Folding Chair Amnesty

A few weeks ago, in the bulletin at my church, there was an announcement that I felt had been written specifically for me:

Folding Chair Amnesty Week—Have you ever borrowed folding chairs from the church? We need them back!  Please return any folding chairs to the church this week—amnesty is being offered to all.

The truth is there are four or five of my church’s folding chairs under my couch as I speak.  In my defense, these really were borrowed chairs, not stolen. Our church lent them to us sometime around 2009 for a kids’ ministry program that my wife and I and some other folks within our neighborhood run out of our apartment on Sunday evenings.  (Of course, we also use them when we have more friends over for a meal than our kitchen table allows and at various other times).  The pastor at our church—if my memory serves me correctly—who initially gave us permission several years back has since moved on to plant a new church, and so I’m not sure that the church realizes we still have them, and no one ever really told us when we were supposed to return them.  Now, apparently, they need them back.  I’m going to make sure we do that before I post this blog, now that I’m incriminating myself publicly.

Let me tell you what I understand by the “amnesty” being offered: we will bring back the chairs, and there will be no punishment.  We will not be fined.  We will not be refused communion as a punishment or be informed that our church membership will be suspended.  No shame, just grace.  Bygones will be bygones.  Amnesty—from the same etymological root as amnesia—means that our offense will be overlooked and forgotten.  In fact, that’s precisely what amnesty means.

If that’s what you understand amnesty to mean, and you heard on television, on the radio, or online in the past couple of weeks that a bipartisan group of eight Senators had introduced an immigration reform bill that includes “amnesty for illegal immigrants,” you would probably very reasonably conclude that this bill proposes that the U.S. government should forgive and forget that the estimated 11.5 million undocumented immigrants currently in the U.S. had either overstayed a visa or crossed a border unlawfully.

In reality, the bipartisan Senate immigration reform bill—the “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013”—does not offer amnesty to undocumented immigrants: it actually requires accountability.  Here’s what the bill (which you can read for yourself) proposes: one year after the bill is signed into law—once the Secretary of Homeland Security has submitted a complete plan with metrics to verify the security of the southern border—immigrants in the country unlawfully (whether they overstayed a visa, which accounts for at least 40% of the undocumented, or crossed the border illegally) who have been present in the United States since at least 2011, would be eligible to apply for “Registered Provisional Immigrant” status.  To be eligible to apply, they would need to be able to pass a criminal background (establishing that they have not been convicted of a felony or of multiple misdemeanors and that they are not in any other way a threat to public or national security) and they would have to pay an initial fine of $500 (in addition to processing fees) as well as any taxes that the IRS determines they owe.  If granted that Registered Provisional Immigrant status, they would be granted work authorization for a six year period, but they will not be eligible for any means-tested public benefits and the status could be revoked for criminal activity or for various other reasons.  After six years, they would be eligible to renew their Registered Provisional Immigrant status only if they pay an additional $500 fine (plus processing fees), pass another background check (ensuring no criminal activity has been committed since the initial approval), and demonstrate that they (or their spouse or, for minor children, parent) have been regularly employed and that their income is above the poverty level, ensuring they will not become a public charge.

After ten years, if certain “triggers” are met, these Registered Provisional Immigrants could be eligible to apply for Lawful Permanent Resident status.  Before anyone with this status will be granted a “green card,” though, the U.S.-Mexico border must be secure, meeting specific targets contained within the bill.  The Department of Homeland Security must have fully implemented a mandatory “E-Verify” system to ensure that all employers verify the legal status of their workers (and face significant fines if they hire those without legal status).  Everyone currently waiting in the backlogged family-based immigration system for an immigrant visa through a petition from a relative must have been admitted into the U.S. with a green card, ensuring that those who were present unlawfully in the U.S. are not granted permanent legal status prior to those who are “waiting their turn in line” (most of those who are currently undocumented were not eligible to even get in that line, since they did not have a family sponsor, but the bill wants to ensure fairness to those who are currently eligible but waiting).  And, finally, formerly-undocumented immigrants with Registered Provisional Immigrant status will be required to pay an additional $1,000 fine (plus application fees) before being granted Lawful Permanent Resident status.  Three years later—if they can pass a test of U.S. civics and history in English and meet various other existing requirements—those who chose to could apply to become U.S. citizens.  (Two relatively small categories of undocumented immigrants, agricultural workers and those who entered the U.S. before their 16th birthday, who presumably were brought by their parents and not of their own volition, would have expedited processes to legal status and citizenship under the bill).

That’s what some folks are labeling as “amnesty.”  I sure hope they don’t apply that standard to me when I bring the chairs back to my church: I’d probably have to pay a series of hefty fines, be in a “provisional” member status for a decade or more (without the right to vote at church membership meetings, I suppose), and not be allowed to access things like communion, even though I would be expected to tithe consistently.  Though I do not believe it is the right public policy—because I think the government has a divine mandate to maintain order that is distinct from the role of the Church—I think Christians, who believe we are saved by grace through Christ’s death on the cross, who could not possibly earn our salvation, and who may occasionally “borrow” chairs from the church and not return them for years, should be slow to use the word amnesty as an epitaph.

Amnesty is free grace: this bill is not.  The population control groups who explicitly oppose not just unlawful migration but almost all legal migration as well have a strategic reasons to label this bill (and, they made clear in testimony to the U.S. Senate last week, any bill that stops short of deporting everyone present unlawfully) as “amnesty.”  They want to mobilize public opinion to kill this bill, which would include a new, more market-sensitive visa system, just as they did similar bills in 2006 and 2007, and they know that most Americans oppose “amnesty for illegal aliens.”  When they actually know what is in the bill, however the vast majority of Americans, including about three out of four Republicans according to a recent Wall Street Journal poll, are supportive.  Americans (including evangelical Christians) are mostly opposed to amnesty as a public policy, but we are for accountability, which this long-overdue bill provides.  Most of my undocumented friends do not want amnesty either. They want to be able to earn legal status and to be right with the law, which is why most immigrant rights groups as well as immigrant churches are hoping and praying this bill will pass.  In fact, as the bill’s cosponsor, Marco Rubio, has noted, the only real amnesty on the table is the status quo, doing nothing, where immigrants who have violated the law stay in the U.S. without any penalty for their offense and without any process to get right with the law.  And that, if we do not join our immigrant brothers and sisters in speaking up, letting our legislators know where we stand, might be exactly what we get.


Matthew Soerens is the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009) and the US Church Training Specialist at World Relief.  His blogs appear here on Mondays. 

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