In my time as President of World Relief, I have had the privilege of leading our staff as we seek to respond to the needs of marginalized and displaced people around the world and right here at home. While leading the organization has given me a front-row seat to amazing stories of God’s redemptive work, I have also had a front-row seat to some of the tremendous struggles that women, men and children face on a daily basis.
As stories of unaccompanied minors arriving at the U.S. southern border have continued to hit headlines, I’ve struggled to read reports of overcrowded facilities and children sleeping on concrete floors. If you’re like me, seeing the images on the news and reading the accounts of these children has weighed heavily on your heart and mind.
People often ask me how we, as Christians, should respond to stories like these. We want to fix the problem and end the suffering, but, sadly, hard policy problems like asylum and refugee resettlement can’t be solved quickly, no matter how many headlines hint at easy fixes.
For one, the U.S. is particularly unprepared for this influx of people seeking refuge because our immigration system has been essentially dismantled over the last four years, and it will take time to rebuild it. We and our network of faith-based and community organizations are eager to partner with the government to care for vulnerable people, but currently lack the resources and workforce to handle this surge.
Nonetheless, the country is bound by various international treaties and domestic laws to give a hearing to particular categories of migrants, including unaccompanied children and anyone facing a credible fear of persecution. We cannot abandon either these national commitments or our celebrated heritage as a place of opportunity and new beginnings for those seeking refuge.
We need to seek change. A fair and humane solution to immigration policy and asylum issues will take time, patience, funding and focused political attention. Here are four ways we can change our immigration system in a comprehensive and humane way.
1. We must address the root causes driving asylum seekers to come to the U.S. in the first place.
Along with many Americans motivated by personal faith and the best of our national values, we are eager to welcome those who seek refuge in the U.S. But that eagerness is paired with lament; we grieve that anyone would feel they had no choice but to leave their homes and their countries of origin.
The factors that push people to flee countries such as Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala include poverty, high rates of violent crime, environmental degradation and corruption. Finding themselves in grim circumstances, families make what is often a heart-wrenching decision to flee their homes for a better life.
The United States can first address the rise in asylum cases by working with other governments and organizations to make home for refugees a safe place, rather than a dangerous one. This can be done through diplomatic negotiations with governments and financial support for local and international NGOs working to create opportunity and improve safety for families. By being more proactive in this effort and restoring aid flows that were largely cut off by the U.S. government in 2019, fewer families will feel compelled to make the journey to the southern border.
2. We can increase resources for processing asylum claims as a means of preventing unlawful entry into the country.
Because legal asylum claims often take too long to find a legal hearing, many individuals cross the border illegally in the hopes that they will be apprehended and then given the hearing to which they are legally entitled. We can bring order to the border simply by investing in the right kinds of resources. If we can fairly and efficiently handle the rising volume of asylum claims, we can divert asylum seekers away from dangerous border crossings and to lawful ports of entry.
3. We can increase orderly, legal migration options accessible closer to home.
Most people who make a dangerous journey to the border do so because that’s the only way to lawfully request asylum. But if there was an option to request protections closer to home, either at a nearby U.S. consulate or in a neighboring country, most people would much prefer to reach safety in the U.S. via an airplane flight after being processed and vetted overseas. In fact, that’s basically the model of the U.S. refugee resettlement program, which has been functioning well for decades.
4. We need bipartisan action by Republicans and Democrats in Congress.
While expanding refugee resettlement could be done by executive action, many other changes to the legal immigration system — such as facilitating legal immigration options for those fleeing poverty and seeking to fill needs in the U.S. labor market — would require congressional action. Those changes could be paired with a host of other reforms to our immigration laws. Immigration reform, however, will require bipartisan cooperation between the new administration and both political parties. Securing bipartisan cooperation now can ensure we move beyond quick fixes and make lasting changes for years to come.
We need to invest in better immigration policies that can spur economic growth, protect our national security and offer comfort to the vulnerable. But change will not happen overnight. Our short-term efforts to alleviate suffering should not come at the expense of the broader reforms needed for an effective—and more humane—immigration policy.
I encourage you to educate yourself about some of the pressing issues surrounding immigration policies, lean into hard conversations and risk feeling uncomfortable. Together, we can raise our voices in support of those whose voices are often ignored, marginalized or overlooked. We can be advocates for those fleeing violence, poverty and oppression and respond to their cries for help — just as our heavenly Father listens and responds to us.
Scott Arbeiter retired from World Relief in 2021 as president after serving the organization in various roles for more than two decades and is a former pastor of Elmbrook Church in Brookfield, Wisconsin.