Debate about the immigration-reform bill pending in Congress inevitably focuses on the estimated 11 million people living in the United States illegally, and the countless millions more sure to follow unless something changes – numbers so huge they defy both comprehension and easy answers.
But the Rev. Yohannes Mengsteab wants Americans and the politicians who represent them to remember the troubled pasts and the future potential of the individual human beings too often obscured by the cold statistics.
He should know. An ordained Lutheran minister currently serving as director of ministry programs for Fort Wayne's Lutheran Foundation, the husband and father of three is as American as apple pie. But his life – and the lives of those he has touched – surely would have been much different had his support for the Eritrean Liberation Front, which sought independence from Ethiopia, not forced him to flee from his his native country in northeast Africa into Sudan before coming to the United States in 1983 with the help of Hebrew Immigration Services.
And so the 56-year-old Mengsteab cringes when the humanity of immigrants and refugees, as he was before becoming a U.S. citizen in 1988, is diminished in favor of economics, culture, politics or even national security. In fact, he insists, those and other legitimate concerns will be addressed precisely by passing comprehensive immigration reform some critics have condemned as “amnesty.”
Mengsteab has lobbied for passage of the bill in Washington D.C., previously and expects to return for World Refugee Day on June 20 in conjunction with Lutheran Immigration and Reform Service.
"Like refugees around the world, (Mengsteab) left his home and everything he knew behind. In the face of this hardship, he ran with the opportunity of a new start and has become an exemplary leader and role model," said Folabi Olagbaju, national grassroots director for LIRS and one of the organizers of our World Refugee Day
Others can do the same if given the chance, Mengsteab said.
“We can't leave the (immigration) doors wide open, but when you have 11 million people in hiding, they are vulnerable to exploitation and human trafficking, even in Fort Wayne Every refugee was an 'illegal immigrant' somewhere else (before coming here). If there is no bill passed, it will be tragic for this country. Those people aren't going anywhere.
“From a Christian point of view, Scripture says we should welcome strangers . . . ”
Much of the current political debate is between those who favor some sort of path to citizenship for those here illegally and those who insist the borders must be secured as part of any deal. In theory, at least, the bill does both, establishing border-security goals that must be met before illegal immigrants can win a change in status.
Some conservatives doubt that will happen, but Mengsteab says border security has already been beefed up, with more people currently being deported than are entering. “The bill is not a reward for breaking the law. They should go to the back of the (citizenship) line. If they have to pay a penalty, that's OK.”
As an immigrant himself, Mengsteab rejects the notion that newcomers are seeking not just opportunity, but welfare. “It's a myth these people are a drain (on the budget). They are an economic engine of our country.” And, he notes, they need to come out of the shadows and pay taxes to help keep Social Security and other economically challenged social programs afloat.
And the lifelong Lutheran on the job with the Lutheran Foundation since 2011, also takes a missionary's view: It's not always possible to share the Gospel with people whose countries are gripped in warfare and chaos. “But we can do it here,” he said.
It's impossible to argue with Mengsteab's compassion and zeal. But that's also the problem with making decisions that affect an entire country on the basis of how the resulting policy might affect even a single individual. Give me your tired and poor – all of them, all the time? Not even he suggests that. Just this week, the Supreme Court threw out an Arizona law requiring voters to show proof of citizenship.
“When did we vote to become Mexico?” syndicated columnist Ann Coulter asked recently. It was a good question, given the bilingual signs that seem to be cropping up everywhere – an indication that immigration is outpacing the nation's ability to assimilate its newcomers. (Although Mengsteab believes that will be as temporary as German signs were in Fort Wayne)
So Mengsteab is right: America has a duty to deal compassionately with the people already here. But those who have entered illegally should benefit from that now only if the country itself will also be the stronger for it – and if the mechanisms to control the size and composition of future immigration are firmly in place.
To do otherwise would be to risk transforming the country into the kind of place immigrants and citizens alike will no longer recognize – or want to live in.