As Rev. Kate Kooyman said at our February meeting,
"In light of recent executive orders, increasing fear, and marginalization of immigrants, we're going to interrupt our regularly-scheduled program regarding education, to talk about immigration."
Kooyman led us through a workshop that explores what God is calling us to do regarding immigration. The first action was not to delve into Scripture, but into the regulations and bureaucracies that make up our current system. Kooyman noted:
"Scripture has a lot to say about immigration, but we can't have a fruitful conversation unless we know how the current system works."
There are four ways to immigrate to the United States:
This option is available to you if you:
Note that even if you qualify under the final possibility, it can take 6-10 years for the visa to go through and your employer will have to prove that there are no Americans to fill that job and be willing to wait for you. Once you are in the U.S., your visa belongs to your employer, not to you.
There is a temporary two-year visa program for agricultural workers, but only 5,000 of those are available per year. Rev. Kooyman noted that Michigan alone could take all those visas every year. As a result, she said, "Seventy percent of agricultural workers are undocumented because the federal government doesn't raise the numbers."
If you are the spouse, fiance, parent, or child under 21 of a U.S. citizen, you qualify for one of the easiest ways to legally immigrate to the U.S. There is no limit on the number of visas for people in this category, and the process is easy enough to complete on your own (with no legal help): green card first, and eventually citizenship (wait to naturalization is 6-7 years).
A sibling of a U.S. citizen can apply for a visa and a green card, but (depending on marital status) you will have to wait an average of 11-22 years for the green card, and additional 6 years until naturalization.
Adult, unmarried children of a U.S. citizen will only have to wait 6-14 years to receive a visa; married adult children 7-15 years. Once you have a green card, you'll have to wait 6 years until naturalization.
If you are the spouse or minor child of a legal permanent resident you are eligible to apply for a family preference visa, but you'll wait between 5-7 years for it. If you are a married adult child of a legal permanent resident, you are not eligible for this visa; single adult children have a chance, with the wait time depending on your home country (average 9-14 years).
Refugee and Asylum
"A refugee isn't just a desperate immigrant. You have to be fleeing from a specific kind of persecution: religion, ethnicity, race, national origin, political affiliation. So mudslide and hunger don't fit."
Then Kooyman told us about the second question: "Can you prove it?" Which can be much more difficult to answer--the government of your birth country is unlikely to provide proof that your father died in prison on trumped-up charges.
A refugee also doesn't arrive on America's border straight from their country of origin: you have fled your country, gone to a safe place, and landed in a refugee camp where the United Nations screens and proves your claims. If you are one of the lucky 1% who get selected for resettlement in another country, that country screens you again. To come to the U.S., your screening process takes up to two years and involves five federal agencies. Any blips in the process (including bureaucratic delays you have no control over) take you back to the beginning.
An asylum seeker must experience provable persecution in the same categories as a refugee, but has the resources to get to the United States, so they claim that status at the border of the U.S. If you claim asylum, you will access to a good attorney, so you'll need money or a connection to a church who will help you.
This is a lottery-based system that is meant to increase diversity in the U.S., so to come into the country this way, you'd have to come from a country that is underrepresented in the U.S., have at least a high school education or two years of experience in an in-demand field, and access to a computer and a scanner to complete the application process. You'll also need the ability to resist all the scammers who promise to buy you a visa--it is a lottery system, so paying money to a middleman doesn't help your case.
How many of us succeeded?
Rev. Kooyman set out sample visa applications for each of those paths, and then gave each of us an identity; we had to choose which way to try to enter the country, and fill out that visa application. This was my story:
"You are a 13-year-old girl from Honduras. You were spending a month with your grandparents in the mountains when a terrible hurricane hit Honduras. Though you were safe, you could not contact your mother. When you returned home, you heard from neighbors that she had left for the United States in an attempt to receive temporary protected status, and that once there she would send for you and your grandparents. Three months later, you will have not heard from her, and your life feels like it is in ruins. You have decided to leave for the U.S. to find her, knowing only a few clues about where she might have gone."
I tried to claim family preference, because I knew my mother was somewhere in the U.S., but since she was not a legal permanent resident, I was unsuccessful. The actual-me, Natalie Hart, was born in Canada and claimed American citizenship as a minor through her U.S. citizen mother; I easily gained American citizenship, getting my U.S. passport all of two months after application (in the mid 1980s).
The 17-year-old from Nicaragua whose father was undocumented in the U.S. and whose mother in Nicaragua had just died, couldn't come to the U.S. The 24-year-old from North Korea whose father was killed and mother tortured repeatedly, whose is hiding with relatives in China (and has been captured by the police there and sent back to North Korea twice) had a good case for refugee status (if she could prove the torture, etc.), but had to get herself to a refugee camp where she wouldn't have a choice about which country she was resettled to and would have to wait a very long time to see whether she'd be chosen for resettlement. The 23-year-old from Romania with a teaching degree and excellent English with an aunt and uncle who are U.S. citizens didn't succeed. The 47-year-old Palestinian construction worker didn't succeed.
Of our number, one person with high-level skills in an in-demand field with a shortage of experts, who also had lots of money, was successful in getting a visa to come to the United States.
This very frustrating experience was a revelation for many of the pastors in attendance. For others, who were either immigrants themselves or helmed churches with many immigrant congregants, it was an old story. One person there told of being undocumented twice in the process of becoming a permanent resident, just because the bureaucracy was so slow.
Hearing from those who serve immigrants
The March GRAP meeting left attendees heavy hearted. We heard from pastors who serve largely-immigrant congregations and discovered how terrified their people are at having their families torn apart, whether because of deportation, relatives not being allowed back into the country, or bureaucratic delays and increasing inflexibility. A pastor whose church is part of a robust local denomination reported that nobody from any of his governing bodies had reached out to him to see how he or his members were doing. These congregations and pastors are feeling very alone.
"We need to be standing with the vulnerable."
Grand Rapids is nationally known as a place that resettles refugees, but Rev. Kooyman is disturbed by how that has become controversial, even in the church. She reminded us of the scriptural call for us to exhibit hospitality, and love of the other (philoxenia) not fear of the other (xenophobia). She encouraged local pastors to lean into the politics, to talk with their congregations about what they experienced at the February and March meetings, and to admit their own ignorance and determination to learn.
Her hope and her prayer is that "the church can be the church that goes beyond the walls and drops the barriers."
Kooyman is seeking to gather a group of people who are willing to come with her and speak with the Kent County Sheriff Laurence A. Stelma, who is a strong Christian. Since the county sheriff is over the Grand Rapids police department, and since there is "a lot of grey area with collaborating with ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement)," she believes it is important to open up a line of communication between Sheriff Stelma and local pastors. Please contact her if you would like to be part of that group.
If you would like your congregation to experience this powerful and illuminating workshop, please contact Rev. Kate Kooyman at the Christian Reformed Church Office of Social Justice, (616) 224-0807, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kooyman is running a Church Between Borders Immigration Workshop in Grand Rapids on Saturday May 20, 9:30am - 12:00pm, that is open to anyone who wishes to attend. Go here for information and registration.