Immigration Idealism: A Case for Christian Realism

Immigration idealism: the vague hope that we can live in a world free of conflict and violence, in which authorities need not bear the sword, and neighbors need not build fences.

In the run-up to World War II, men inside and outside the Church invoked the gospel to justify appeasement and pacifism. After his own flirtation with the idea, Reinhold Niebuhr came to believe that pacifism was “unable to distinguish between the peace of capitulation to tyranny and the peace of the Kingdom of God.” In the name of an abstract “law of love,” pacifists abandoned their duties to God and man. They refused to recognize that a fallen world can never be free of conflict. This was bad politics—and bad religion.


For much of my life, I believed in open borders. Aside from violent criminals, I could think of no person who had entered this country illegally or overstayed a visa who deserved to be sent away. But in fact, I had thought little about the matter. I simply meant well, and I knew that all well-meaning people believed in welcoming migrants. Only the uncouth disagreed.

In the summers during college, I worked construction—wiring hog houses, running pipe, digging trench. When another man on the crew complained about “illegals” taking American jobs, I knew that he was a bigot. I tried not to judge him for it, just as I did not judge him for dipping tobacco. But I instinctively felt that these things (like my nonjudgmental stance itself) separated me from him. When my cousin, the only non-Guatemalan on his landscaping crew, began picking up Spanish, I was heartened: His ­experience was being enriched.

At the end of each summer I returned to college, where everyone agreed with me. We stood on one side of a great divide in public opinion, a divide that pits elites against workers, those who benefit from immigration against those who do not. George ­Borjas, professor of economics at Harvard, has argued that increased immigration has immediate financial benefits for elites but provides little or no benefit to the working class. But the divide is cultural as much as economic: In both Europe and America, one side prizes national identity and citizenship; the other, mobility and openness.

A 2016 survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that 67 percent of Republicans think the arrival of large numbers of immigrants and refugees is a critical threat to the U.S. Only 16 percent of Republican leaders think so. A similar, but smaller, divide exists on the Democratic side, where only 4 percent of Democratic leaders view current immigration levels as a critical threat, compared to 27 percent of their public. Nor is the divide limited to any one race. In 2018, the Pew Research Center found that “Latinos with lower levels of education are more likely than those with at least some college education to say too many immigrants are living in the country today.”

Confident that I opposed all forms of ­bigotry, I failed to notice that support for migration is ­characterized in no small part by contempt. Our elites portray working-class Americans as violent, hateful, and incompetent. They revel in their suffering.

In 2016, audience members who had paid a median $1,600 to see the musical Hamilton awarded their heartiest applause to the line, “Immigrants—we get the job done!” The following year, Lin-Manuel Miranda released a song based on that line. It was a statement of immigrants’ superiority to native-born Americans—and a promise to cause them pain: “Y’all ain’t been working like I do,” the lyrics went. “I’ll outwork you, it hurts you.”

Hamilton was celebrated by elites across the political spectrum. This is fitting, for contempt for working-class Americans is a bipartisan affair. In a 2017 column for the New York Times, Bret ­Stephens proposed, “So-called real Americans are screwing up America. Maybe they should leave, so that we can replace them with new and better ones.” In 2017, William Kristol said during a discussion with Charles Murray, “Look, to be totally honest, if things are so bad as you say with the white working class, don’t you want to get new Americans in? . . . I’m serious.” In 2018, Max Boot wrote in the Washington Post that Trump’s supporters were “grumpy old white people who live in rural areas and lack college degrees.” In another column, he said that he wanted to “keep the hard-working Latin American newcomers” and “deport the contemptible Republican cowards” in Congress who had supported ­Donald Trump. Jennifer Rubin, his colleague at the Posttweeted her agreement.

Contempt for Western workers is often justified in economic terms. In 2013, a staffer for Senator Marco Rubio said that America needed more low-skill migrant workers, because “there are American workers who, for lack of a better term, can’t cut it . . . who just can’t get it, can’t do it, don’t want to do it.” Jeb Bush said in 2013, “Immigrants create far more businesses than native-born Americans. . . . Immigrants create an engine of economic prosperity.”

If these comments had been directed at migrants, the men who made them would have been widely condemned. Such consideration is rarely shown for working-class Americans who object to immigration. They are instead viewed as bigots who deserve disinheritance. In Hillary Clinton’s famous formulation, they are “deplorables”: “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic—you name it.”

Of course, since the deplorables retain the right to vote, most politicians do not express such sentiments on the record. In 2010, an elderly British woman named Gillian Duffy asked ­Gordon Brown, then the Labour prime minister, a question about immigration from Eastern Europe. Brown responded courteously and asked after her grandchildren. After they parted, he complained that his staff had not protected him from interacting with this “bigoted woman.” His words were caught by a hot mic.

In 2009, Andrew Neather, a former speechwriter for Brown’s predecessor, Tony Blair, confessed that Blair’s immigration policy had been designed “to rub the Right’s nose in diversity” and build a cosmopolitan Britain. London had become “so much more ­international now . . . and so much more heterogeneous than most of the provinces, that it’s pretty much unimaginable for us to go back either to the past or the sticks.” He argued that the results in ­London had been “highly positive,” bringing in so many “foreign nannies, cleaners and gardeners” that it was “hard to see how the capital could function without them.” Of course, one alternative would have been to hire native-born working-class Brits, but Neather scoffed at the idea of hiring “unemployed BNP voters from Barking or Burnley—fascist au pair, anyone?” His readiness to deplore members of the native working class is typical of elites across the West.

In its most extreme form, pro-migrant prejudice casts opponents of migration as unworthy of citizenship, the blessings of which should pass to idealized migrants. In 2017, Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau suggested that immigrants have a better claim to being Canadian than do those who oppose immigration: “I always sort of laugh when you see people who are . . . intolerant or who think, ‘Go back to your own country,’” he said. “No! You [immigrants] chose this country. This is your country more than it is for others because we take it for granted.”

In 2017, the Latino Victory Fund, a progressive political group, released a political ad titled, “American Nightmare.” Its villain was shown running down a group of frightened children that included two young Latinos, a Muslim girl in a hijab, and an African-American boy. Needless to say, this white middle-aged man was not depicted as a defense contractor, white-shoe attorney, or management consultant. Instead he wore a baseball cap and drove an off-road Ford F-150, a pickup truck whose marketing features construction workers and ranch hands. Portraying Americans as violent is now a common pro-immigration talking point. In his recent rally in El Paso, Beto O’Rourke said that the “U.S. cities of the U.S.-Mexico border are far safer than the U.S. cities deeper in the interior of the United States of America.” O’Rourke was simply echoing what ­Rupert Murdoch said after Donald Trump’s campaign announcement: “Mexican immigrants, as with all immigrants, have much lower crime rates than ­native born.”

It is impossible to understand the Western response to migration without understanding its basis in a certain form of liberal Christianity: a Christianity that reduces the gospel to an abstract law of love, ignoring much of Scripture—and reality.

Angela Merkel, a Lutheran pastor’s daughter, was guided by this vision when she welcomed an unprecedented influx of migrants into Germany. Jan Werner-Müller, professor of history at Princeton, has written that Merkel’s migrant policy is a “high-risk gamble intended to truly put the ‘C’ back into CDU [Christian Democratic Union]—a reminder, not dissimilar to Pope Francis’, that Christianity has to mean, first and foremost, action for those most in need.” ­The German bishops gave enthusiastic support to Merkel and her migrant policy. Cardinal Rainier Maria Woelki, archbishop of Cologne, said, “The Catholic Church fully shares the Chancellor’s opinion. . . . That is why we will support the Chancellor with no ifs and buts.” (One would think German churchmen would be more cautious about giving unqualified support to the regime.)

Likewise Tony Blair. As prime minister, he—a devout Christian—oversaw the settlement of an average of 200,000 migrants each year, five times the rate of the previous government. He believed that “an abhorrence of prejudice based on race, class, gender or occupation is fundamental to the Gospels.” For Blair, Christianity is “a religion based on compassion and love” that “has been used for dubious and sometimes cruel purposes wholly at odds with its essential message.” As James G. Crossley, professor of Bible at St. Mary’s University Twickenham, has written, Blair’s reading of the Gospels produces “general concepts compatible with liberal democratic values.” This required downplaying “socially illiberal biblical passages” so as to “equate the contents of the Bible with liberalism and modern sensibilities”—a neat summary of open-borders Christianity.

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