Immigration panel at NOBTS: a 'constructive' exchange

NEW ORLEANS (BP) -- Immigration reform is needed, panelists said at an Institute of Faith and the Public Square forum Sept. 25. While differing in focus, they underscored challenges facing the church and the U.S. economy.

Tony Suarez (right) answers a question about border security during the Institute for Faith and the Public Square's Immigration panel discussion at New Orleans Seminary as Noel Castellanos looks on.
Photo by Chandler McCall
The institute (IFPS), a research center at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, hosted the dialogue in conjunction with the University of New Orleans, Southern University of New Orleans and the University of Holy Cross.

While none of the panelists argued for an "open borders" approach, the session focused on Christian attitudes toward immigration as well as issues of compassion, jobs and security.

"In our polarized society, we tend to shout past those with whom we disagree to make points with people who think just like us," IFPS director Lloyd Harsch said in comments for Baptist Press. "It is when we talk with each other that we are able to discover the points we actually have in common and can begin to move forward on an issue, even if it is only baby steps. The Institute for Faith and the Public Square seeks to provide a forum where such constructive discussions can take place on even the most difficult of issues."

IFPS assembled a diverse group of panelists to address the nuances of the immigration problem in America. Noel Castellanos, executive director of the Christian Community Development Association, and Tony Suarez, executive vice president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, serve among Hispanic immigrant communities and addressed the issue from a Christian perspective.

G. Ben Johnson, president of the New Orleans Chamber of Commerce, looked at economic realities in the current immigration discussion, while immigration lawyer Elaine Kimbrell focused on the legal mechanics of immigration and shortage of legal avenues for immigration.

The full video of the event will be available at www.faith-publicsquare.org.

2 signs at the border

Noel Castellanos discusses the human side of immigration during Institute for Faith and the Public Square’s Immigration panel discussion at New Orleans Seminary. Ben Johnson of the New Orleans Chamber of Commerce and immigration lawyer Elaine Kimbrell are in the background.
Photo by Chandler McCall
Tony Suarez, who serves on President Donald Trump's evangelical advisory board, spoke about the "American dream" that draws immigrants to the U.S. They do not want to invade, he said; rather, they want to partake in a nation that has historically welcomed immigrants and provided an opportunity to better their lives.

Suarez compared the current dilemma for immigrants to two metaphorical signs at the border.

While one of the signs says, "Do not enter," Suarez said there is "a bigger one that has Las Vegas lights and arrows that says, 'Help wanted, inquire within.'"

Suarez said he finds more fault with American business owners who entice illegal immigrants with jobs than those who accept those jobs. The current illegal immigration problem stretches back 30 years, he said. Rather than blaming presidents Obama or Trump, Suarez laid the blame for the current impasse on immigration at the feet of Congress.

"It is those who work on Capitol Hill that are the only ones that can bring a realistic solution to this issue," Suarez said. "Yet they are given a pass time and time again."

In calling on Americans to demand meaningful and lasting immigration reform, Suarez appealed both to the humanity of the immigrants and the pro-life stance of the church as reasons to get involved.

"We can't wait another four years," he said. "It is wrong to allow [immigrants] to be political pawns. It is wrong on both sides of the aisle for them to play politics with human lives."

If Americans continue to speak out passionately for reform, Suarez believes Congress can act and legislation can be signed into law under the current administration.

Personal experience

Noel Castellanos put a human face on the immigration issue by telling his own story as a Mexican-American and the story of a Guatemalan family he met on a recent flight.

Castellanos was born in Texas, just three miles from the Mexico border. His great-grandparents emigrated from northern Mexico many years earlier.

"By nature of that very little piece of real estate [three miles] my whole life was different," Castellanos said. "I often ask myself, 'Why was I born on this side?' If I just had been born a little bit south, my life would be totally different. I don't believe I merit any more blessing."

During a recent flight, Castellanos encountered a Guatemalan mother with three small children and learned that the family was traveling to Minneapolis for a court date. The government sent the family to Minneapolis for the court appearance because they had relatives there.

The family had been detained at the U.S. border in Texas. Thankfully, Castellanos said, they were not separated because they arrived after the separation policy came under so much scrutiny. Castellanos waited in the airport in Chicago (where he lives) until it was time for the family to catch their connecting flight to Minneapolis, simply treating these strangers with love and dignity.

"If Jesus saw this, would He welcome them, would He come alongside them, would He start the conversation by talking about Romans 13 and lawfulness?" Castellanos asked.

Although "these are the people we are afraid of," Castellanos closed by challenging the audience to have a Christ-centered, loving and welcoming approach to immigrants.

Jobs & woiuld-be immigrants

In his role at the Chamber of Commerce, Johnson had opened the panel discussion by noting the many benefits immigration brings to the U.S. economy. He addressed what he described as myths that immigrants take jobs away from citizens or drive down wages and that immigrants commit crimes at a higher rate than citizens. Fact-based research tells a different story, Johnson said.

"Immigrants significantly benefit the U.S. economy by creating new jobs, complementing the skills of the U.S. native-born workforce, with a net positive impact on wage rates overall," Johnson said. "Immigrants typically do not compete for jobs with native-born workers and immigrants create jobs as entrepreneurs, consumers and taxpayers."

Thousands of high-skill job openings go unfilled each year because a qualified, native-born citizen cannot be located, Johnson said. The jobs are in the high-tech sector, medicine and engineering. At the same time, Johnson noted that the same trend is happening in non-skilled or low-skilled positions. Many of these jobs go unfilled because American workers find the work undesirable. With 10,000 Baby Boomers retiring each day, Johnson sees troubling days ahead unless reform comes to U.S. immigration law.

Johnson's research uncovered an unexpected correlation between immigration and wage growth. Wages trend slightly up and innovation and entrepreneurship flourish with an influx of immigrants.

Kimbrell, drawing from her work as an immigration attorney, discussed the different "pathways" for individuals to come to the U.S. legally. Only a limited number of slots are available in each category, she said, making it difficult for would-be immigrants. In many cases, she said, the wait for legal residency can be years, if not decades.

Gary D. Myers is director of public relations for New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
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