Evangelicals and Immigration Reform

Immigration reform is an excellent example of a political controversy on which faithful Christians legitimately disagree. Both the New York Times and the Washington Post have recently run stories drawing attention to increasing Evangelical support for immigration reform. Some of the most significant Evangelical organizations associated in the past with the strident conservatism of the Christian Right – including the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), Focus on the Family, and the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) – have thrown their weight behind the cause.

At the same time, among the broader Evangelical population there is still significant hostility towards immigration reform; according to the Washington Post, it remains the demographic most opposed to what many conservatives regard simply as amnesty. Conservatives expect people to work hard, act responsibly, and obey the law. They worry a lot about the growing demographic of Americans who don’t seem to share their understanding of what it means to be an American, and the idea that someone would enter this country illegally and then expect the same public benefits as anyone else flies in the face of that fear. It’s not that they are opposed to immigration, as they will tell you. They just think it should be done legally. You can’t give amnesty to someone who has broken the law or you will simply encourage her or him to do it again.

That said, in his defense of immigration reform Tea Party Senator Marco Rubio rightly reminds such critics that when we talk about enforcing the law and about deportation we are talking not primarily about criminals but about people. In many cases we are talking about children and young people who have been born and grown up in this country but whose parents immigrated illegally. We are talking about married couples, perhaps a woman who has entered the country illegally but whose husband is an American. Though in many cases the human cost of deportation is not very significant, in other cases we are contemplating breaking up families, arresting people, and forcibly deporting them, whatever the moral and personal cost may be.

Again, I understand that this is an issue on which Christians legitimately disagree. I would not want my church taking a defined position on immigration legislation, which is why I take issue with what the NAE and ERLC (though not so much Focus on the Family) are doing. How do you balance the integrity of the law against empathy, retributive justice against restorative justice, the common good against the well-being of individuals, a person’s identity in terms of citizenship against her calling as a wife and mother? The church should lay out biblical principles that policymakers must keep in mind (i.e., don’t split up families), but it hardly has divine authority to promote particular legislation.

I personally believe immigration reform is an urgent necessity of our time. I expect many of you to disagree, and that’s fine; I may well be wrong. That said, I do want to comment on the irony of American conservatives – that segment of the population most likely to take the history of nations, cultures, and institutions seriously – calling for such a hardline against illegal Mexican immigrants.

How many of our ancestors (political ancestors if not literal ones) broke the law when they came to this country, or when they pushed irrepressibly westward? I’m not just talking about the occupation of lands inhabited by natives who had little understanding of property ownership. I’m talking about the refusal of Americans over and over to obey the treaties their own country signed with various tribes, the insistence that even if these non-white people had been pushed off their lands multiple times already, they should be pushed off yet again. And what of the mass American migration into Mexican territory that resulted in the Texan secession from Mexico and ultimately in the huge land-grab resulting from the most unjust war in American history (Mexican War, 1846-1848)? (By my count the territories we seized from Mexico add up to about 130 votes in the electoral college.)

My point is not to question the wisdom, virtue, and hard work on which American prosperity is built. Conservatives rightly point out that we can’t turn back the clock and make these wrongs right. As with the case of reparations to former slaves, it is far better to move on and move forward than to continually haggle over the sins of the past. Clemency is just as important a political virtue as is justice.

But then why do so many view illegal immigration so differently? To be sure, there are approximately 15 million people who are currently living in this country illegally. They have broken the law. And yet they now play a vital role in the American economy, performing hard work that many other Americans are not willing to do, contributing far more to this country than they take from it. They believe in the American dream, the same American dream that motivated our own ancestors.

Finding a way for these people to work through a process – a process that involves penalties and a significant amount of waiting time – that would enable them to hold their families together, work towards prosperity, and become legal residents hardly seems like an outlandish proposal, let alone one that would destroy the integrity of the law. To be sure, it would have to be accompanied by stricter border enforcement. But it is unlikely that, even were the present immigration reform to amount in an “amnesty” like that of the 1980s, we would find ourselves in the same mess in 20 years that we are in today. An improving economy and rapidly falling birth rates south of the border mean that there are far fewer Mexicans interested in entering the United States than was once the case.

In any case, it’s good to see Evangelicals increasingly seeing both sides of this difficult issue. Enforcing the law at all costs, as Les Miserables has recently reminded us, is not the same thing as justice. We’ll see what happens.


About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on April 19, 2013, in Immigration, Latinos, National Association of Evangelicals, Southern Baptist Convention and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Evangelicals and Immigration Reform.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: