This is the final post of this blog. Throughout this week we have tried to both summarize the prior five weeks of the blog and also think about how we can apply the lessons moving forward. Thus far, we have not focused a great deal on the policy issues that surround our immigration debates. We have not spent a lot of time considering the details of questions about immigration policy, but have instead focused on the people involved. This seems like the necessary foundation for moving to policy. But perhaps it has seemed like there is an elephant in the room. The things that people are arguing about often relate to policy proposals. For example: Should we have amnesty for undocumented immigrants already in the country, should we seek to deport them, or something in between? We might also ask: How do we enforce border security? Or: How many refugees should we invite into our country?
Freedom and Principle
I want to begin by repeating what we have often said throughout the blog: these issues are very complex and there is freedom for Christians to disagree on many things. At the same time, there are biblical principles in play that we have to consider. On one hand, we should remember that many specific policies do not have a biblical proof text. For example, there is no bible passage that we can point to that will tell us exactly how to enforce border security. On the other hand, there are a large number of passages that speak to the way in which we treat refugees and immigrants in our midst. In fact, the category for “sojourner” becomes a biblical test case in the Old Testament for how we give justice to the marginalized. These are not a few isolated passages, but they are a substantial thread through the concept of societal justice in the Bible. A partial list of references includes: Ex. 22:21, 23:9; Lev. 19:10, 23:22, 24:22, 25:6; Num 9:14, 15:15; Dt. 10:19, 14:29, 24:19-22, 27:19; Jer. 7:5-7; Ez. 22:7,29; Zec. 7:10, Mal 3:5. Drawing out one of these texts, we can observe the seriousness with which God takes this issue:
"You shall not pervert the justice due to the sojourner or to the fatherless, or take a widow's garment in pledge, but you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this.” (Deuteronomy 24:17-18)
Remembering the Big Story
The passage above grounds the social ethic in the corporate experience of God’s people as former “sojourners”. Their people had been dependent and mistreated. Therefore, it was inexcusable for them to do the same. The same could be said of America. We are a nation of immigrants and we should be expected to keep that perspective when we think about this issue. But it is even more the case for Christians. We are called to think of ourselves as an exiled people (I Pet. 1:1, Heb. 13:12-14.) Therefore, we should be particularly aware of the challenges faced by immigrants and refugees.
But most importantly, we need to ground all of our considerations in a reminder of the big story. Throughout the Bible, God is calling people to himself from every tongue, tribe, and nation. It is easy to see the way in which God is using the unprecedented people movements of the early 21st century as a means of achieving this goal. This does not resolve the challenging policy issues, but it should guide our hopes and dreams. I am not arguing for a policy of open borders, but I do believe that we can only think properly about this issue if we keep our eyes fixed on the big story. As people relocate around the world, God has a purpose. This purpose is found in many parts of the bible, but the grand vision of Isaiah expresses it very well:
“It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come, and say: "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths." For out of Zion shall go the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.” (Isaiah 2:2-3)
This is not a verse about people coming to America. It is a verse about people coming to faith in Christ and finding a common unity in their savior. It also shapes the way we think about people movements. God is shaking the nations and people are moving. We never fully know his purposes, but we do know that he is drawing people from every nation to himself through faith in Jesus Christ. You may have noticed that the themes of spiritual journeys were often interwoven into the physical journeys of immigrants and refugees in our blog posts. This is not an accident. This is what God is doing. We are mere witnesses.
A Broken System
One of the things that really stood out to me over the course of these last six weeks are the problems present in our current immigration situation. This should not be a surprise. There have been many legislative attempts at fixing this issue in the last two decades. All have ended in gridlock and as a result the broken system continues. Let me give a brief summary of what I see.
Over the last couple of decades a large number of immigrants have entered the United States across the Mexican-American border. Again, this is not really a surprise. History is full of these sorts of movements, and they are often quite messy. It is estimated that there are as many as 11 million undocumented immigrants living in our country, many from Hispanic backgrounds. There are millions more that are living and working here as citizens or without proper documentation. Some people have entered the country legally but have overstayed their visa. Most immigrants are motivated by better economic opportunities. Many are willing to work for a lower wage. The influx of works has a downward effect of workers’ wages in many fields. Remember the interview with construction workers in North Carolina: immigrants are willing to work for less and they have displaced American workers in some fields.
However, because immigrants are not able to compete in all occupations, the effect of this is not felt in all career fields. Manual labor and parts of the service industry are the hardest hit. “Loving our neighbor” requires that we show concern for the sojourner in our midst. But it also requires that we show concern for American workers who experience the suppression of wages associated with mass immigration. It can be easy for Americans who work in fields not affected by mass immigration to dismiss this to quickly.
However, we can’t end our analysis there. Extricating ourselves from a difficult situation is not easy. We should remember that many other parties have been involved in this process and the benefits have also been felt unevenly. American employers save costs and underbid their competitors by hiring lower cost immigrant workers. American consumers also benefit because they pay less for services done by immigrants. Undocumented Immigrants gain economic opportunities, but also suffer. They are not afforded the full protection of the law and are often vulnerable to being taken advantage of. Although the system is broken, there are winners and losers. The following chart lays this out:
I am more convinced than ever that immigration reform is necessary. Allowing the current system to continue only perpetuates a bad situation. Undocumented immigrants are vulnerable. But while they are undocumented they are less able to bargain for competitive wages. This is turn contributes to suppression of wages and harms many types of American workers.
Most attempts at immigration reform have three components. First, they attempt to deal with the millions of undocumented workers that are already here. Second, they deal with immigration controls going forward – such as border security. Third, they deal with enforcement in the work sector – pressuring employers to hire only documented workers. I will make a few brief comments on each section.
i. Eleven million undocumented immigrants
This is a very challenging issue and many of the previous attempts to “fix” the immigration issue floundered here. What do you do with the millions of people who already live in our country, but not currently documented? There is no answer that is simple and good. One simplistic, but extreme solution is to deport everyone who does not have documentation of legal entry into the country. However, like most simple solutions, it runs into many roadblocks. Deporting 11 million people is a massive operation and would seem unjust to many Americans. It is not a realistic solution.
Beyond being unreasonable, I believe that it would be unjust. Consider the following. Even if we were to think of illegal immigration as a crime, nearly all crimes have a statute of limitations. Crimes also need to have intentional activity. Think through the challenges of these questions:
- Two-thirds of undocumented immigrants have lived in the United States for more than 10 years. If a person entered the country, illegally, 10-20 years ago and has lived and worked there for that entire time, should they be deported now?
- In Pennsylvania, the statute of limitations for trespass is 2 years. It is also 2 years for assault and battery. How could it be just to enforce immigration regulations that are older than 2 years? Would it really be right to enforce illegal immigration more thoroughly than assault and battery?
- If we decided that there is no statute of limitations for illegally entering a country, then how far back in history would our attempts at restitution go? We know that the United States government made and broke a long succession of treaties with Native Americans. According to this line of reasoning wouldn’t every person who holds titles to land illegally gained - at some point in history – also be a type of “illegal immigrant?”
- I think that this thought exercise shows that we typically assume some sort of statute of limitations on people’s movements.
- Furthermore, many people who are considered illegal immigrants came to the United States as minors. For nearly all other crimes, it is necessary for there to be criminal intent. How could we assess the criminal intention of a minor who had no part of the decision to come to this country?
- Considering this issue through a more compassionate lens, we need to remember that people who have lived in the United States for over a decade could not easily return to their country of origin.
It seems to me that a just process of immigration reform would need to provide pathways to citizenship for immigrants who have lived in this country for a significant amount of time. That is not to suggest that this is a normal course, but a necessary corrective as we re-calibrate a system that has been out of whack for a long time.
ii. Border Security
Just as there are simplistic answers for dealing with undocumented workers currently here, there are also simplistic answers for border security. The president’s proposal to build a wall is often viewed as being unrealistic and overly harsh. It seems to me that the opposition is primarily to the symbolism of the action. (This is not to minimize the impact of symbolic actions, which can greatly impact the way policy is enforced and shape public opinion.) All walls have doors in them and even a wall on the entire border between the United States and Mexico would have places of entry and egress. In my view, border security is necessary as long as we have reasonable access to and from the country, whether there is an actual physical wall or not.
On the other extreme, some people would profess that an “open border policy” would solve our immigration dilemma. But, insistence on open borders fails to offer any protection for American workers and fails to recognize real threats to national security. In his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul reminds us that God’s purpose for the government of any nation is to protect its citizens (Rom. 13:4). There are real threats in the world and pretending that they don’t exist does not make our neighbors across this nation any safer. Given the turmoil in the world, it would seem to me that concern for border security is not only realistic but necessary.
iii. Enforcement of employment laws
Enforcing employment laws would create a more just work force for both American workers and immigrants. Currently, American consumers and employers have benefited from the services of undocumented workers. Justice requires that we hold employers accountable for who they hire. In the current system, there are large disincentives for doing this. Employers in certain fields (like construction and agriculture) cannot compete without hiring immigrants. Lack of enforcement in this area creates an uneven playing field. It penalizes American workers and documented immigrants. It also creates an environment in which undocumented workers exist outside of legal structures. They are not afforded the protections of the law and have reduced bargaining power. This situation is clearly viewed in the Bible as being unjust. Consider this biblical command:
“For the assembly, there shall be one statute for you and for the stranger who sojourns with you, a statute forever throughout your generations. You and the sojourner shall be alike before the LORD.” (Numbers 15:15)
Perpetuating our current system would have some benefits for employers and consumers, but it is not good for American workers and immigrants. It is clearly the type of system that the Bible would call “unjust.” It would seem to me that justice requires enforcing immigration laws in the market place.
Refugees are Different
As we have frequently said, the issues are complex. One area of complexity is the distinction between immigrants and refugees. Immigrants enter the country by choice, while refugees are driven from their homeland because of famine or violence. (When we were in Greece, this distinction was readily acknowledged by everyone in the society.) As a result, it is not reasonable to run the same cost-benefit analysis for refugees. Refugees may assume a measure of risk for a host country. Yet, we do this because we are called to be merciful to those in need. Many of the biblical commands about caring for sojourners assume this sort of situation. When we think of the story that Jesus told about the good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37), we are reminded that stopping to care for a wounded stranger on the Jericho road would place the Samaritan at risk. It was also a financially costly endeavor for the Samaritan. But according to Jesus, it is the definitive expression of neighborly love. We ignore this to our own peril.
Furthermore, it is helpful to distinguish the immigration system from the refugee system. Unlike the former, the refugee system is not broken. Refugees are thoroughly vetted before entering this country.
This process is not nearly as thorough in other countries. In most cases it is a two year process to enter the United States. As was stated in an earlier article, there has never been a violent terrorist attack by someone who entered the United States through the refugee system in the four decades of its existence. That is not to say that there is no risk in welcoming refugees, but it does tell us that the risk is pretty negligible. We already have “extreme vetting” in our current refugee system.
There are violent people in the world and we need systems that screen them out. But an indiscriminate halt to the refugee program punishes those that are fleeing violence. We cannot love our neighbor without assuming risk, but we want to be certain that our fears do not prevent us from extending refuge to those who are in need.
More Discussions to Come
If you are still reading this post… there are ways in which you can participate in the discussion. We are planning to have a Monday evening Agora Forum discussion which will focus on the topic of immigration policy. We are currently planning to do this on Monday, June 26, 7:00-9:00 pm at City Reformed’s office. If you want to contribute or push back to any of these ideas, please feel free to come and talk with me in person. I will present some of the things listed here and others will present proposals that may differ. We want to foster a place for reasonable discussion.
I will conclude with special thanks to Kevin and Evelyn for their partnership in the blog. Even if I could have pulled this off alone (not likely) it would have been an impoverished product without your many insights. I am deeply thankful for your participation.
I would like to thank the many contributors who really made this blog special. By my rough estimate we have had over two dozen contributors during the course of this blog. What an amazing wealth of perspectives and insights! Many were from our congregation, but others from throughout the country and across the world.
I am also thankful for my wife, who sacrificed time from our already busy schedule to let me write.
Finally, I want to thank our many readers. Your comments and questions helped to stimulate the endeavor. Your “likes” and “reposts” spread the news. Your encouragements kept us going.
Above all, we thank the living God. He is calling people from every place to himself. The nations are streaming to the temple of the Lord through faith in Christ Jesus, and we are all invited to “learn his ways” and to “walk in his paths!”