Immigration is a complex subject. There are no biblical passages laying out the details of a just immigration policy for the United States today. A modern nation like ours is not analogous to ancient Israel, nor are biblical figures easily comparable to contemporary illegal immigrants.
(Editor’s Note: This article first appear at the IRD website in May, 2010, but with the renewed interest in how to deal with immigration we thought it was worth a second look.)
Devising an immigration policy is an exercise in trying to strike a prudent balance among competing values, all of which place legitimate moral claims upon us. Such values include: kindness toward the stranger, concern for the poor at home and abroad, upholding the rule of law, providing asylum for the persecuted, sustaining the culture that makes democracy possible, keeping families together when possible, securing the borders against external threats, and environmental and fiscal responsibility. It is not possible to admit everyone who might wish to reside in the United States; hard choices must be made. Even the most carefully conceived immigration policy may have unintended effects.
The church has no particular expertise in many of these questions. How carefully have bishops studied the impact of large-scale immigration on the wages of unskilled labor? How many pastors can explain the technical capabilities and limitations of various border security measures? Church members are deeply divided on the volatile immigration issue. Church leaders would be well advised to show caution and modesty. They ought to beware anyone who offers easy answers. There are no easy answers on immigration.
Here are some of the considerations that thoughtful U.S. Christians should bear in mind:
- The oft-quoted command in Leviticus 19:33-34 that “you shall not oppress the alien” should shape our attitude toward citizens of other countries. But the passage does not say how many aliens should be admitted to the United States today. It does not indicate whether 1 million “green cards” granted every year is too few, too many, or just the right number. Compassion for the foreigner does not necessarily mean opening our borders and admitting all comers.
- The “sojourners” in ancient Israel were not illegal immigrants. They were temporary residents who agreed to comply with Israel’s laws and respect its customs. In most cases, they had no opportunity to become Israelites. They could expect to receive basic justice, but not the full privileges of an Israelite.
- Mary and Joseph were not illegal immigrants when they fled to Egypt to protect the baby Jesus. They were refugees seeking asylum from political persecution—a right that is recognized under today’s international law. There is no evidence that they broke any Egyptian laws.
- Alongside the biblical teachings about hospitality to strangers also stand the teachings about the importance of the rule of law. Passages such as Romans 13:1-7 and I Peter 2:13-17 stress a duty of conscience to obey properly constituted human authorities, when their demands do not violate conscience. Such authorities are established by God to protect law-abiding citizens against enemies, foreign and domestic, who would upset the lawful order.
- U.S. authorities are well within their proper powers when they attempt to regulate the flow of immigration into this country. A basic attribute of any sovereign state is the ability to control its borders, to determine who may enter the country and who may not. Any state that loses control of its borders will not be able to fulfill its basic God-given responsibility to protect its citizens.
- It is important to distinguish the callings of church and state. The church is called by God to welcome all with the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ. It does not make distinctions according to nationality or immigration status; it serves all. But the state is called by God to enforce justice. It properly makes distinctions between those who obey and those who break the laws.
- The state properly places first the welfare of its own citizens for whom it is responsible. It admits immigrants that it believes will advance the well-being of the nation. It does not have to admit immigrants that it believes will detract from national well-being.
- There is no place for racism in the immigration debate. Persons should not be admitted to the United States, or excluded from the United States, based on their ethnicity. Our nation is not defined by the racial identity of its inhabitants. It is defined instead by a democratic experiment that we all agree to undertake together. America seeks immigrants of all nations who are ready, willing, and able to take part in that experiment. We do not wish immigrants who lack that demonstrated commitment. It is not racist to favor some limits on the number and kinds of immigrants who enter this country.
- It is crucial to distinguish between different types of immigrants. Refugees fleeing war or persecution have a priority claim to asylum in the United States (or elsewhere). We also give preference in allowing spouses to live together, as also parents and children, in view of the moral and social importance of those relationships. The priority of other family relationships, such as adult brothers and sisters or aunts/uncles/nieces/nephews, is lower. There is no right to an indefinite “chain migration” by which entire extended families come into the country one by one.
- Likewise, migration to better one’s financial and social standing is not a priority or a right. If it were, the vast majority of the Earth’s population could claim a U.S. visa in order to enjoy the higher wage scales here. But in many cases, these individuals and their countries of origin would be better served if they were able to apply their skills to bringing economic development to their homelands. Unlimited immigration into the United States is not the solution to global poverty.
- Weighing the costs and benefits of immigration is a complicated calculation. Immigrants do often bring valuable skills that contribute to the U.S. economy. Their cultures can enrich our national life. At the same time, there is no question that large-scale immigration imposes burdens as well. State and local governments have to bear new expenses for education, social services, health care, law enforcement, and so forth. The environment is taxed by the demands of the additional population. Low-skill American workers find their wages depressed to some extent—economists differ as to the exact extent—because of competition from immigrant labor.
- Almost everyone agrees that the current U.S. situation with regard to illegal immigration is not desirable. U.S. immigration law is widely flouted. As a result, there are perhaps ten million people living on the margins of the law. These illegal immigrants are more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation of various sorts. Because they are not U.S. citizens or on a path to U.S. citizenship, they may have little commitment to this country, its laws, or its customs.
- It seems wise and just to aim at reducing the number of such persons here illegally. The options for doing so are three: Either they must be deported, or they must be persuaded voluntarily to return to their countries of origin, or they must be given a way to become legal U.S. residents or citizens. It is unlikely that any of these three options will be effective by itself. How to balance the three is the dilemma facing policymakers
- There are cases in which a state may decide to show mercy to those who have broken its laws. It may conclude that strict enforcement of the law—e.g., trying to deport all illegal immigrants—would be impossible or counter-productive. (A significant number of illegal immigrants have voluntarily returned to their countries of origin when they have sensed the threat of deportation rising and the prospects for U.S. employment diminishing.)
- At the same time, we must also weigh the possible unintended consequences of granting amnesty to immigration law violators. Chief among these dangers is what is called “moral hazard.” Whenever one subsidizes or rewards persons engaging in a destructive behavior—perhaps with the noble intention of relieving suffering caused by that behavior—one will likely see more of that destructive behavior and the consequent suffering.
Applied to immigration, the “moral hazard” is: If we grant coveted U.S. residency status to those who entered the country illegally or overstayed their temporary visas, we will likely see more persons engaging in those kinds of lawbreaking. Persons who might otherwise have waited long years overseas to obtain a visa through the proper channels will learn an unintended lesson: It is easier to sneak across the border and get a fast track to permanent U.S. residency.
We have already seen this “moral hazard” demonstrated with the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. Its amnesty for most who had been in the country illegally led to a spike in new illegal entries. The problem of illegal immigration was not solved; it was amplified.
- For this and other reasons, attitudes about immigration are divided—and even somewhat contradictory—in the church as well as in the general U.S. population. A detailed 2006 poll by the Pew Forum showed from 48 percent (white non-Hispanic Catholics) to 63 percent (white evangelicals) of church members agreeing that “the growing number of newcomers from other countries threatens traditional American customs and values.” From 52 percent (white mainline Protestants) to 64 percent (white evangelicals) agreed that “immigrants today are a burden because they take our jobs, housing and health care.” From 12 to 14 percent wanted to see legal immigration increase, while 42 to 49 percent wanted to see it decrease. Giving illegal immigrants the opportunity to gain legal status was favored by bare majorities ranging from 54 percent (white evangelicals) to 58 percent (white mainline Protestants).
Citing these poll results proves nothing about whether church members are right or wrong in their opinions. But together with all the uncertainties of biblical interpretation and social/economic analysis regarding immigration, these results suggest that wise church leaders ought to be cautious and modest in addressing this difficult and sensitive issue
Alan Wisdom is a freelance writer exploring issues of Christian witness in U.S. and global society. Wisdom is an elder at Georgetown Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C.—the congregation in which he was baptized and grew up. This article was written when he was on the staff of the Institute of Religion and Democracy and appeared on its website; it is used with permission.
[Editor’s note: the original URL (link) referenced in this article is no longer valid, so the link has been removed.]