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Immigration, Justice, the Bible and the Church

Whether our nation’s current immigration laws and deportation policies are just is a question too complex for a binary “yes” or “no.” A better question might be: how can we pursue more just immigration policies, particularly for those of us whose understanding of justice is defined by our Christian faith?

Thinking Biblically about Immigration

Beyond the question of governmental policy, immigration presents an important opportunity for the Church in the United States to live out the “Great Commandment” to love our neighbors (Luke 10:27) and to pursue the Great Commission, making disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19).

I fear that, too often, American Christians have responded to immigrants out of a politically-informed sense of fear, rather than with a biblically-guided response of love, in part because we have tended to view immigration as a political, cultural, and economic issue, without considering how the Bible might inform our thinking. A LifeWay Research survey of self-described evangelical or born-again Christians conducted in 2015 found that an underwhelming 12% said the Bible is the primary influence on their thinking on this topic—significantly fewer than cited “the media.”

I was raised in and remain committed to an evangelical Christian tradition that unabashedly proclaims that the Bible should be the top authority for addressing any complex issue. Growing up, though, I never recall hearing a sermon on the topic of immigration. Of the many Bible verses I memorized as a child, none mentioned the immigrant. Like many evangelical Christians, my views on the topic, both in terms of public policy and in how I would relate to my immigrant neighbors (few as they may have been in my small community in northeastern Wisconsin) were informed by cable news, what I read in the newspaper, and what was forwarded to me in email—but not particularly by my faith. 

That’s not because the Bible has nothing to say on the topic. The Hebrew word for an immigrant (or, in various English translations, the stranger, sojourner, foreigner or alien), transliterated as ger, appears 92 times in the Old Testament alone. By the count of theologian Orlando Espin, “welcoming the stranger or foreigner (the ‘immigrant,’ we could say today) is the most often repeated commandment in the Hebrew Scriptures, with the exception of the imperative to worship only the one God.”

To be clear, the Scriptures do not prescribe a U.S. immigration policy, nor do I believe that the laws God established for Israel in the Pentateuch should be simply transferred over to U.S. law. The Bible’s many descriptions of and teachings regarding the treatment of immigrants, though, reveal a great deal about the unchanging character of God and of how he defines justice, including, specifically, for the immigrant.

In a relatively short essay, there is not space to review every biblical principle relating to immigration, but I’ll mention a few. First, as Old Testament scholar Daniel Carroll observes, Christian thinking about immigrants begins with a recognition of their personhood, they are made in the image of God, with inherent dignity (Genesis 1:27). Carroll also notes that many of the most prominent figures in the Old Testament—Abraham, Moses, Ruth, David, and Daniel, among many others—lived as foreigners at one point in their respective stories. God is revealed as a God who “protects immigrants” (Psalm 146:9 Common English Bible, here and following except as noted) and “loves immigrants, giving them food and clothing” (Deuteronomy 10:18), with the explicit commandment to the Israelites: “that means you must also love immigrants” (Deuteronomy 10:19).

When God’s justice is described in the Hebrew Scriptures, it is often in the context of protecting the rights of those who were most vulnerable to injustice: the orphan, the widow, and the immigrant. “Do what is just and right… Don’t exploit or mistreat the refugee, the orphan, and the widow,” the prophet Jeremiah writes (Jeremiah 22:3). The prophet Zechariah echoes these concerns: “Make just and faithful decisions; show kindness and compassion to each other! Don’t oppress the widow, the orphan, the stranger, and the poor” (Zechariah 7:9-10). God also warns those who act unjustly toward the vulnerable that they will themselves face judgement: “I will be quick to testify against… those who cheat the day laborers out of their wages as well as oppress the widow and the orphan, and against those who brush aside the foreigner” (Malachi 3:5).

Justice and Injustice in U.S. Immigration Policy

My ancestors came to the U.S. from Holland in the 1850s. They entered the United States legally, which I can be sure of (despite little actual knowledge of their personal stories and experiences) because in the 1850s, there were no federal immigration laws and thus no way to immigrate illegally. For most of my life, my attitude toward immigration was similar to that of many Americans: I’m not against immigration, but they ought to come the legal way, the way that my ancestors did.

I knew enough to know that contemporary immigrants usually no longer arrive on boats into New York Harbor, but I presumed there was still some similar system of legal immigration for law-abiding, respectable people to follow. I presumed there was some sort of a governmental office where those who wanted to naturalize could go, perhaps wait in a physical turnstile similar to what I’d experienced at the Department of Motor Vehicles, pay a fee, fill out a form, and then become a U.S. citizen. That there were apparently millions of folks present unlawfully in the country, I supposed, meant that they were either averse to legal processes (perhaps trying to avoid paying taxes?), uninformed (maybe someone needed to tell them the directions to this office or help them fill out a form in English?), or lazy (why pay a fee when we so liberally tolerate unlawful presence?).

A bit more than a decade ago, my perspective drastically changed—primarily because I became acquainted both with many undocumented immigrants and with U.S. immigration law. For about five years, I worked as a Board of Immigration Appeals-accredited legal counselor with World Relief, which required me to learn about U.S. immigration laws and then help immigrant clients seeking low-cost legal advice to understand their options and responsibilities under the law.

While I occasionally had the joy of helping an immigrant to adjust status to become a lawful permanent resident or help a U.S. citizen petition for a relative abroad to come lawfully to the U.S., for the vast majority of my clients who did not already have permanent legal status, all I could offer was bad news. There was usually no possibility to “get legal,” regardless of how much money they would be willing to pay, if they had the best attorney in the country, or if they were willing to return to their country of origin. They could leave, of course, but there was no possibility to “come back the legal way.” And, in most cases, they would not have qualified to come legally in the first place.

To incomprehensively summarize an incredibly complex area of U.S. law, there are basically four ways to lawfully immigrate to the U.S. at present.

The first and most prevalent option is through family sponsorship. Lawful Permanent Residents may petition for their spouse and unmarried children; citizens can also petition for their married children, parents, and siblings. Contrary to popular misperception, it is not possible to petition for one’s cousins, grandparents, or other extended family members (“chain migration” is basically a myth), and it is far from a fast process: while some petitions may take less than a year, statutory limits for particular categories of family-based immigrants and on particular countries mean that some petitions, such as for a U.S. citizen filling for a married son or daughter in Mexico, are currently being processed only if filed in or before June 1995. But many would-be immigrants do no not even have the luxury of waiting in a more-than-two-decade line, because they have no close relative who resides permanently (and legally) in the U.S.

The next possibility would be to obtain an employer-sponsored immigrant visa. Leaders within the tech industry, in particular, have argued that the number of employer-sponsored immigrant visas as capped by current law are inadequate to meet their labor needs for highly-trained employees. For those seeking work that is not classified as “highly-skilled,” though, the situation is even more limited: a maximum of 5,000 employer-sponsored immigrant visas per year are granted to those not classified as “highly skilled”—even though there are many jobs (particularly in sectors such as agriculture, hospitality, and construction) that do not require a master’s degree or advanced formal education. (For historical context, a century ago, roughly 5,000 immigrants entered Ellis Island daily, very few of whom had master’s degrees).

A third possibility is reserved for those who fled persecution in their country of origin. The president determines an annual “ceiling” on the number of refugees whom the U.S. will admit, each of whom must demonstrate they fled a well-founded fear of persecution. Those fleeing poverty or a natural disaster—not persecution—do not qualify, though, and of the 22.5 million refugees worldwide who do meet this definition, the U.S. is on track to admit less than one-tenth of one percent this fiscal year (in past administrations, the U.S. admitted closer to four-tenths of one percent, but coming to the U.S. has never been an option for more than a small fraction of the most vulnerable refugees globally). It is also possible to receive asylum for those who can arrive (whether unlawfully or on a temporary visa) and persuade the U.S government that they meet the legal definition of a refugee, but for most fleeing persecution, reaching the U.S. is impossible, since tourist visas are very rarely granted from countries experiencing persecution, most of which are separated from the U.S. by an ocean. 

Lastly, there are 50,000 immigrant visas available each year for winners of the Diversity Visa Lottery. That’s not a likely option for most would-be immigrants, either: the odds of winning have varied, in recent years, between one in 200 and one in 400. And nationals of Mexico, India, China, South Korea, Canada, and several other countries cannot enter, since the U.S. is already home to many immigrants from these countries, and the purpose of the program is to make the U.S. more diverse.

For many individuals intending to emigrate to the U.S., none of these four programs is an option: there is, neither literally or figuratively, any line to wait in. But if they manage to arrive or stay in the country other-than-lawfully, there is almost certainly a job waiting for them, usually at a wage much higher than they could earn in their country of origin.

I suspect it is primarily because our nation relies upon adequate access to labor—which our dated immigration system so starkly limits—to sustain economic growth that our federal government has, over the course of several decades, frequently looked the other way as individuals entered the country unlawfully, overstayed a visa, and/or worked without authorization. The result has been a system that has both deteriorated respect for the rule of law and engendered injustice for these immigrants themselves.

Rather than faulting our government for its policies or employers for unlawfully hiring immigrants, many in our society place the blame squarely on the immigrants themselves. Undocumented immigrants are often scapegoated as responsible for economic malaise, even though most economists (96% surveyed by the Wall Street Journal) believe they’re a net positive force on the economy. Immigrants are blamed for waves of violent crime, though they are incarcerated at rates well below that of U.S. citizens. Though there has never been a serious proposal to deport all deportable immigrants, enough—more than 3 million under the Obama administration—are eventually deported to keep people afraid, some even after having been effectively tolerated for decades, allowed to file and pay their taxes, and now parents of U.S.-born children. Fearful of reporting abuse to governmental authorities, they disproportionately become victims of robbery, sexual assault, wage theft, and human trafficking.

Toward a More Just Immigration System

Questions of what justice looks like in the situation are country has created are complex, but a fairly simple solution, going forward, would be to increase the number of immigrant visas available—not without limit, but to better approximate the needs of the U.S. labor market. The vast majority of undocumented immigrants would much prefer to have had the opportunity to apply for a visa abroad and come lawfully to the U.S., had such a possibility existed.

The single best way to minimize illegal immigration is to facilitate legal migration, but I also think it is appropriate for our country to take reasonable steps to deter both unlawful entry to the country and visa overstays.

It is worth noting that the U.S. Mexico-border is more secure today than it has been in a very long time. In fact, as of Fiscal Year 2017, a combination of significantly fewer individuals seeking to cross unlawfully (compared to a decade ago) and dramatically increased border security expenditures meant that the average Border Patrol agent apprehended just 1.5 unlawful entrants per month. Frankly, that sounds like a rather boring job, which might be a factor in the agency’s recruitment difficulties.

We should focus more resources on ensuring that those who enter the country lawfully on a temporary visa comply with the terms of their visa, since most new undocumented immigrants in the past decade have come through this channel, not illegally across the border.

In border security and interior enforcement, though, justice is also an issue: the Christian faith requires us to see even those violating the law as made in the image of God, possessing inherent human dignity and worthy of respect. Our government can and should enforce the law, but they should do so humanely. And enforcing the law also means respecting our laws which permit someone fleeing a well-founded fear of persecution to request asylum in the United States, which accounts for an increasing share of those apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Finally, we can also encourage policies that restore justice and order to our immigration system, particularly as it relates to the roughly 11 million immigrants who are currently undocumented, two-thirds of whom have been here for at least a decade and thus by now are largely integrated into American communities and, often, churches.

While I believe this is a place for compassion, even in the administration of law, I also think it is appropriate to insist that violation of U.S. law is unacceptable, even if it is understandable in dire circumstances. But the penalty for that infraction need not necessarily be deportation. A better solution, in most cases, would be to allow those who are unlawfully present to come forward, pay a fine (which is what would distinguish this from amnesty, which is synonymous with forgiveness), and then receive a probationary legal status that would allow the individual to stay and work lawfully in the country. Over the course of time, these individuals could earn permanent legal status if they meet particular requirements, including paying all appropriate taxes and not being involved in serious criminal infractions, and then, like any Lawful Permanent Resident, eventually earn citizenship.

Such a process, I believe, is the most just way forward: a middle way between an amnesty that minimizes the violation of law or a mass deportation, which would both be incredibly costly and fail to account for the complicity of our society as a whole, which has benefitted economically from the labor of undocumented immigrants.  

I’d also note that I do not think it makes sense to penalize undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children: neither the Bible nor any other area of U.S. law would hold children responsible for decisions they did not make. The young immigrants known as Dreamers, many of whom benefitted from the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program under the Obama Administration but are now poised to lose those protections under the Trump administration, should be offered the opportunity to earn U.S. citizenship in an expedited fashion, and without the requirement of fines.

The Role of the Church 

I’ve spent most of my time focused on the policy questions, and I do believe the church has a key role in advocating for just policies. The principles of the Evangelical Immigration Table are, I believe, a good starting place.

But the role of the church also goes far beyond advocacy. I often am approached by church leaders torn between their desire to love, welcome, and share the gospel with immigrants whom they suspect may be in the country unlawfully and their commitment to abiding by the law (Romans 13:1). Fortunately, in most cases, they can do both: with the notable exception of employing someone who is present unlawfully, churches and the individuals who compose them are free to minister in any number of ways. There is no legal requirement that a private citizen or faith-based institution report someone they suspect of being present unlawfully, nor does the law restrict a church from sharing the gospel, baptizing new believers, teaching English, operating a food pantry, or providing any other spiritual or social good that a church might offer to someone without legal status. In fact, were the law to do so—which a few proposals at the federal level have come close to—it would present a significant religious liberty threat, as it would be a dangerous precedent for the state to tell the church to whom it can minister.

I’m deeply invested in seeing immigration reforms that I believe would be more just for immigrants, and I believe that Christians have an important voice to contribute toward those efforts. But my greater concern is that many American Christians—particularly white evangelicals like me—have allowed a political narrative to blind us to the gospel opportunity that I believe God has placed in front of us, missing opportunities to obediently love and serve our immigrant neighbors because we have seen them only as a cultural threat, an economic drain, or a political problem, rather than people made in God’s image for whom Christ died.

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Reader Comments (1)

Thanks Matthew. This is a wonderful beginning post. It lays out principles, explains policy very clearly, indicates government and business cooperation in "inviting" "illegal" immigration, and then specifies some approaches to move forward with justice and compassion. Well done!

March 4, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterClarke Cochran

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