Last month, an encounter between Michelle Obama and a Latina child in a suburban Maryland school brought into sharp relief one of the most pressing issues surrounding U.S. immigration policy: the effect that the current broken system is having–and has had for a long time–on the young children of immigrants.

The second-grade girl seemed to want confirmation–or perhaps it was refutation–of something she’d heard her mother say: “Barack Obama is taking everybody away that doesn’t have papers.” In typical miss-the-main-point fashion, the media focused more on the First Lady’s response (she handled the awkward situation admirably) than on the heartbreaking reality exposed by this little girl’s question.

For several months I helped teach Sunday School and provide child care in a small Latino congregation in North Carolina. For the most part, the kids were like all kids everywhere–energetic, mischievous, manipulative, full of joy. But once in awhile–too often, as I think about it–one of the children would reveal something of the fear that they and their families regularly experienced. They would almost always do this in a casual, disinterested sort of way–perhaps as a defense mechanism or maybe because they’d been trained to be stoic in the face of difficulty.

Most of what these kids revealed about their stressed-out lives was that their parents lived in fear of the police. Once, an ICE agent came to the church office (where I worked and where the Latino congregation met on Sunday evenings) looking for information about the Latino pastor. The fear these families lived in was not unfounded; it was a daily burden, and one that their children were learning to bear with them. (It turns out that these kids were unlike most of their Anglo peers in an important way: they were not carefree).

Arizona politicians, feeling emboldened by the positive public response to their recent actions on immigration crackdown, will soon introduce legislation that would deny birth certificates to children born in the state. The bill’s sponsor, Russell Pearce, is not concerned about violating the Constitution (which grants citizenship to anyone born in the U.S.) because the greater issue, according to Pearce, is that the 14th amemdment has been “hijacked” by illegal immigrants. “They use it as a wedge,” Pearce says in a recent Time magazine article. “This is an orchestrated effort by them to come here and have children to gain access to the great welfare state we’ve created.”

Facts don’t seem to matter much in the current public debate about immigration so Pearce’s inflammatory rhetoric will do its intended work–he will convince a lot of people to sign on to his “anchor baby” bill, “making the citizenship process so difficult that illegal immigrants [will] pull up anchor and leave.”

Never mind that undocumented immigrants are not eligible for public aid programs like welfare, food stamps, public housing, or Medicaid. Never mind that the majority of undocumented workers have Social Security, Medicare, and income taxes deducted from their payroll (even though they are ineligible for any Social Security or Medicare benefits and for almost all of the federal and state government benefits funded by income taxes).

It seems that fear is all over this issue: immigrants living in fear; Americans living in fear. Some of the fear is justified, most of it isn’t.

But for Christians who care about this issue and the people affected by it, the way of Jesus offers a way out of the fear. “Perfect love casts out all phobos” (1 John 4:18). Jesus, who as an immigrant child fled with his family from the authorities, calms our phobias about strangers by coming to us as one–by being present in those who frighten and unsettle us, in the despised and rejected among us.

The children of immigrants put a human face on this contentious issue but it is not a face that should engender pity or sentimentality. In the gospels, when Jesus takes a little child in his arms and says “whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me,” he is not waxing romantic about the innocence of children. He is saying something about the subversive nature of the kingdom of God: that the first will be last; that the lowly will be lifted up; that the powerless will receive power; that the status quo will be disrupted. 

He is saying that immigrants–children and parents and whole families–are to be loved–not feared. Love casts out fear. This is the way of Jesus, the way of love, and when we dare to walk it, the kingdom of God is near.