By Sharon Mager
COLUMBIA, Md.—The masses are coming. Immigration numbers are soaring. Demographics are changing and the church is struggling. How do we follow the scriptural demands of ministering to immigrants?
Maryland’s foreign born population is 13.9 percent and Delaware’s is 8.4 percent, according to the Census Bureau.
Pat Hatch said 49 percent of children under five years old in the U.S. are minorities, and of those, at least half are the children of immigrants.
“In some parts of this area the numbers are much higher. Most are Hispanic and Asian,” Hatch said. In Langley Park, near the Capital Beltway, 77 percent of the population is Hispanic.
According to a Pew Hispanic Center analysis of 2010 Census data, there were 40.2 million foreign-born people in the United States in 2010. Out of that amount, 28 percent were legal permanent residents (green card holders), 28 percent were unauthorized migrants; 33 percent were naturalized citizens, four percent were temporary legal residents and seven percent were refugees – persons admitted to the U.S. on a humanitarian basis because they were determined to have fled their homelands due to a well-founded fear of persecution based on their religion, ethnicity or political opinion.
Though the masses often arrive poor, tired and hungry, out of the above numbers, the only non-citizens eligible to receive transitional government assistance are the seven percent who entered as refugees, and that assistance is for just six to eight months. Hatch said many refugees don’t even receive the benefits they’re entitled to because of language barriers and misunderstanding of their status on the part of the eligibility caseworkers at local departments of social services.
So millions of immigrants, Hatch says, “fall between the cracks.” They are struggling to get by and trying to get work. Language barriers are huge. They’re often alone and crave friendship.
Hatch said most people can’t identify with the family separation issues immigrants face. A man may come to the United States, sponsored by his U.S. citizen sister. He plans to get a job, get a decent place to live and send for his family. He doesn’t realize that the backlog for bringing a spouse and family back can be 10 years.
“Emergencies happen. You’d go crazy trying to go back and forth. Families are desperate to be reunited in the U.S.,” Hatch said. And often they can’t even visit.
Families used to be able to get visitors’ visas. That is no longer possible. If someone is the beneficiary of an approved visa petition and caught in the enormous backlog of those waiting for their permanent resident visas, they are no longer allowed a visitors’ visa, Hatch said. So families are separated for years.
Hatch said immigrant professionals face formidable barriers to resuming practicing their professions in the U.S. For instance, doctors may be required to repeat years of residency requirements and therefore, practically speaking, may never again practice their professions. They struggle to get the very basics–food and shelter.
Churches that reach out to immigrants have an unprecedented opportunity for growth and even revival. Many immigrants bring a vibrant Christian faith with them, revitalizing churches.
Immigrant congregations are growing faster than any other category of evangelical churches, according to research by Todd Johnson at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.
Lance Conklin, Esq., Director, Immigrant Legal Services Technical Unit for World Relief, Baltimore, says, “God has special concern for immigrants. ‘The Lord watches over the foreigner and sustains the fatherless and the widow, but He frustrates the ways of the wicked,’” Conklin said, quoting Malachi 3:9.
God even includes “foreigners” in the command to care for widows and orphans, he said, referring to Deut.10:18.