Category Archives: Immigration

How Should the Church Respond to Trump’s Travel Ban?

I began wrestling with this question last week Sunday when I read about two Christian families from Syria who, after fourteen years of working to attain permission to come to America, were told upon arriving at the airport that they either needed to leave the country or lose their visas. As CNN reported that morning:

Two brothers, their wives and children left war-torn Syria with 16 suitcases and crossed the border into Lebanon. They were finally on their way to the United States after working for almost 15 years to join their family members stateside.

But after a flight from Beirut to Doha, Qatar, and then to Philadelphia on Saturday, the two families were told to get on a flight back to Doha. It was because President Donald Trump had just signed an executive order denying citizens from seven countries, including Syria, entry into the United States.

One can imagine what these families – their last name is Asali – were going through. The years of painstaking work on applications and all manner of procedural requirements. The emotional stress. The financial cost. The lack of understanding (they spoke limited English and had no access to a lawyer or to their family members in Pennsylvania). The fear of what returning to Syria – where hundreds of thousands have died during the past few years, and where their ethnic group is one of the most persecuted – might mean. They already had a home purchased for them and fully furnished in America.

I wrestled with how the church should respond to Trump’s travel ban that morning. In the services I led I reminded the worshipers of the trauma families like these are experiencing. And I prayed for them. I prayed for all those who were suffering from the president’s sweeping travel ban.

But I didn’t write anything publicly because I wasn’t sure how to approach the issue in a way that wouldn’t seem politicized. Christians are already deeply divided about immigration and about what our government has to do to protect us from terrorism. And it is, in fact, a primary responsibility of government to protect us from terrorism by controlling who is permitted to enter the United States. So we need to be very careful here. No pastor has the right to dictate immigration policy, let alone national security policy, from the pulpit.

That said (and I would not say this in a church service), the sheer arbitrariness and irrationality of President Trump’s travel ban is quite well established. For one thing, even its staunchest defenders do not defend its execution. But we can go beyond that. Not a single properly vetted refugee has carried out a terrorist attack in the United States since 9/11. As the Atlantic observes:

Over the last four decades, 20 out of 3.25 million refugees welcomed to the United States have been convicted of attempting or committing terrorism on U.S. soil, and only three Americans have been killed in attacks committed by refugees—all by Cuban refugees in the 1970s…

Here’s another fascinating statistic. As the libertarian Cato Institute points out, “Foreigners from those seven nations have killed zero Americans in terrorist attacks on U.S. soil between 1975 and the end of 2015.”

The reality is that most of the terrorist attacks America has endured since 2001 have been committed by American citizens or permanent residents. True, some of these were foreign born. But to quote the Atlantic again, “Between 1975 and 2015, the ‘annual chance of being murdered by somebody other than a foreign-born terrorist was 252.9 times greater than the chance of dying in a terrorist attack committed by a foreign-born terrorist.'”

There is good reason, then, why the courts might not find that President Trump’s travel ban bears rational scrutiny – as it must, in order to be constitutional. We shall see where it all ends up, but I am thankful that, because of what the courts and other government officials have done, the Asalis have returned to the United States to stay.

In the meantime, what should the church do? Let’s be clear. I don’t think we should bring the politics or policy of the travel ban into our services. We need to be very careful here. We need to pay President Trump, his officials, and our courts the respect and deference we owe them, as the New Testament commands.

But that doesn’t mean our churches should stand by silently as human lives are thrown into chaos by the fallout. It doesn’t mean we should cease praying and advocating for the widow and the orphan, the stranger and the refugee. The vast majority of those affected by the ban are peaceful people who want to come to the United States for freedom, security, and prosperity just like our own ancestors did. And a good number of them are our brothers and sisters in Christ. Some of them are already part of our churches. We are responsible for them. We need to remember Paul’s admonition that if one part of the body suffers, we all suffer. Only by bearing one another’s burdens can we fulfill the law of Christ.

When I was a boy growing up in the mountains of northern British Columbia our small Christian Reformed congregation sponsored a refugee family who had been forced to flee the horror of genocide in Cambodia. I remember one young boy, Naroon was his name, who became my friend. We were about five years old. His family attended my church. The body of Christ became a ministry of salvation for them in a way that I will never forget.

At the very least, then, every church must make one thing clear. We stand in solidarity with refugees and immigrants. We respect our government’s right to determine when and how they come into this country, but we pray and advocate for the acceptance of as many refugees as is safe and feasible. Then, once they are here, we welcome them with open arms. We care for their material and spiritual needs. We help them find jobs, homes, and playmates for their children. We seek reconciliation and unity with them as brothers and sisters with whom we desire to be one body in Christ.

If we are afraid to do these things as churches and as Christians because they offend our political sensibilities then we had better take a deep breath and reconsider our politics. We have to ask ourselves, where does our primary loyalty lie? Jesus, for his part, has told us that he will take our treatment of refugees personally (Mathew 25).

To stand in solidarity with refugees and immigrants is not to politicize the church. It is to fulfill the exhortation of Christ in Matthew 25:45, “whatever you do for the least of these, you do it for me.”

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.

Why Conservatives Don’t Get Hispanics

There is a lot of talk out there right now about the Republican failure to attract Latino voters, who voted for President Obama by a whopping 71-27 ratio in the 2012 presidential election. Although whites made up 56% of Obama’s coalition only 39% of them voted for the president, the smallest percentage in the history of any major American political party.

In a column on Slate yesterday Matthew Yglesias pointed out that the main problem is not the issue of immigration:

Pundits are quickly turning to immigration to explain the Republicans’ Latino problem and to offer a possible cure, but the reality is that the rot cuts much deeper. The GOP doesn’t have a problem with Latino voters per se. Rather, it has a problem with a broad spectrum of voters who simply don’t feel that it’s speaking to their economic concerns. The GOP has an economic agenda tilted strongly to the benefit of elites, and it has preserved support for that agenda—even though it disserves the majority of GOP voters—with implicit racial politics.

Now you can disagree with Yglesias’s judgment in that last sentence but there is no question that what he says certainly reflects the way in which many Hispanics, and others, perceive the Republican Party. I have had enough conversations with hard-core conservatives and Republican Party activists to know that there is an element of truth to what Yglesias is saying. There is a subculture within Republican circles that is nativist, uncompassionate, and arrogant. Many conservatives do live in their own bubble, living and worshiping with people who are just like them in so many ways and have trouble connecting politically with those who don’t. The culture of the Democratic Party is quite different.

Yglesias goes on,

Polling suggests that the Latino problem for the GOP is deeper than immigration. John McCain got a scant 31 percent of the Latino vote despite a long record of pro-immigration policies. The best evidence available on Hispanic public opinion, a big election even poll from Latino Decisions and ImpreMedia, makes it clear that this is just a fairly liberal voting block. Just 12 percent of Latinos support a cuts-only approach to deficit reduction, and only 25 percent want to repeal Obamacare. Only 31 percent of Hispanics say they’d be more likely to vote for a Republican who supports the DREAM Act. This isn’t to say Latinos aren’t eager to see immigration reform, it’s just that the lion’s share have bigger reasons for rejecting the GOP.

This is important to take seriously. It’s not just Latinos and blacks that voted overwhelmingly for Obama. Other racial minorities, such as Asian Americans, did as well. The fact is, while Americans are evenly divided when it comes to Obamacare, most Americans recognized coming into Obama’s presidency that there was a desperate need for health care reform. In addition, most Americans believe it would be acceptable to raise taxes on the wealthy to a certain extent, along with cuts in discretionary spending and even a degree of entitlement reform. But conservatives sometimes simply deride such perspectives. There is a solid block of people who support the Tea Party affiliated Members of Congress who will brook absolutely no compromise with the Democrats on any of these matters.

All that said, I don’t think we can separate the issue of immigration from these other issues. For part of the reason why so many conservatives – those most influential in shaping the Republican primary process that drives Republicans to the right on immigration – oppose immigration reform is their inflexible attitude about these other issues. 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 him or her to do it again.

And yet it is all a little bit odd. 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 occupied 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? (By my count the territories we seized from Mexico add up to about 130 votes in the electoral college.)

Hispanics in the United States according to the 2010 Census.

Territories seized by the United States from Mexico in 1845-1848.

My point is not to engage in pointless America trashing, nor is it 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. Many of them have had children here who are now by law American citizens. All of them believe in the American dream, the same American dream that motivated our own ancestors.

Note, virtually no one is proposing amnesty any more than they are suggesting that Americans should abandon any land between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC), the largest organization of Hispanic Christians in the country, makes quite clear that it believes illegal immigration is wrong and that justice requires that America strengthen its control over its border to prevent the continued violation of the law. The NHCLC calls not for amnesty but for reform that will allow people who broke the law in the past nevertheless to become legal residents and eventually citizens of this country, much like our ancestors regularly asked that the government recognize their own rights despite having repeatedly violated the law. As the president of the NHCLC, Samuel Rodriguez, puts it, any solution must include:

first, border protection that puts an end to all illegal immigration including the utilization of infrared, satellite and other technologies in addition to increased border patrols. Second, the creation of a market driven guest worker program and facilitative avenues by which millions of families already in America that lack the legal status can earn such status in a manner that reflects the Judeo Christian Value system this nation was founded upon. Third, an earned citizenship element that will enable current undocumented residents without a criminal record to earn citizenship status by going to the back of the line as it pertains to citizenship applicants, admonition of guilt with corresponding financial penalty, acquiring civic and language proficiency all while serving the local community.

This is not such an outlandish proposal, and given our nation’s history, conservatives have no right to consider it un-American. As Yglesias points out, immigration reform would not automatically bring Latinos into the Republican camp. But as I suggested yesterday, this isn’t ultimately about electoral politics but about virtuous political engagement. It’s about attitude, a spirit of cooperation, and the willingness to help people solve the problems that concern them most. If you don’t have this, you shouldn’t wonder why, despite your glorious political and economic principles, they wander to the other side.

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