis 15:13; in God’s promise to Abram. Here we see immigration from Canaan to Egypt because of hunger. Moses’s story is a political kind of immigration. Moses was an alien in the land of Midian. That is the reason he called his son Gershom because “I have been an alien in a foreign land” (Exodus 2:22 RSV). And after the account of Moses leading the Israelites from Egypt, there is the command again and again to be good to the alien, sojourner, immigrant, or refugee in your midst, “for remember that we were sojourners, aliens in the land of Egypt.” (See Exodus 22:21; Leviticus 19:13-34; Deuteronomy 10:11; 1:16; 24:14; 24:17; 27:19.)

In the New Testament the protection for the immigrant-refugee is very real, especially in the book of Hebrews. A great cloud of witnesses is offered as the image and shape of the pilgrim community of God – strangers, sojourners and exiles always on the move (Hebrews II). The epistle concludes on a note familiar to the Gospels. The lasting city is to be found where Jesus suffered, died and redeemed the world (Hebrews 13:7-16). It is Hebrews also which provides the best text of hospitality: “Continue to love each other like brothers and sisters, and remember always to welcome strangers. For by so doing, some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2). In the parable of the Good Samaritan we are told to love our neighbor as we love ourselves and, by extension, to care for others in every way. God’s actions culminate when all of God’s people are “reconciled one to another, no longer strangers and sojourners, but fellow citizens with the saints and workers of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19).

The primary truth of faith as we consider immigrants and refugees today is that Christ has made another appearance among us, as Himself an immigrant and refugee in the person of  political dissidents, the economically deprived, and foreigners on the run. We are to join them as pilgrims in search of that city yet to come, with foundations of love and justice whose architect and builder is God.

Public Policy Concern

In formulating an immigration policy, the American people are confronted with the profound plight of other peoples. Political and economic realities offer no ready or simple solutions. Proposals for immigration law reform pose fundamental conflicts between the ideal and the practical.  Nonetheless, out of obedience to our heritage and the Gospel mandate, the Church of the Brethren affirms legislation and public policies which welcome and promote the welfare of immigrants and refugees.

Therefore, we call upon the United States government:

  • To encourage and support non-violent movements for human rights in all nations, thus reducing the pressure on persons to migrate.
  • To lead in promoting the economic well-being of other nations, the protection of human rights, and the peaceful settlement of disputes. We are grateful for past achievements in these fields, hope for further success, and state our conviction that the sacrifice of some of our own wealth and prestige is a worthwhile investment to achieve these ends.
  • To promote international understanding through a policy of freedom of travel, freedom of press, and freedom of residency. We hope that through understanding the people of the world as real persons, we become strongly committed to the peace which God commands.
  • To support and harbor refugees from war, oppression, famine, and natural disasters. We favor federal government support and coordination of resettlement programs and cooperation with voluntary agencies to assure orderly, successful resettlement.  We also favor generous temporary care for refugees who, upon fleeing their homeland, find their first asylum in the United States. We welcome refugees on their own merits without regard to the politics of the government from which they are fleeing.  We take into account the right of free choice of those being resettled.
  • To reorganize the Immigration and Naturalization Service to efficiently process immigrants’ claims for status by standards of fair procedure, to adequately fund the agency to assure its proper operation, and to seek staff who will be sensitive to cultural differences of immigrants in special situations of need. There should be procedures for waiver of requirements where that would provide a more just solution.
  • To make provisions for admissions beyond the annual ceiling and to review the numerical limits periodically, taking into account economic, social, political, ecological, agricultural and demographic national and global conditions.
  • To bring about a general amnesty for those people who once entered the United States as “undocumented aliens” but have settled peacefully among their neighbors. These persons should be given legal status as quickly and simply as possible to assure that they will not be further exploited.
  • For a more careful enforcement of immigrant law, particularly against those who seek to benefit from exploitation of “undocumented aliens.” We oppose any enforcement method likely to increase discrimination against undocumented people because of ethnic or racial characteristics, such as identification cards or other documents as a prerequisite to employment. We express hope that obedience to the law can be secure without unnecessary losses of freedom from government supervision. We believe that government policies, such as we have outlined, will help to secure justice for citizens and immigrants to the United States.
  • To make itself an example of freedom, justice and compassion. In seeking to achieve these goals the governments should accord immigrants and refugees proper legislation to assure full and equal protection of their human rights, such as labor rights of collective bargaining, occupational safety and health, wage and pension protection. We oppose the use of immigration policy to discriminate against others for political, religious, racial or social reasons.  We believe that the United States should have a commitment to work for the establishment of just and equitable relationships among all nations which would contribute to the well-being of all peoples and hence to the elimination of one of the possible causes of involuntary immigration.

Response of Church of the Brethren Members

We recognize that God’s call goes beyond mere justice secured by the government, and our traditional role as a Church of the Brethren has been to promote a neighborly spirit in the community both individually and through our congregations.

We need to affirm that everything belongs to God and that we are part of an immigrant people who are looking for better land. Our brother and sister immigrants are reminders of who we are and whom we serve. The refugees and immigrants bring needs with them but they also bring considerable skills, rich cultures, and great spirits which can enrich us all. We look forward to a time when all people will be free to move from one nation to another and to choose their homeland without restriction. If that seems impossible to us now, it is only because sinful greed and fear still divide the nations East and West North and South, poor and rich, crowded and spacious.

We believe that responsiveness to the needs of immigrants and refugees embraces both our personal and corporate lives.

Therefore, we call on members of the Church of the Brethren:

  • To consider our biblical responsibility and confront our sinful greed and fear.
  • To witness and work in public policy and to service ministries of the church, and in their personal lives, for the welfare of God’s people on the move.
  • To continue its historical role as a leader in resettlement of refugees and immigrants and to continue to assist in temporary care of refugees.
  • To continue to raise our consciousness and that of society regarding the needs of immigrants and refugees.
  • To build international and intercultural understanding through learning with and about immigrants and refugees and their homelands; to encourage newspapers, television and other media to promote understanding between communities and new arrivals; to practice ourselves and encourage others to practice a policy of creating economic opportunities for immigrants and refugees; to be peacemakers wherever tensions are present between groups threatened by violence.

The biblical tradition regarding the alien guides our response as Church of the Brethren people when we deal with the aliens in our land. We believe that we can continue to act according to our expressions of faith and mutuality with other faith traditions, and be willing to share our expressions and experiences of the Christian faith without self-righteousness We live with the hope that we will some day have a community of justice, peace and love.

This hope gives us the courage to be faithful to the One who calls us to live out that hope through love for our neighbors and our enemies. We pray for God’s help as we seek to do justice, to love tenderly, and to walk humbly with God among peoples of all nations.

Action of the General Board July 1982: The General Board adopted the Statement and recommended that it be passed to the 1982 Annual Conference through Standing Committee.

Curtis W. Dubble, Chair
Robert W. Neff, General Secretary

Action of 1982 Annual Conference: René A. Calderon, Hispanic Ministries representative, and Ralph Watkins, Washington office legislative associate, introduced the paper from the General Board. Carol Spangler, Standing Committee delegate from Mid-Atlantic, presented the recommendation from Standing Committee that the paper be adopted. The paper, A STATEMENT ADDRESSING THE CONCERN OF UNDOCUMENTED PERSONS AND REFUGEES IN THE UNITED STATES, was adopted.

*This Statement is a response to a concern addressed to the General Board by the San Diego Church of’ the Brethren, dated June 1, 1980.


ALIEN: A person who is not a citizen of the United States.

AMNESTY: Granting of permission to reside in the United States to people who once entered illegally or overstayed a temporary visa. Also called “LEGALIZATION.”

ASYLEE: An individual person who has been granted ASYLUM.

ASYLUM: The granting of permission to reside in the U.S. to a person fleeing persecution in another country. Under current U.S. law, to receive asylum a person must be entitled to REFUGEE status.

FIRST ASYLUM: The country where refugees first arrive after escaping countries where they were persecuted. They may then be resettled in other countries or in that country.

IMMIGRANT: Under U.S. law, one who has been granted permission to enter and establish residence in the U.S. Only those who fit one of the PREFERENCES, or are exempted from requiring a quota number, may become immigrants. Generally, immigrants are those who leave their home country voluntarily, as opposed to REFUGEES who are forced to leave their home land.

PERMANENT RESIDENT ALIEN: A person who has been granted permission to live in the U.S., but who is not yet a citizen.

REFUGEE: Under U.S. law, a person who has a well-founded fear of persecution in their country of nationality on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. Under the Refugee Act of 1980, persons whose asylum claim is approved can, after a year, apply for residence.

UNDOCUMENTED PERSON: Any person who entered the U.S. without government Permission (an undocumented person), or having received permission to enter temporarily, stayed longer than permitted. Since documents are required to prove status, this may include those who are legally entitled to residence, but have lost their papers.