Immigration reform changed my life. But there are still 11 million immigrants in the shadows.

  • Amado Lobatos

    Amado Lobatos

By Amado Lobatos
Guest columnist
Posted3/10/2021 12:04 PM

Within hours of inauguration, President Biden proposed a sweeping set of reforms to U.S. immigration laws, including a plan to allow immigrants in the country unlawfully to eventually earn U.S. citizenship. As a former undocumented immigrant -- now a naturalized citizen and an evangelical pastor -- I'm grateful for this gracious first step. But it will take more than a presidential proposal; we need bipartisan congressional leadership to negotiate a deal that can actually reach the president's desk.

I was brought to the United States illegally in 1976 as a child. I grew up in a small farming community in Wyoming, where I learned about hard work and about a God who loved me. I was soon preaching my first sermons -- to any cow that would listen. By the time I was nearing adulthood, I sensed a call to ministry, and I was told the best place to matriculate would be Moody Bible Institute in Chicago.


My acceptance letter from Moody, though, included an ominous note: I'd failed to provide my Social Security Number on my application -- which, of course, I did not have.

Unbeknownst to me, some farmers in my community had been talking to their Republican senator, Alan Simpson, about the situation of undocumented farmworkers and other immigrants. Sen. Simpson introduced an immigration reform bill that passed through Congress and was signed by President Reagan in 1986. I, and millions of others, were able to legalize our status. I received my Social Security number just in time to attend Moody, and in the decades since graduation, I've pastored in multiple churches in the Chicagoland area.

Having now pastored many young "Dreamers," I pray that they will have the same opportunity to earn citizenship, particularly given pending legal challenges to the Deferred Action to Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that could soon put them in the precarious position of losing work authorization or even facing deportation. I'm praying Congress will take action quickly to pass some version of the DREAM Act. Given majority support from Republican and Democratic voters alike, it ought to be politically possible, and I'm encouraged by the recent bipartisan reintroduction of the bill by Democratic Senator Dick Durbin and Republican Senator Lindsey Graham.

I'd also like Congress to create some sort of a legalization process for undocumented immigrants who did not arrive as children, but made a choice (often under the duress of extreme poverty or even threats of violence) to come unlawfully to this country. But whereas it does not make sense to hold young people accountable for violating an immigration law as a small child, I think it would be appropriate for there to be some sort of a penalty for those who came as adults, as a precondition to their legalization.

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As a pastor, I believe in the idea of grace. But while as a Christian I am called to forgive others just as God has forgiven me, the state has a distinct, God-ordained role that includes maintaining law and order, which is why many evangelicals oppose amnesty, simply dismissing a violation of law without penalty.

This does not mean an inhuman and economically disastrous mass deportation plan. Instead, except in the rare cases when an immigrant has committed serious criminal offenses, a monetary fine is an appropriate penalty for violating an immigration law. Thousands of evangelical pastors, denominational leaders and other leaders have affirmed such a restitution-based approach.

Beyond the ethical considerations, such an approach is also pragmatic. Any bill that is to pass the U.S. Senate will need at least 10 Republican votes in favor, and the Republican Party of today is not the same party as it was when Sen. Simpson and President Reagan negotiated the reforms that benefited me. Any policy that can reasonably be characterized as "amnesty" -- a charge already being hurled at President Biden's proposal -- has almost no chance of passing.

But a package that includes improvements to border security, reforms to our archaic visa system and an earned legalization process requiring the payment of a significant fine as restitution not only could pass, it already has: in 2013, led in significant part by Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin. Sen. Durbin has demonstrated a willingness to negotiate bipartisan deals, accepting some concessions to forge consensus. I'm praying he will do so again, that a similar bill will once again pass the U.S. Senate, that the House of Representatives (which declined to consider the bipartisan 2013 Senate bill, but which is now under different leadership) will quickly pass the bill as well, and that President Biden will sign it into law.

Were it not for some Christian farmers who spoke up for people like me 35 years ago, my life would be unimaginably different. I'm praying another generation of hardworking immigrants will have the same chance to offer their best to this country.

• Amado Lobatos is a pastor at the Christian Church of Clarendon Hills.

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