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Changing the Question - Changing our Calling

Changing the Question

In my first essay I highlighted the importance of carefully defining the terms in our leading questions. What is immigration law? What is justice? Achieving mutual understanding of the terms of our question is the starting point for a meaningful (and respectful) conversation.

In the second sentence of his first essay, Matthew changes the question. “A better question,” he writes, “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?” The reason for this change, Matthew asserts, is that “whether a nation’s current immigration laws and deportation policies are just is a question too complex for a binary ‘yes’ or ‘no’?”

I must confess that I find this start to our conversation quite frustrating. First, it is hard to engage leading questions by altering the questions themselves. Second, I do not understand how the suggested modification is less complex than the original leading question?

Why is it “too complex” to say “yes” or “no” to a question about the justice of current immigration laws? Is it too difficult to identify the content of our current immigration laws? Perhaps the point being made is that our current immigration laws are too complex. Or is it too difficult to evaluate current immigration laws according to standards of justice? Or both?

Or is there simply no answer to the leading question? Perhaps Matthew is suggesting that there is no standard of justice which can produce a yes or no answer – that justice is merely a sliding scale, and the best we can hope for is something a little “more just” than the present. I do not understand justice to be a spectrum. I do not understand what is meant by a little more just. Again, this misunderstanding rests on a failure to define the term justice – and it appears that Matthew and I may be discussing two different concepts.

What is even more frustrating is that Matthew’s suggested alteration of the first leading question presumes (without offering explanation) that current immigration laws and practices are, in fact, unjust. Such a presumption is necessary to enable one to recommend changes intended to make laws and practices “more just”. As I noted in my first essay, one claiming that current laws or practices are not just must (1) identify the law or practice he is evaluating; (2) identify the standard of justice being used to evaluate the law (i.e., are we discussing retributive justice, distributive justice, or something else); and (3) explain how current laws and practices fail to meet this standard.  

Instead of clearly identifying how current laws are unjust, Matthew begins our conversation by assuming (as fact) the very thing we are called to discuss – that current immigration laws and practices are not just. And he does this without providing a clear articulation of the standard of justice he is using, or the ways in which current laws are unjust. This rhetorical move does not make way for very good conversation.

Misstating the facts

Matthew also makes a few critical misstatements of fact that confuse our conversation. He makes a striking claim in his essay that “in the 1850s, there were no federal immigration laws and no way to immigrate illegally.” As a matter of fact, federal immigration law did exist in the 1850s.

As I noted in my prior essay, Congress, exercising the powers granted to it in the Constitution, first began regulating immigration with the Naturalization Act of 1790. By the 1850s, Congress had replaced the original Naturalization Act with the Naturalization Law of 1802. Congress also placed duties upon ship captains to report all migration into the United States in the Steerage Act of 1819. These federal laws regarding immigration law were later amended, but they were existing federal law through the 1850s.

In addition to federal laws pertaining to immigration existing in the 1850s, a significant number of state and local laws regulating immigration were also on the books. By the 1850s, many of these local laws reacted to Irish Catholic immigration (which began in earnest in 1816). In 1849, in the famous Passenger Cases, the Supreme Court determined that Congress alone has the constitutional power to regulate immigration. Prior to this case, many states had been in the immigration law business. The Court struck down existing New York and Massachusetts laws impeding immigration. Matthew’s assertion that there were no immigration laws existing in the 1850s is, at best, an over-simplification. Such over-simplification makes it appear that at one time Americans welcomed all immigrants with open arms, and invites ignorance of anti-Catholic bias that permeated immigration laws in the United States in the 1800s. Racial, ethnic, religious, and other biases are present in immigration laws throughout our nation’s history. Changing the facts to suit one’s present argument forecloses accurate assessment of the justice (or injustice) of our nation’s historic immigration laws and practices.     

Later in his essay, Matthew claims that chain migration is “basically a myth.” This statement is also striking. In fact, as NPR recently explained, the family reunification program, also commonly known as chain migration, accounts for 37% of all visas presently granted by the United States. The priority of familial reunification in current immigration policy is clearly revealed in government data regarding the number of visas granted over the last several years. Denying that chain migration exists merely confuses policy debate. In fact, the question of whether the United States ought to prioritize visas on the basis of familial status rather than other factors is central to the policy debate regarding comprehensive immigration reform. Obscuring this policy question by claiming that chain migration does not presently exist is not helpful.

Incomplete Biblical Analysis

Like many evangelicals, Matthew’s proposals for a “more just” immigration policy rest upon his understanding of the authority of scripture. He notes his commitment to “an evangelical Christian tradition that unabashedly proclaims that the Bible should be the top authority for addressing any complex issue.”

Like many evangelicals, Mathew begins his analysis of U.S. immigration law and policy by citing verses from the Old Testament. He observes that “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.” These many references, Matthew contends, “reveal a great deal about the unchanging character of God and of how he defines justice, including, specifically for the immigrant.”

Matthew concedes that the Bible is not a policy manual to be used by legislators, and that Old Testament law ought not be imported directly into the United States code. This concession is necessary, of course, because not all of the Old Testament law would fit comfortably with Matthew’s policy preferences. For example, consider Deuteronomy 15:3. This portion of the Old Testament law allowed discrimination between Israelite and foreigner in the payment and collection of debts. Or consider Leviticus 25:44-46. This portion of Old Testament law permitted Israelites to purchase foreigners as slaves, and to bequeath foreign slaves to their heirs. Other Old Testament passages required obedient Israelites to destroy nations, and the people occupying them. Selectively citing the Old Testament invites questions about passages omitted.

There is a more significant problem in Matthew’s argument. He cites the number of references to immigrants in the Old Testament (specifically, the word ger). As others have noted, this sort of Biblical argument in support of immigration policy preferences is not convincing because the Biblical interpretive method is incomplete. The Old Testament uses a number of different terms when revering to citizens of other nations, and these different terms indicate different lawful status for foreign citizens in Israel. Citing one of these terms, but ignoring the others, leads to poor interpretation and understanding.

Biblical Principles

Matthew also identifies “a few” of the Biblical principles he believes are contained in Scripture regarding immigration. These include:

  1. Immigrants are people made in the image of God.
  2. Many Old Testament figures lived as immigrants.
  3. God protects immigrants.
  4. God loves immigrants.
  5. God commanded the Israelites to love immigrants.
  6. God’s justice is concerned with the treatment of immigrants.

On the basis of these principles, Matthew reasons that American policy (and law) should be made “more just.” Specifically, he contends that Congress should “increase the number of immigrant visas available – not without limit, but to better approximate the needs of the U.S. labor market.” He also asserts that immigration laws in the United States are necessary, but that enforcement should be achieved by fines rather than deportation. Matthew suggests that this solution is a “middle way” between amnesty and mass deportation. And it appears that he is suggesting that this solution is Biblically sound (and perhaps required?)

I agree with all of the Biblical principles Matthew identifies. All people (immigrants and non-immigrants, documented and undocumented) are made in God’s image and entitled to respect. God indeed loves the entire world, so much that he gave the entire world His only son. Christian’s ought not, therefore, treat immigrants (whether legal or illegal) as less than human. God’s justice is indeed concerned with our treatment of all people, especially those who are often marginalized and forgotten.

These truths, however, do not compel agreement with the immigration policies Matthew proposed. God’s love for immigrants, and His command that we love immigrants, does not require that immigrants have easier access to citizenship in the United States. It is striking that many evangelical advocates for immigration reform seem to presume that permanent status in the United States is akin to a natural right. That God intends for all who want to become citizens to have a right to do so.

Matthew’s argument is a little more complex, because he acknowledges that the United States needs immigration laws. Such laws necessarily exclude. Immigration laws also necessarily discriminate (unless the law selects a random lottery as the means of choosing who is granted status and who is not). Immigration laws establish preferences, and prioritize access to citizenship on the basis of a country’s own internal political objectives.

So the questions Matthew must address are (1) how should the United States determine how many visas to grant each year?; and (2) assuming Matthew agrees that the number of visas granted annually must be limited, how should the United States distribute this limited resource?

Other Relevant Biblical Principles – Borders, Law, and Justice

There are a number of other Biblical principles relevant to this conversation which make clear that God loves all the world (not just those who live in the United States).

Borders are important. This is a principle running throughout the Bible.

Deuteronomy 32:8, for example, explains that “When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God.” Boundaries are referenced in the wisdom literature (i.e., Proverbs 22:28, 23:10-11). And God’s deliverance of His people from slavery in Egypt culminated in the entry of His people into the physical borders of the promised land.

Borders make possible cultures, homelands, safety, security, and a number of other human goods related to the flourishing of political communities. As Peter Hitchens recently explained, “without borders, we would dwell in a global parking lot. A reasonable love of where you live, its customs, landscape, language, and humor, is the basis for all other communal loves.” Borders enable nations to create and maintain the conditions necessary for other important institutions to thrive.

Within borders, God has ordained civil government. Romans 13:1-7, I Peter 2:13-17, and Titus 3:1 are among the passages teaching that God has chosen civil government as a means of securing justice on earth. Those concerned with thinking Biblically must integrate these passages into their thinking about matters such as immigration. There are also many passages regarding God’s desire for the just to leave at peace with all men so far as is possible without disobedience to God. Living within a nation unlawfully is a situation that is anything but peaceful. Christians ought to seek to uphold and obey the law.

Matthew acknowledges the Biblical mandate for civil government and the rule of law. He also agrees that the responsibility to obey the law applies to immigrants as well as citizens. Here we both agree. And I am grateful for his willingness to acknowledge this responsibility.

One of the things often neglected in arguments for immigration reform is the responsibility of all to obey the law. “Equal justice under law” requires that all individuals comply with the same legal norms. Ancient understandings of justice understand that it is unjust to ignore non-compliance with legal norms. Socrates, for example, faced capital punishment rather than escaping from prison at the urging of his friend Crito because he understood justice to require obedience to the law.

Justice recognizes that those who are complying with those norms are thus made equal, and that disregarding willful violation of norms is thus unjust. This reality is well-illustrated in the immigration context by considering those who enter the United States unlawfully and then seek amnesty. Those concerned with extending amnesty to those who entered unlawfully are not motivated by a desire to be unkind or unloving. They are seeking justice. They are concerned that amnesty would reward those who ignored (or willfully disobeyed) immigration law at the expense of those who’ve been seeking lawful entry.

Matthew agrees that laws ought to be enforced. So here he and I agree about the requirements of justice. He makes a further argument regarding the penalty for non-compliance. Fines ought to be paid by those who break immigration laws – followed by a pathway to earning citizenship. I view this argument to be an effort to remedy the injustice created by the violation of the law. And I agree that this is a better proposal that outright amnesty.

But the further argument (that fines are preferable to deportation) is where I am confused. Is the argument that Biblical thinking requires Christians to support policies allowing immigrants to remain in the United States? Is there a natural right to immigrate to the U.S.? Is the argument that justice requires that the United States make access to permanent citizenship accessible to more? Or is the argument simply that the United States should make more visas available as a matter of kindness (or mercy)?

One of the most significant points in Matthew’s essay is his claim that many individuals desiring to immigrate have no options. For many foreign citizens, he argues, there is no line to wait in, no pathway to citizenship. And this seems to be his central concern about U.S. immigration law. There are a limited number of visas available, and current U.S. law restricts access to those visas to those already having families in the United States, those who have already found employment, or those who win the diversity lottery. So he argues that Christians ought to support more visas, and more pathways into the United States.

It may be right that there needs to be comprehensive immigration reform to adjust our immigration system to the economic and political needs of the present day. But this may mean reducing legal immigration. I would defer to the democratic process regarding such important prudential questions.

Whether Matthew is proposing policies for democratic consideration, or whether he is arguing that all Christians ought to support his preferred policy as a matter of justice is unclear. If it is the latter, I have not been convinced that justice requires the policies he is proposing.

Live as Strangers and Aliens

My main concern with Matthew’s argument is that his use of the Bible detracts from one of the most important themes of all of scripture. The gospel message powerfully unites all people. Christ died for all, and all who believe in Him are united in His church. The church transcends national borders. And we who believe are called to life in a new Kingdom.

In the words of the Apostle Peter, “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.” (I Peter 2:10-11).  

As Christians, we are called to more than welcoming strangers, sojourners, and exiles. We are called to live as exiles in the world. I agree with Matthew that American Christians ought to seek to know, love, respect, and assist immigrants who are living among us. But our calling is to more than securing for them citizenship in the United States – we are called to walk with them in the Kingdom of Heaven. We are called to learn from them what it is like to live as an alien – so that we can better understand our own citizenship in Heaven.

A friend of mine has served as a missionary in a foreign country for more than a decade. In a recent conversation with him, he advised me that he was reluctant to bring members of the churches where he works with him to the United States on his sabbatical visits. I asked him to explain, and he advised that the trip to the U.S. would “ruin” them. By this he meant that these brothers in Christ would take their eyes off of their citizenship in Heaven and begin running toward the perceived heaven on earth – America. These brothers in Christ are needed in their home nation – to spread the gospel, and to serve the church there. Perhaps this is why Christ commissioned us to go into the world – rather than to bring the world to us.

Concluding Remarks – DACA

One of Matthew’s most compelling points, and one of the most pressing present issues, concerns the DACA program. I agree with Matthew’s assessment that children who were brought to the United States (and who consider the U.S. home) ought to be treated (as a matter of justice) differently than those who brought them here illegally. I intend to address this issue in my final essay.

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