Illegal Immigration: Where Conservative Evangelicals Can Show Independence from the GOP

Illegal Immigration: Where Conservative Evangelicals Can Show Independence from the GOP June 18, 2012

As anyone who follows the news already knows, President Obama decreed unilaterally that the United States government will cease deporting illegal immigrants who meet certain criteria:

  1. You must have come to the United States before your sixteenth birthday.
  2. You must be younger than 30 presently.
  3. You must have lived in the United States for five years without a criminal history.
  4. You must have either graduated from high school or served in the military.

The significance of the President’s decision is primarily psychological and electoral.  To take them in reverse order: this was as naked an act of political gamesmanship as you are ever wont to see.  Don’t fool yourself; Obama is a politician like all the rest.  In my view, he’s among the slickest and most manipulative, but let’s leave that aside.  Obama has looked down the list of the groups whose coalition elected him last time, and has moved systematically down the list, giving goodies in exchange for renewed favor.  He stated his support for same-sex marriage and received a surge of donations to his campaign fund from upwardly mobile gays.  He made this decision and his support from Hispanics has surged.

The effect is psychological or symbolic because few illegal immigrants who met these criteria were being deported in the first place — but now they can have the comfort of knowing that they will still not be deported for…well, at least six months or so, as long as the Obama administration endures.  Since it was accomplished by fiat of executive order and not by the legislative process, it can be reversed at any time.  Obama has never really thrown his weight behind comprehensive immigration reform, as he had promised, but he will claim (falsely) that this was the most he could accomplish with those darned Republicans getting in the way.  It’s easy to imagine that if President Bush had made a decision of similar magnitude by circumventing the legislative process, the screams of “imperial presidency” would have resounded from coast to coast.

As a Christian, I feel torn in two directions by this decision.  On the one hand, I cannot condone the process, and I don’t know if the practical benefit is so great that the harm to the process can be overlooked.  This feels sloppy and slapdash, not so much fixing the problem as papering it over with something temporary and partial and more about appearances than realities.  On the other hand, if it’s really true that 800,000 Americans feel relief at the knowledge that this administration does not intend to deport them, then I am happy for them.  They should not have to live in fear that the American government will tear them away from the only home they’ve ever known.

The last time comprehensive immigration reform was seriously debated across both parties, the American public made it clear that it wanted to get the borders under control before we started giving amnesty or immunity or paths to citizenship.  This made sense.  If you cannot control the flow of illegals across the border, then granting immunity will only entice more to come in ways that break our laws.  There’s nothing compassionate in failing to enforce laws and bringing about chaos — and there’s nothing evil in a country that controls its borders and ensures an orderly and fair process.

As other Patheos bloggers have pointed out, the deeper problems here are with the non-enforcement of immigration law and border control that led to this situation in the first place — and the politicians who allowed it to happen for their own personal benefit.  We should have an immigration process that is just, compassionate, wise, and enforced.  If it cannot be enforced, or if no one is willing to enforce it, then it needs to be changed.   In other words, we should not have 800,000 illegal immigrants who meet these criteria in the first place.  However, given that we do have them, I certainly don’t want to send them packing.

For every believer, the first question when confronted with a political issue is never “What does my party think?”  Membership in a political party may be adopted for pragmatic purposes, but the believer is defined by his relationship with God through Jesus Christ.  He takes every thought captive for Christ, submits all things to Christ, seeks the wisest way to live and to govern in light of the truths and the values that God has made known.  On many issues, I find myself aligned with the general consensus of the Republican party.  On other issues, I don’t.  It doesn’t really bother me.  My obligation is to consider every issue carefully according to the discernment God has given me, and to vote and speak on that basis, whether my liberal friends despise it or whether my conservative friends despise it.

Immigration law is one of those areas where evangelicals should, I believe, be drivers of change within the Republican party.  There’s no space here for a serious debate over the immigration issue.  But this is one of those places where I believe evangelicals can show their independence from the GOP, and where the GOP, given its need for evangelical support, will move accordingly.  The great news is: it’s already happening.  When the head of Focus on the Family — along with SBC luminaries like Russell Moore and Timothy George — sign a statement calling for just this kind of reform, then you know something is afoot.

The truth is, the Republican party is of many minds on the issue, and evangelicals can align themselves with the Marco Rubios and press for a comprehensive solution that controls the borders, installs an enforceable set of laws, encourages the kinds of immigrants we need, treats those who came here illegally humanely, and makes a space for those who came here as children, and who have never committed crimes, to participate fully in our society without fear of deportation.  If Romney were to win, especially with Rubio on the ticket, Republicans probably would have accomplished something along these lines in any case.  (If I were the Democrats, I would have been terrified by this prospect, since the Democrats cannot win without a huge advantage in the Latino vote.)  So what’s needed is not so much changing the direction of the Republican party as emphasizing one wing within it.

When I try to determine where to stand on an issue, my Christian principles are everything.  Party platform does not even come into the equation.  I determine where I stand, and then I find a party that will help me advance those principles — or, in the real world where no party perfectly represents those principles, I find a party that best reflects my beliefs on the most central matters and I press for change where needed.

We are always independent.  Our primary loyalty is never to a party.  And on immigration, we should make that clear.  The more strident voices deserve our opprobrium.  The saner voices deserve our support.  And on this issue I’m happy to see that evangelicals are moving the conversation forward.

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  • Tim

    This is a characteristically thoughtful post, Tim. My problem is that, after living in Washington, DC for 17 years, I’ve lost my optimism that our political system (as currently constructed) can achieve justice for the immigrants without creating even greater injustices for everyone else. Put another way: I supported the Iraq War, and I was particularly moved by the justice arguments for liberating suffering Iraqis. But, with what I know now about the war *as it actually occurred*, I would be far less easily persuaded by future arguments for full scale wars rooted (in significant part) by humanitarian concerns.

    With immigration, we have so much evidence (from the 1986 Amnesty and the constant lawsuits by various actors who oppose *any* immigration enforcement) that the “enforcement-for-humanitarianism” trade will not actually happen with the political system we have. Too many groups have an interest in constant racial unrest. Too many businesses have an (understandable but broadly injurious) interest in a steady supply of cheap and semi-exploitable labor. The cheap labor coalition in the GOP *and* the “repel the invaders” elements of the party fail to treat immigrants as divine image-bearers. No matter which side I take, I’m taking sides with someone who I’m very uncomfortable standing with.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      I hear you, Tim. I wouldn’t support a general immunity prior to securing the border, to be sure. But I can support something for DREAMers as a part of a comprehensive solution that tightens border security — even if I fear, as you say, that the enforcement will be half-hearted and frequently undermined. Unfortunately, it seems like the only truly effective solution to our illegal immigration problem is a tanking economy.

  • Agreed, Tim. Those on the conservative side tend to miss and/or dismiss the economic element; complicity, due to collective greed, is rarely even mentioned. You can always count on law enforcement and demonization of those who cross. It’s all so sad These blinders need to come off if we are truly going to offer a prophetic voice in our land.

  • John Haas

    Timothy Dalreymple, June 2012: “Obama has never really thrown his weight behind comprehensive immigration reform, as he had promised, but he will claim (falsely) that this was the most he could accomplish with those darned Republicans getting in the way.”

    Flashing back to June 2007: “The U.S. Senate dealt a fatal blow on Thursday to President George W. Bush’s overhaul of immigration policy … exposing a deep lack of support among Bush’s own Republicans, the bill fell 14 votes short of the 60 needed in the 100-member Senate to advance toward a final vote. … the president was unable to overcome fierce opposition from fellow Republicans … A majority of Republicans in the House of Representatives also opposed the Senate bill.”

    The only way I can make sense of these two paragraphs is to assume Mr. Dalrymple has discovered a hitherto unknown fact — that Republicans in congress are more eager to work with President Obama on immigration reform than they were with President Bush.

    I suspect Mr. Dalrymple’s judgment on that matter isn’t shared by a majority of astute political observers. Of course, perhaps they’re all wrong, and he’s right.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Nice try, John. Key difference: Obama had 60 Democrats in the Senate. If he had really thrown his full weight behind immigration reform, put all his then-considerable political capital behind it, really used the bully pulpit, there is no doubt in my mind that he could at least have accomplished more than he has. I suspect astute political observers would agree.

      Another point, though. He never really tried. It doesn’t say much for your leadership skills if you’re only willing to move forward when you’re sure you can get the bill passed.

      • John Haas

        Sixty? The magic number? Really?

  • Tom Wiley

    We are in a lose-lose position on immigration. I picked in the fields as a boy and it was hard work for which I didn’t make very much money. Today it is illegal for my own children to work in the fields, yet the children of illegal immigrants are free to do so. This is not right! We have created a 2nd class citizen working in our country with no rights, meanwhile my own children are stuck inside playing XBOX, when I’d rather they be outside learning how to work as I did. Once they’ve graduated from HS or College, it’s too late and they’ve already learned from our institutions that they can just coast through live. (ie: Look at the occupiers!) I also do not believe that law breakers should be rewarded for breaking the law with yet another amnesty deal. A path to full citizenship yes, but amnesty, no. I can say with confidence that much of the illegals in this country are here in part because of illegal drugs. The same Coyote’s that run drugs across the border also run people and often times use them a mules. I don’t think you can solve illegal immigration without stopping the flow of illegal drugs. Just my opinion…