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Thinking about Immigration as Citizens of Heaven

In re-reading our respective second contributions to this dialogue on immigration policy, it became clear that both my conversation partner, Robert, and I were at least a bit frustrated by the other’s first essay.

Guilty as Charged: Changing the Question

Robert fairly observed that I effectively “changed the question,” suggesting that a more practical question was not whether US immigration laws and deportation practices are just, but how they could be made more just.

So, to be more forthright: I do not think that US immigration policy and deportation practices are just—and I laid out several of the reasons: US immigration laws have been only inconsistently enforced, which has eroded public trust in the rule of law. Immigrants coming from economically desperate situations have been restricted from immigrating lawfully (by visa quotas codified by statute—in some cases, more than fifty years ago), but effectively tolerated, employed, and invited to pay taxes if they manage to enter or overstay a visa unlawfully, which creates a moral hazard.

Some immigrants have, because their illegal status makes them fearful of law enforcement, become victims of dramatic labor abuses and even situations of human trafficking. The labor dynamics are unjust for Americans as well: employers who do strictly abide by employment authorization laws are at a competitive disadvantage as compared to competitors who flout the law, as are American citizen workers appropriately unwilling to accept dangerous or illegal labor conditions, but who compete with individuals who feel unable to demand the enforcement of labor laws (because their unscrupulous employers threaten that if they report these abuses, they will be reported to Immigration and Customs Enforcement and deported).

Immigrants held in detention while awaiting a removal hearing, many of whom have never been convicted of any crime (charged only with a violation of civil immigration law), are often unable to afford even a phone card to talk to loved ones or an attorney unless they agree to work for $1 per day within civilian immigrant detention centers. Ironically, given that for some their only infraction was working without authorization, such “volunteer” work at just cents per hour is apparently legal in the detention center (though several lawsuits are challenging this practice).

And children who did not make a choice to immigrate, who either were brought as children to the country or who were born in the US to unauthorized immigrant parents, too often grow up without the stability of a two-parent family as a result of the deportation of one or both parents, which certainly is not just toward them (even if one believes it is a just action toward their parents in particular cases).

So, no, I do not believe that our immigration system is fully just. But there are many ways in which it is just and functions quite well, in the interest of our economy, our society, and also the immigrants who benefit from the system. I’ve witnessed several naturalization ceremonies where refugees who were invited by the U.S. State Department to rebuild their lives in the freedom and safety of the U.S. pledge their allegiance to the country that has magnanimously welcomed them in as fellow participants in the American democracy. I have seen families reunited through family reunification visas, who then support one another through the process of cultural adjustment and societal integration. I have seen victims of horrific domestic violence, whose abusive U.S. citizen husbands used their lack of legal status to coercively keep their wives from calling the police to report the crimes of which they were victims, be granted legal status through the Violence Against Women Act and find the freedom to report crimes. And I have seen abusers and others who have engaged in violent crime appropriately penalized with deportation.  

Our system has elements of justice and elements of injustice. There are and—this side of God establishing in full his kingdom of justice and righteousness—always will be unjust elements within every human system. It’s not that I do not believe there is a standard of justice, but Robert is right in a sense to say that I think of justice as a sliding scale: I do not believe that perfect standard of justice will ever be achieved short of God’s Kingdom in its fullness, because all systems of justice are implemented by fallen human beings.

But that does not mean justice is not worth pursuing: we are commanded to pray for (and, I believe, work towards) God’s kingdom here “on earth, as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). Similarly, I do not think any state or nation’s criminal justice system is perfectly just: I suspect every system has some percentage of convictions that are wrongful—when an individual is convicted of a crime of which he or he is not actually guilty—whether because of imperfect information or a biased judge or jury (and that even before we examine whether the laws being enforced themselves are just, which would be harder to quantify). But I would still much rather live in a society where one percent of criminal convictions were wrongful than a society where fifty percent are: moving toward a more just system matters, and I believe it is the most that is possible of our human efforts to “seek justice” on earth.

Policies are ultimately the results of politics, and politics will never achieve perfect justice. Peter Wehner, reflecting on the experience of having served in the White House under President Reagan and both Presidents Bush, writes:

I understand that governing involves complicated choices, transactional dealings and prudential judgments. No one ever gets things exactly right, and all who choose to serve deserve our prayers for wisdom. Politics is certainly not a place for the pursuit of utopia and moral perfection; rather, at its best, it is about achieving the best approximation of the public good, about protecting human dignity and advancing, even imperfectly, a more just social order. That is why Christians shouldn’t exile themselves from politics.

That’s why I find it more reasonable to ask what a more just policy would look like, proposing specifics guided by my best understanding—flawed as it may be, informed by my fallible reading of Scripture and my personal relationships—of what would constitute “a more just social order.”

Deferring on the Question

Robert was—perhaps fairly—frustrated by my changing of the question, and that I failed to establish my basis for how I understand justice, jumping right into policy proposals. Conversely, I was frustrated because I finished his first piece, and then his second, and I still do not know whether he thinks US immigration policies are just: if I changed the question which I chose to answer, he spent 6,000 words reflecting on the complexity of the question, but never really answered it, at least to my satisfaction. When it comes to the specific policy proposals I advocated as vehicles for reaching a more just immigration system—such as adjusting the number of immigrant visas available under US law—Robert “would defer to the democratic process regarding such important prudential questions.”

I’m not advocating that I should be given authoritarian powers to subvert the will of the American people as expressed through our democratic processes, but part of our democratic process is, when we think a system can be improved, to seek to persuade. I affirm that these decisions are prudential: my argument is not that justice—whether defined by the Bible or John Rawls or any other particular philosophy—clearly requires a specific number of immigrant visas, but that it is reasonable to conclude that an immigration policy that more closely matched labor market demands would ultimately lead to a more just outcome. If that wouldn’t, in Robert’s view, result in a more just situation, I’d genuinely like to hear his proposals for what would, but I found his arguments light on specifics.

As I argued in my second piece, I’m very passionate about these issues, first and foremost, because they are so personal to me. The individuals whose interaction with our immigration system I would describe as unjust are, in many cases, close friends of mine. I feel a sense of responsibility, given that our system of government is responsive to the advocacy and voting habits of citizens (including me), to at least do my best to propose solutions, even if I acknowledge they will not fully remedy every injustice.

Addressing the Facts

Robert also made two points that I ought to address regarding disagreements on the facts, since, as he rightly notes, we cannot very well agree on a (more) just solution if we cannot agree on the current situation.

I stated in my first essay that, in the 1850s when my immigrant ancestors came to the US, “there were no federal immigration laws and thus no way to immigrate illegally.” Robert noted, accurately, that there were federal laws addressing naturalization on the books by 1850—but they governed who could become a U.S. citizen (according to the 1802 law that governed in 1850: “any alien, being a free white person” who met certain other requirements), not who could immigrate to (arrive in and reside on a permanent basis in) the United States, which remained unrestricted at the federal level until around 1880. As Robert notes, there were some state-level restrictions on immigration, often fueled by anti-Catholic sentiment, prior to 1850—but an intending immigrant of this era could always have entered through a state without such restrictions, because there were not immigration restrictions in all states or at the federal level.

My basic point here is that when many Americans—including me for most of my life, before I began working in immigration law—believe that immigrants ought to just come “the legal way the way that my grandparents [or great-grandparents or great-great-grandparents] did,” we often do so without realizing how dramatically federal policies have changed since our ancestors’ era. I legitimately believed for most of my life that immigrants present unlawfully were in their situation because they were either too uninformed or too lazy to “get legal,” and my interactions at local churches throughout the country suggest to me that this presumption is quite widespread. I’m not advocating a return to a situation where anyone could immigrate to the U.S. without limit, but I do think we should understand the historical reality before bragging about our immigration-law-abiding ancestors’ moral superiority to immigrants today. As I’ve noted elsewhere, it’s analogous to a basketball coach bragging that his team scored 100 points, compared to the ten points earned by a baseball team: the boast is illogical since the rules of the game are wildly different.

Robert’s point, though, that anti-immigrant sentiment (which was often synonymous with anti-Catholic sentiment) was widespread in 1850 is absolutely accurate, and I believe relevant to our contemporary debates over immigration. Today, of course, I think it’s fairly rare to encounter Americans whose primary concern about immigration is that newcomers might be Catholic, or that their commitment to papal authority would make it impossible to affirm constitutional and democratic values. But, as Messiah College historian John Fea has observed, these sentiments are not all that far off from the concerns that many Americans—particularly, according to polling, white evangelical Christians—have about Muslim immigrants. I’m not arguing that Catholicism (which I believe to be an orthodox expression of the Christian faith) and Islam (which, of course, is not) are synonymous, but I do believe that principles of religious liberty—which too many Protestants failed to apply to Catholics in the mid-19th century—also should be applied fairly to Muslims (or those of any other religious tradition) today. 

Another disputed fact came from my parenthetical assertion that “chain migration is basically a myth.” What I meant by that was what I explained in the preceding sentence: that, “contrary to popular misperception, it is not possible to petition for one’s cousins, grandparents, or other extended family members” under existing US immigration law. My understanding of the idea of “chain migration” is essentially what President Trump stated in his State of the Union address: that our family reunification laws allow a single immigrant to sponsor “virtually unlimited numbers of distant relatives.” I do not dispute that our immigration laws allow U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents to petition for particular family members (all relationships I would consider my close relatives: parents, spouse, children, siblings), nor that this is the most common avenue for lawful migration under existing law—in fact, I think I explained that system in some detail in my first piece. But this is very different than the president’s conception of “chain migration,” which I believe is held by many Americans, that existing laws allow a “virtually unlimited number” of “distant” relatives. That conception is what I maintain is “basically a myth,” since family petitions are limited to those relatives allowed in statute (not cousins, grandparents, etc.). On average, an immigrant to the U.S. petitions for fewer than two relatives in a lifetime, which is far from the exponential growth that a “virtually unlimited number” suggests.

Where We Agree

I readily concur, though, with Robert’s last point, reflecting on a biblical theme:  immigration is used as one of the central metaphors for the Christian life. “Our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20) and on this earth we are (depending on the English translation), aliens, strangers, exiles, and sojourners (Hebrews 11:13, 1 Peter 2:11).

For those of us who are followers of Christ, our primary identity ought not to be as Americans, nor as Republicans or Democrats, nor as “citizens of this world”—but in Christ. All other allegiances should be secondary, without any that could even come near to rivaling our primary identity.

This belief has some ramifications for how Christians who also are Americans think about immigration policy. It’s a caution against merging “God” and “country” as a single entity in our minds, as if our patriotism and loyalty to our country of origin (while not wrong if rightly ordered) were synonymous with our Christian faith. This mindset can lead us to so elevate the United States that we are unwilling to invite others into the blessing of this country, lest they take a part of what we view as ours (falling into a “fixed pie fallacy” that presumes that more people in the country necessarily means less for those of us already here). As recipients of Christ’s lavish generosity, as naturalized citizens of his kingdom (Ephesians 2:11-20), we can be open-handed toward others, trusting God to both provide for and protect us.

On the other hand, as Robert alludes to, the biblical teaching that our citizenship is in heaven is a helpful corrective to a view that imagines the U.S. as a “perceived heaven on earth,” and thus immigration to the U.S. as an unqualified good. As commentator Luma Simms rightly observes, beyond the question of whether immigration is good for the United States, we also must ask whether immigration is good for immigrants. If the U.S. were the kingdom of God, the answer would always be “yes”—but the U.S. is certainly not the kingdom of God, and we err if for a moment we think it is (or is something close to it). I believe we can and should show kindness and hospitality to immigrants (Robert has affirmed he does as well), but I believe Robert is wise to caution that Christian immigration advocates not imply that immigration to the U.S. is always a good thing. When emigration is a decision made under duress, forced by persecution or hunger, it may be a lesser tragedy than staying put, but it is still grievous.

In fact, while I find the language of “comprehensive immigration reform” useful as shorthand for a package of policy changes designed to be politically palatable for those on different sides of the immigration debate, I’m concerned that our policy proposals are actually insufficiently comprehensive. They usually do little to nothing to address the situations that inspire or in some cases compel individuals to emigrate in the first place, including extreme poverty, conflict, war, and environmental degradation. I believe a truly comprehensive approach to immigration would include doing all we can—both governmentally and through local churches and other non-governmental organizations—to make living conditions outside the U.S. more just, so that fewer would feel that emigration was their best option.

Robert’s concern with the centrality of spreading the gospel globally is also something I can readily affirm, and indeed much of our work at World Relief, where I work, is focused internationally on holistic church-based programs where poverty alleviation and disciple-making are integrally connected. I believe that immigration also presents an opportunity for proclaiming the gospel within the U.S. and in other immigrant-receiving countries. I fear, though, that the rhetoric employed by too many Christians regarding immigrants—viewing them (not just an action to enter without inspection or overstay a visa) as “illegal,” calling children “anchor babies,” broadly stereotyping Mexican immigrants as rapists and drug-dealers or Muslim immigrants as terrorists—is a poor witness, repelling people from the message of the gospel.

To the contrary, when the church lives into the biblical commands to welcome immigrants—in practical, tangible ways in local communities, but also in advocating for their wellbeing by seeking changes to public policies—I believe we can be the “fragrant aroma” of Christ (2 Corinthians 2:15), drawing people to Jesus much the way that the smell of freshly-baked bread entices me in as I walk by a bakery.

As I noted in my first essay, while I have strong opinions about immigration policy (some of which likely coincide with Robert’s views—I look forward to reading his promised perspective on what justice would look like for those who have benefitted from the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program—while others of which may not), my primary passion is to see the church respond well, in ways consistent with the biblical witness and true to the character of Jesus, to immigrants themselves. To the extent that, as polls have shown, most evangelical Christians do not take their cues on immigration issues from the Bible, but from media accounts, personal experience, or political talking points, I fear that we are at risk of missing a divinely orchestrated opportunity for the church in the U.S. to faithfully love our immigrant neighbors, practice hospitality, make disciples of all nations, and seek God’s justice.

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Reader Comments (1)

Thanks for a great set of essays. Specific, balanced, informed by both facts and experience. I learned a lot and largely agree with your proposals.

March 21, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterClarke Cochran

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