Rev. Rick Behrens was born in the Central Avenue neighborhood of Kansas City, a few blocks from Grandview Park Presbyterian, the church where he began seminary training in 1982, and where he now serves as pastor. “It’s the only church I’ve served my whole career — I’m a one place kind of guy,” he says. “But in that time I’ve seen the neighborhood change dramatically.” Back in 1990, Behrens says, the neighborhood was struggling with depopulation, unemployment, and underinvestment — but a surge of Hispanic immigration breathed new life into the area, and turned Central Avenue, the boulevard a block north of Behrens’ church, into a bustling commercial strip. “It was a dramatic change — both for our church and the neighborhood, it was just an incredible blessing,” Behrens says. “Without them, we were looking at a slow death.”
In the late 1980s, Behrens says, demographers forecast that Central Avenue’s population would fall by as much as 40 percent over the next two decades, with working families relocating to the suburbs. “They predicted that by 2000, we’d be a ghost town, with nothing but check-cashing shops and lots of boarded up buildings,” Behrens says. But in the mid-1990s, immigrants from Latin America, mostly Mexico, began to arrive in search of jobs and cheap housing; by the year 2000, more than 40 percent of Central Avenue’s residents were Hispanic.
Many of the new arrivals were low-skilled laborers, Behrens says, but many others were entrepreneurs who started businesses of their own. “We went from being a neighborhood full of people who wanted out, to being a vibrant business district,” Behrens says. “It was a miracle — over 10 years, we had nothing short of a complete turnaround.”
The changing face of the Central Avenue neighborhood has meant changes for Behrens’ church: thanks to a bilingual worship service, Latinos now account for about half of the 60 or 70 people who turn up every Sunday morning. Through talking to his congregants, Behrens has also come to see advocating for immigration reform as his Christian duty. Many of the undocumented immigrants who live in the Central Avenue area are suffering and in constant fear of deportation, Behrens says. “They’re afraid to leave their homes,” he says. “It’s a constant concern.”
I’ve experienced what it’s like to have your community revitalized by immigration. I’ve seen it happen on a small scale, and I know it can happen on a larger scale too.
Still, Behrens says, giving undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship wouldn’t just be morally right — it would also be a smart economic move. Many of the immigrants Behrens knows are talented, ambitious people who are being held back by their immigration status and could contribute far more to the local community, and create jobs for their neighbors. “If people were set free from that fear, we’d unleash a really amazing economic engine that could really transform our community,” he says. “Our neighborhood really needs it.”
The key, Behrens says, is to find ways to make America more welcoming to immigrants, and to “fix the status” of people who entered without proper documentation in order to unlock their potential contribution to American society. “We need to find a way to make it easier for people to participate,” he says. “I’ve experienced what it’s like to have your community revitalized by immigration. I’ve seen it happen on a small scale, and I know it can happen on a larger scale too.”