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Moving Beyond Rhetoric & the Theoretical: Toward a More Just Immigration Policy

Immigration is a deeply polarized—and often polarizing—topic. Often, as my conversation partner Robert McFarland has noted in his first piece on this topic, public conversations on this topic seem to be mired in rhetoric and prone to talking past one another. So this forum, bringing together voices who share a commitment to Christ even if we may disagree on how our faith should inform our views on immigration policy, is valuable.


Reading through Robert’s initial post on the topic, there was little I would actually disagree with and much with which I can readily agree. What I was left wanting, though—and might find with the next post—was more specificity: we agree that immigration law and policy are extremely complex and not served well by simplistic rhetoric. We can both acknowledge that policy responses to the challenges of U.S. immigration will be imperfect and almost certainly have unintended consequences. We can also agree that the questions and terminology themselves are limited, debating what is meant by a “just” policy or practice. But questions of immigration policy are also far more than theoretical: they directly impact millions of people, and my conviction is that my faith compels me to do all within my power to grapple with the complexity and pursue more just policies on behalf of these neighbors whom I’m called to love, even while acknowledging that no changes to U.S. law will result in a perfect (or perfectly just) reality.


Points of Agreement and Disagreement


As I noted, though, I largely agreed with Robert’s first post. He begins by discussing the challenges of rhetoric in the immigration debates. I absolutely agree that rhetoric has proven problematic in the U.S. debate over immigration. Advocates of one view or another tend to sniff out the terminology used by others and immediately lump them into one of two opposite poles, but the reality is that the only politically realistic policy proposals are more moderate, far from either pole.


For example, if I emphasize that the Bible commands us to “welcome strangers” (which it does: read literally, Romans 12:13 commands us to practice loving strangers, the literal meaning of the Greek word philoxenia, or hospitality), many will presume that I believe in amnesty (another wrought word, which I do not believe is fair descriptor of a legalization process that involves the payment of a fine or other serious restitution) for “illegal aliens” (or “undocumented immigrants” if I’m on the other side of the debate), open borders.


On the other hand, if I emphasize Romans 13’s insistence that Christians are to be subject to the law established by governing authorities (which it does), others will presume that I’m for mass deportation and closed borders, that I am embracing unjust laws. We (and I’m including myself here) tend to look for cues so that we can categorize others into one camp or the other. But most Christians and most Americans actually have nuanced views on this topic: they want secure borders but are opposed to mass deportation of all immigrants in the country unlawfully. The want those who are a public safety threat deported, but would like long-time residents who have (except for their violation of immigration law) stayed out of trouble to be given a chance to make amends and stay lawfully, especially in cases when their deportation would likely divide family units. Most Americans value the contributions of immigrants to the country economically and culturally, both throughout our history and at present, but they are troubled by the erosion of the rule of law that results when our federal government seems to look the other way when individuals enter, overstay a visa, or work illegally.


There are, of course, advocates of open borders and amnesty, who believe immigration restrictions of any sort are illegitimate—but actually very few. And there are xenophobes who simply dislike anyone born in another country who want to restrict immigration altogether, who want not secure borders but closed borders—but they are actually a very small share of the population as well.


As Robert rightly notes, the national debate over immigration is too often characterized by lazy rhetoric devoid of complexity and nuance. When we get caught up in rhetoric, it’s easy for the conversation to become a false choice between the extremes. It’s often hard to proceed to discuss the more politically realistic possibilities of policies that combine border security, more market-sensitive visa systems, and earned legalization processes because we’re so quick to presume there is no common ground.


In reality, though, not only do most Americans and most Christians reject the most extreme positions on either side, so do most politicians. There are very few conservative Republicans in Congress who advocate mass deportation and very few liberal Democrats who have ever proposed a mass amnesty that does not include serious fines, a decade-plus process toward permanent legal status, and significant expenditures on border security.


I also agree with Robert that we need to define terms before we can really dialogue. And I suspect I erred there in my first post, because I presumed a lot: that we were discussing U.S. federal immigration policy, not that of any other country, not state-level proposals. And even within federal immigration policy, there were many questions I did not address, mostly for lack of space. Robert spent much more time carefully defining terms, whereas I jumped right in to my views.


I can readily agree with Robert—and with Mark Amstutz, whose recent book Just Immigration he cited on several occasions—that since immigration policy is so complex, we need to carefully consider various specific questions, among them how to best secure our borders (presuming we agree we should have secure borders, which I believe Robert and I do), what the level of legal immigration ought to be (presuming we agree there should be any limits, which I believe we both do), and what should the policy be toward those who have either entered the country unlawfully or violated the terms of a temporary visa.


I’m quite familiar with Mark Amstutz’s work and thinking on this topic—in fact, Dr. Amstutz was one of my professors in during my years as an undergraduate student at Wheaton College, I traveled with him to Cuba on a study abroad trip, he visited me in Nicaragua a few years later when I was interning with World Relief Nicaragua’s programs for six months, and in recent years I have repeatedly spoken in his classes. Dr. Amstutz always introduces me with great kindness, even while noting we do not necessarily always share the same perspectives. I’ll be at his retirement party next week. And I deeply respect his views, as I do Robert’s.


But my biggest disagreement—or perhaps a better word might be dissatisfaction—with Dr. Amstutz’s meticulously-researched book on immigration and with Robert’s necessarily more succinct first post, was not necessarily with anything that was stated, but with the lack of clear conclusion (though perhaps that’s coming in Robert’s next post).


I’m not entirely clear how, if at all, either would answer the sort of questions that Amstutz poses. What specific policy changes do either believe would make our immigration system more just? Would it be wise to build a wall across the parts of the U.S.-Mexico border that do not currently have one? Or to employ more border patrol agents? To fully enforce existing law in such a way that Immigration and Customs Enforcement would be appropriated the financial resources necessarily to deport all 11 million immigrants who are present unlawfully? To instead allow most of those immigrants—those without serious criminal issues and who meet other qualifications—the opportunity to make amends and earn the chance to stay lawfully?


Immigration is a complex issue, and there are not perfect policy solutions. Our elected officials have to make yes or no votes on proposals that do not address the full range of issues and on bills which they believe would present a marginal improvement in the situation but also include provisions they find problematic. But these decisions of policy are not just theoretical: they are personal, and as such, for me, they are urgent.


Immigration is Personal and Urgent


The house my wife and I own was built more than a century ago, but divided into two apartment units at some point in the past, such that we rent out our upper unit to tenants. There’s a young woman who lived upstairs from us for about a year who was brought to the country illegally as a small child. She’s been able to lawfully work because of the Department of Homeland Security’s 2012 decision to defer action on her case through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy. Back in 2012, I brought her to a local church that, with help from my colleagues at World Relief, provided a workshop to assist her and other eligible individuals in completing the formal legal request form for DACA.


Years later, as the result of the announced termination of the DACA program, this young woman is now poised (sooner or later, with the timing now uncertain due to court challenges) to lose her ability to work, which will mean losing her job, because of the termination of the DACA program.


There’s a woman in my church who is in a similar situation. She’s a married mother of two. She teaches my son and daughter in Sunday School. But she does not know what will happen in the coming year if and when here DACA-based work authorization expires.  


A colleague with whom I share an office faces the same urgent challenge: she was brought to the U.S. as a ten-year-old from China to join her mother as a dependent on an employer-sponsored temporary worker visa. She fell out of legal status, though she would not learn that until several years later, when their immigration attorney made a serious error, forgetting to attach her application for a visa renewal to her mother’s case. As her employer, I have to face the difficult reality that, under the law, we will be required to lay her off if and when her work authorization obtained through DACA expires. (At present, her status expires in the fall, but she recently was able to submit a renewal request because of a federal court decision; we hope but cannot be certain that the renewal will give her an additional two years of work authorization before a higher court eliminates that possibility or the Department of Homeland Security re-terminates the DACA program in a way in which the courts could not find fault).


The wellbeing of these three young women matters deeply to me, and it’s not enough to say that immigration is extremely complex and the Bible does not give us a specific policy: I feel a moral obligation to leverage the influence I have so that they—and many others in a similar situation—can flourish. That is particularly true, I believe, because I am not persuaded that there would be any significant negative impacts on anyone else if these three young women are allowed to stay in the country and continue to hold their jobs, nor that my commitment to the rule of law necessitates that I hold them responsible for being brought to the country as children.


Because these are political—not just policy—decisions, my concern for these friends has necessitated facing some political calculations. For example, while my view is that our nation can (and should) find more cost-effective ways to achieve a largely secure border than by dramatically expanding the existing border wall, I called my elected officials a few weeks ago urging them to vote for the amendment from Republican Senator Mike Rounds and Independent Senator Angus King (an amendment which ultimately failed) that would have appropriated roughly $25 billion for a wall and other border security improvements—because it would also allow my friends with DACA to earn citizenship over the course of twelve years if they met all the proposal’s requirements. I believe that would have meant, on the net, a more just situation for them and for the country.


Similarly, a friend and former neighbor of mine—an Iranian religious minority—is deeply worried about what will happen to his extended family members who are currently in Vienna, Austria, invited by the U.S. State Department to travel there to apply for refugee status more than a year ago, but now denied without being given a specific reason, which seems to be part of a larger trend of dramatically restrict refugee resettlement to the U.S. My friend’s relatives fear they will be repatriated to Iran, where they fear they could face significant persecution. So I helped draft a letter to the President and to Members of Congress urging them to reconsider recent policy changes that have dramatically cut the number of refugees admitted to the U.S., and particularly to consider the plight of persecuted Christians and other religious minorities.


My point is that, given the impact of these policies on human lives, I think it is vital that we move from the theoretical and utopian to the concrete. I’m eager to engage, to have my own proposals thoughtfully critiqued (the Lord knows I have been wrong before and am very likely could be now), but then to reason together toward more just policies.


What’s Next?


One last point of disagreement, or at least concern: Robert suggested that his second essay will focus on the views of Christians who believe “there ought not be any borders” which would he says would be “a political revolution.” I know that there are academics who take this position—I have encountered them—but such a proposal is both (a) not my view (as I believe I expressed fairly clearly in my first essay) and (b) so far from ever being a political reality that it does not seem like the best use of our time to debate. I’ve not yet seen Robert’s second post, of course, but I really would prefer he not spend his time and space on this question.


Respectfully, I’d much rather hear Robert’s concerns with what I have proposed: marginal increases in the number of employer-sponsored visas, improved systems to track visa-overstayers, an earned legalization process involving the payment of a fine for immigrants who are unlawfully present but have not committed serious criminal offenses, etc. Perhaps Robert agrees with me on some of these views, perhaps he does not: I believe Christians can charitably disagree. But to critique the view that borders are morally illegitimate seems, to me, far too theoretical to be particularly worth our time, since we both agree borders are legitimate and, I suspect, so do 90% of Americans and 99% of Members of Congress.


All that said, what I’m grateful for Robert’s tone in this discussion: whether we ultimately agree or disagree, we can do so respectful that the other’s views are genuinely based on our respective desires to love our neighbors in fulfillment of Jesus’ commands. I’m looking forward to reading what Robert has written in the second installment and to continuing the dialogue.

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