Evangelical Support for Immigration Reform is Biblical, Not Political

Evangelical Support for Immigration Reform is Biblical, Not Political March 13, 2013

Many thanks to Matthew Soerens, who specializes on immigration issues for World Relief, for reading the recent guest post from Mark Tooley and offering this response:


Evangelical Support for Immigration Reform is Biblical, Not Political

By Matthew Soerens

Recently there appeared here at Philosophical Fragments a guest post by Mark Tooley, president of the Institute for Religion and Democracy, critical of evangelical leaders’ advocacy for what he calls “Comprehensive Immigration Reform,” which he suggests is an example of American evangelicalism slinking toward the liberalism represented by the National Council of Churches.

It is true that many evangelical leaders—including distinctly conservative folks such as Richard Land, Mathew Staver, Jim Daly, Pat Robertson, and Ralph Reed, as well as leaders of more politically neutral institutions such as InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, The Navigators, Prison Fellowship, World Vision, LifeWay Research, and my employer, World Relief, plus scores of Christian college and seminary presidents, denominational leaders, and influential pastors—support some of the same elements of immigration reform as the National Council of Churches.  The basic principles that many such leaders have advocated, which some have referred to as Comprehensive Immigration Reform (though that term does not appear in the Evangelical Statement of Principles for Immigration Reform), and which are also supported by the U.S. Catholic Bishops and by leaders of the Mormon church, include:

  • Ensuring secure national borders (making it harder to immigration illegally);
  • Revising the U.S.  visa system to provide both the high- and low-skilled labor necessary to sustain economic growth (making it easier to immigrate legally in the future, not without limit, but so as to approximate the needs of the U.S. labor market and to keep families united as they migrate); and
  • Establishing a process by which most of those who are currently present unlawfully could, after paying a fine for having violated the law, passing a criminal background check, and meeting certain other requirements during a probationary period of several years, eventually earn permanent legal status, providing a process by which they could ultimately become fully integrated citizens of the United States

While I would not claim to speak on behalf of all evangelical advocates of such reforms, I believe that the primary reason that most have spoken out is not, as Mr. Tooley hints, an embrace of sentimental, liberal theology, but rather an orthodox commitment to the authority of Scripture.

Mr. Tooley is correct, of course, that the Bible does not provide a specific prescription for U.S. immigration policy, but the Scriptures do speak to the topic of immigration repeatedly.  The Old Testament, in particular, is replete with God’s commands to his people to love, welcome, and ensure just treatment of immigrants.  Immigrants are mentioned repeatedly alongside the fatherless and the widow as uniquely vulnerable groups whom God commands his people to love and protect (Ps. 146:9, Zech. 7:10, Jer. 7:6).  The Israelites are commanded to allow their own history as an immigrant people to inform their treatment of those who come into their land (Ex. 23:9, Deut. 10:19). Hospitality—not having one’s friends over for a meal, but, literally, the love of strangers—is mentioned as a requirement for leadership in the Church (1 Tim. 3:2, Titus 1:8).  We are commanded to love our neighbors (Lev. 19:18)—immigrants explicitly included (Lev. 19:33-34)—and Jesus’ response to the question of “who is my neighbor?” offers no hint that our love should be conditioned upon the neighbor’s legal status, ethnicity, or sinlessness (Luke 10:25-37).

Mr. Tooley argues that Scripture never specifically addresses how to treat immigrants whose presence is unlawful: true enough (although Ruth, an immigrant from Moab, was arguably not supposed to have been lawfully allowed into the assembly of Israel, according to Deuteronomy 23:3, but Boaz still allowed her to glean in his fields, as commanded in Leviticus 23:22).  However, we also have no biblical exemption that suggests that the many commands to welcome and seek justice for immigrants should apply only to those who are particularly virtuous and upstanding.  Efforts, published by an organization with population control roots, to argue that the Hebrew ger (the word for a resident alien) specifically meant a lawfully-present immigrant require a great deal of presumption and have been thoroughly critiqued by evangelical scholars.  Given the strong statements of God’s judgment on those who disregarded his commands to protect the rights of immigrants (Mal. 3:5, Ezek.22:4-7), I prefer to err on the side of a more inclusive interpretation even if there is any ambiguity.

While the Scriptures are abundantly clear that Christians should respond to immigrants with hospitality and kindness, sincere believers may still legitimately disagree on the policy applications of these many biblical passages.  My concern, though—and that of many of the leaders of the Evangelical Immigration Table with whom I’ve interacted—is that most American evangelicals have not even reflected on what the Bible says on this topic.  The Pew Research Center found in 2010 that just 12% of white evangelicals say that their views on immigration are primarily informed by their Christian faith; that’s very likely a function of the reality that just 16% say they have ever heard the topic of immigration discussed by their pastor or other clergy.  It sure seems as if we have been skipping over the passages of Scripture that do not fit our political or cultural narrative—a practice of which I’ve been known to accuse theological liberals on other issues.  To correct this biblical blind spot, the Evangelical Immigration Table has launched the “I Was a Stranger” Challenge, providing a bookmark that lists 40 Scripture passages that relate in one way or another to the topic of immigration, which we are encouraging people to read, one passage per day.  The bookmark provides no commentary—we won’t even tell you which translation to use—and we are in no way insisting that every evangelical Christian come to the same conclusion on questions of public policy.  If we are to claim the authority of Scripture over all of our lives, though, we must at least be aware of what the Bible says.

Perhaps as a result of our generally myopic view of the Scriptural witness on this topic, only one in ten evangelical congregations in the U.S. has any sort of ministry or ministry partnership to reach immigrants: too many are missing what I am convinced is a divinely orchestrated missional opportunity.  Even with such a meager effort, though, immigrants already account for a significant and growing segment of American evangelicalism today: many evangelical denominational leaders have told me that their denominations would be on the decline if it were not for the arrival of immigrants—both those who arrive in the U.S. with a vibrant Christian faith and those who hear and accept the gospel for the first time in the U.S.  As churches engage in ministry, leaders encounter face to face the dysfunction of our U.S. immigration system, which in too many cases results in families living apart from one another for years or decades, sends those fleeing persecution back into harm’s way, facilitates workplace exploitation and even human trafficking, and threatens our national security, because it becomes nearly impossible to sort out the “needles” of those few with malicious intent from the “haystack” of the many simply seeking the dignity of a job, which was unavailable to them in their country of origin.  Our current system also mocks the biblical ideal of the rule of law (Rom. 13:1), because rather than spend billions of dollars to fully enforce a law that could devastate the U.S. economy, both Democratic and Republican administrations have looked the other way as employers and immigrants alike have skirted the law.

Mr. Tooley also suggests that evangelical leaders have not considered the consequences of reform; to the contrary, through their relationships with immigrant church leaders, in particular, many see and hear on a daily basis the dysfunction of our current system.  Many have studied very carefully—in consultation with biblical scholars as well as economists and legal experts—the effects of reform, and they have coalesced around support for policies that are also supported by both the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the major labor unions, as well as by law enforcement officials and most Americans.

Indeed, most white evangelicals, most Republicans, most Democrats, and most Americans all say they support the same sorts of common sense reforms as evangelical leaders.  But legislators have been intimidated by carefully coordinated phone call and fax campaigns organized by population control groups, who oppose further migration because they believe too many human beings will result in environmental degradation.  The Human Life Review recently published an exposé on the extensive ties between groups such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform, the Center for Immigration Studies, and NumbersUSA to the population control movement.  The founder of all three groups, whose population control ideology drives his opposition to immigration, is also a strong advocate of abortion rights: he started a Planned Parenthood chapter in Michigan and speaks approvingly of China’s one-child forced abortion policy.  NumbersUSA is explicit in its population control goals: “We’re very clear about what we are,” spokesperson Rosemary Jenks told WORLD Magazine recently.  Given that Mark Tooley’s Institute for Religion and Democracy’s website says it opposes “population control (which almost always includes abortion on demand),” and his reasoning that evangelicals should not address immigration policy because it might distract us from defending pre-born life, I was startled to note that the organization’s board of directors includes a NumbersUSA Vice President.

My challenge to Mr. Tooley would be to look carefully at where he is getting his information about immigration, and then to accept the 40-day “I Was a Stranger” Scripture-reading Challenge.  I’d further challenge him to invite an immigrant family from a local Latino church over for lunch, simply to listen and try to understand their perspective.  For many other evangelical leaders, that combination of Scripture and relationship has proven transformative, turning them into strong advocates for just, compassionate, common sense immigration reform policies.


Matthew Soerens is author of Welcoming the Stranger.

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  • Roy Beck

    As the President of NumbersUSA, I must respond to Matthew Soerens’ reference to my organization. The Bible may not be explicit about immigration but it couldn’t be clearer about bearing false witness, and the latter has occurred against NumbersUSA with great frequency by high-immigration enthusiasts. Matthew’s article here has been misinformed by a Human Life Review article that has been widely discredited by major pro-life voices. Counter to what Matthew has written here, NumbersUSA is NOT explicit in advocating population control goals and does NOT advocate in any other way the coercive population control he describes, or any of the human life issues attributed to it.

    Matthew uses a WORLD magazine quote from NumbersUSA’s Rosemary Jenks that “We’re very clear about what we are” as if it backs his assessment of us. But she explained to the reporter that Members of Congress know that what we are is an organization that deals only with immigration policies and from moderate, conservative and liberal perspectives that match the diverse views of our 1.5 million activists, our donors and our staff. Members of Congress have worked with NumbersUSA for 17 years and know that we do not deal with the non-immigration issues that Matthew suggests.

    Now, on to the substance of the debate rather than in name-calling: Although NumbersUSA is not a religious organization, many of us can speak from our individual convictions. I do not disagree in any way with Matthew’s reading of scripture that Christians should treat all aliens in our midst — whether permanent immigrants, legal visitors or illegal visitors — humanely and with Christian love. But the baptism of comprehensive immigration reform by many religious leaders carries a certainty that seems to suggest that scripture requires nations to give work permits or citizenship to virtually anybody who manages to violate their immigration laws, including tourists who fly in to Disney World and border crossers who pay their way by smuggling drugs and sex slaves. I don’t believe the religious leaders really believe that, for to do so would be to say that scripture forbids nations from having immigration laws at all.

    So, what are the pro-CIR religious leaders really talking about? I think they are asking for mercy — not justice — for the immigration lawbreakers. Matthew touches on the only real rationale for giving foreign citizens the residency and jobs they broke the law to get and that is that the anti-enforcement lobby has been successful so long in blocking workplace verification programs that citizens from other countries were enticed to break the law, take jobs here and become rooted in our national community.

    Here’s the big moral dilemma, though, for the pro-amnesty people: Making the immigration lawbreakers pay a fine and jump through a few other hoops doesn’t keep their presence in the labor market from hurting innocent people. Matthew wants Mark Tooley to invite a Latino immigrant family over for lunch to get to understand their situation. Well, I invite Matthew and all his fellow CIR advocates to invite some long-unemployed American families over to lunch — especially the less-educated, the disabled and the Black or Hispanic American families who suffer the greatest joblessness during this jobs depression now in its fifth year. Why? Because the mercy shown to lawbreaking foreign workers will be at the expense of the 20 million American workers who want a full-time job and can’t find one. More than 7 million of the illegal foreign workers are not in agriculture but in the construction, manufacturing and service occupations where a large share of the unemployed Americans are seeking jobs. I do not doubt the sincere concern of the pro-CIR religious leaders for illegal foreign workers they know and I do not doubt that a moral case can be made for mercy for at least for some of these foreign workers. But Christian justice demands at least an equal amount of concern to be shown to the most vulnerable members of our own national community. If you are going to back legislation to add millions of illegal foreign workers to the legal job market, what are you proposing to soften the harm to our vulnerable neighbors?

    Sadly, comprehensive immigration reform in every form proposed to date includes entries of huge new waves of legal foreign worker in the future. That’s right. CIR does not even try to soften the blow of an amnesty, it greatly exaccerbates the suffering of America’s unemployed by increasing green cards for many more foreign workers. Why are religious leaders siding with the most unjust economic forces of low-wage exploitation against the 20 million Americans standing in the jobs line, about half of whom have no education beyond high school? Are these not included in the “least of these” that we are called to serve?

    I founded NumbersUSA in 1996 in part to carry out the economic justice recommendations of the bi-partisan U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, which called for cutting legal immigration in half and stopping most illegal immigration through mandatory workplace verification. By failing to pass those reforms, Congress has allowed millions more foreign citizens to illegally take U.S. jobs and has contributed to stagnant and falling real wages for large segments of our population. Yes, Christian principles demand a more just immigration system. No proposal labeled comprehensive immigration reform to date addresses such justice.

    • Noah172

      Bravo, Mr. Beck.

    • Thanks for your reply, Mr. Beck. I did not mean to imply—and apologize because I can see how it could be taken this way—that everyone associated with NumbersUSA (or any of the other organizations mentioned in the Human Life Review article) are in agreement in their views on the one-child policy or on abortion more generally. That said, I think your organizational mission and even your name make quite clear that you are interested in limiting population growth. I don’t think it is “false witness” to say that NumbersUSA and similar groups “oppose further migration because they believe too many human beings will result in environmental degradation”: your own website asks people to “take action to help prevent this additional U.S. population explosion” (https://www.numbersusa.com/content/learn/overpopulation/biggest-population-boom-ever.html).

      I believe we simply have fundamentally different worldviews. I believe, based on my understanding of the imago dei in Genesis 1:27, that human beings are assets, with infinite potential. I agree with Michael Gerson, who shrewdly notes that immigrants—like all human beings—”are not just mouths but hands and brains. They are a resource – the main source of future wealth.” As Richard Land notes in the WORLD Magazine article I cited, part of the reason many evangelicals believe that immigration is so vital is precisely because that we think of people as assets. I don’t believe, as your economic arguments imply, that the U.S. economy is zero-sum. One more immigrant does not necessarily mean one fewer job for a U.S. citizen: economists almost universally reject this premise (which is why 44 of 46 economists surveyed by the Wall Street Journal affirm that illegal immigration has benefited the U.S. economy on the whole). Think of an immigrant like Sergey Brin, for example, who came to the U.S. as a 6-year-old refugee: did he steal an American citizen’s job, or, by creating Google, create about 50,000 jobs, many of which benefit American citizens?

      You’re entitled to your views, but I tend to agree with the IRD website’s statement that a neo-Malthusian population control ideology “almost always includes abortion on demand.” I’ll grant that there are exceptions, and you might be one of them, though your post never actually clarifies your personal views on abortion (either voluntary or obligatory) or sterilization, only that NumbersUSA does not take a position on non-immigration issues. It seems to me that the ideology tends to lead logically to a support both for stark limits on immigration as well as to support for abortion, because the only two ways that a population grows are by births or by immigration. But if you’d like to clarify that you oppose abortion, you’re welcome to do so. I think you’d lose a lot of funding, though.

      Finally, I note that you dispute the Human Life Review’s findings, which their editor stands behind, and many of which have been verified by WORLD Magazine and by the New York Times (whose editors don’t necessarily share the same political slant). I’m curious if you dispute the particular assertion from the Human Life Review report, which cites public record IRS 990 forms, that your organization has received significant funding from U.S. Inc., whose chairman, John Tanton, is the primary focus of the Human Life Review article, whose connections to Planned Parenthood are also public record, and whose views on what he calls “demographic momentum,” (which anyone can find on YouTube) would not be shared by most pro-life evangelical Christians. To be fair, I don’t know the views on every issue of every donor to World Relief, where I work—and I work all the time on areas where we share a common cause with individuals and institutions with whom I might disagree strongly on other issues. What concerns me is that the common cause itself that you seem to share with Mr. Tanton is precisely the population growth limitation goal (if you prefer that term to population control) with which I fundamentally disagree.

      I am all for your right to express your views. I simply think that there are many evangelical Christians who have legitimate concerns about illegal immigration—and some concerns that I do not think are legitimate, which NumbersUSA helps to propagate—who look to NumbersUSA as a resource and respond to their action alerts, but who do not realize that your organization is quite unabashedly opposed not just to unauthorized immigration but also to most of the lawful migration that happens under current law. My desire is simply that people have the full information so that they can decide whom they want to trust.

      • Roy Beck

        Oh, my, you seem to acknowledge that you do not accept responsibility for every action and view of every donor to your organization but still hold me responsible for every action and view of donors to mine. The research to which you refer is all about what other people do and not about what NumbersUSA does, although the articles try to mislead the reader into thinking that they are the same. When an issue like abortion is not part of an organization’s work, you can be pretty sure in a pluralistic society such as ours that one’s supporters can be found on all sides of an issue. But that really says nothing about the organization itself. Surely you are not saying that we are a decidedly pro-life organization because we have donors who are strong advocates in the pro-life cause. We have had pro-choice groups accuse us of that, but our answer is the same to them — we don’t deal with the issue. You noted that I still did not proclaim a position on abortion. That is because we do not deal with the issue in any way. We do not deal with the minimum wage issue. We do not deal with the issue of mineral rights fees on federal lands. There are thousands of issues that we do not take a stand on because we deal with only one issue. You mention a donor who has provided a fraction of a percent of our funding as if his positions on issues determine our positions. That’s just not the way pluralistic non-profits work.

        I must also respond to your suggestion that NumbersUSA has ever been secretive about our goals. From my founding of it in 1996, I have been clear that we support the recommendations of the bi-partisan U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform which said LEGAL immigration should be reduced to around 550,000 to provide economic justice to the most vulnerable members of our national community. That is half the level of today. We have always made reducing legal immigration our top priority. You are quite right that a million new immigrants each year add to the overall economy and they create jobs as well as take jobs. But the primary effect on Americans has been to make higher educated natives more affluent and to make the poor poorer, according to the nation’s top labor economist, George Borjas of Harvard. About 26 million foreign-born hold U.S. jobs while approximately 27 million working-age Americans with no more than a high school degree don’t have a job. Immigration is not the sole or even major cause of the lack of employment. But 10 million of those less-educated Americans are wanting a full-time job and can’t find one in the very occupations where foreign-born workers predominate. Pretending that the law of supply and demand has been revoked in the labor market doesn’t make it so. And it doesn’t lessen the suffering in millions of homes across the nation where low-income Americans have seen their real wages decline in the midst of a labor glut. Visit any unemployment line and ask if the unemployed Americans there believe immigrant workers don’t compete with them for jobs. The unemployed cannot understand why so many of the country’s religious leaders have forsaken them.

        Now, about preferring lower population growth — which is not at all the same thing as advocating population control. Yes, NumbersUSA’s mission statement says that one of the reasons we favor lower immigration levels is to ALLOW the U.S. population to stabilize. All long-term population growth in the United States is caused by federal immigration policy. We believe one of the tenets of the pursuit of happiness embedded in our Constitution is that communities have a right to choose their futures. Polling shows less than 10% of Americans favor doubling the populations of their communities or of the U.S. this century, but that is what will happen under current immigration numbers, according the Census Bureau. I take it from your comments that your organization favors the federal government causing that doubling, which is your perogative. I do wonder, however, if your organization is honest with your donors and the public that that is one of your goals. We are more than candid that that is not our goal. As an individual, I can say that proper stewardship over the natural inhabitants of God’s Creation is a biblical command that I take very seriously, although NumbersUSA takes no stand on environmental issues other than the numerical level of immigration. Successive national commissions could find no scenario for long-term stewardship of the environment in our country if the population does not begin to stabilize. A reduction of annual immigration back down to the traditional very high levels that existed before the 1980s would allow stabilization to happen.

        Finally, I feel certain that World Relief does not believe that immigration is the answer to the suffering of the world. You have too much on-the-ground experience to not know that the vast majority of billions who live in poverty will never live anywhere but where they are now. That is why organizations like World Relief are so essential in channeling the resources, expertise and prayers of those living in advanced economies into helping the largest amount of people to escape excrutiating poverty. I am sorry that you feel we are somehow an enemy in concerns for the least of these. But I can tell you from our own internal polling that our 1.5 million participants are every bit as engaged as any typical segment of the population in not only fighting for the poor of our country but in donating and volunteering to help the poor of other lands. We have found that our membership breaks down roughly the same into faith groups and denominations as the U.S. population as a whole. But it does seem that our evangelical members mirror what most polling finds which is that evangelical voters are the group most in favor of protecting vulnerable workers from immigration and in opposition to immigration-driven population growth.

  • Noah172

    Advocates of CIR are not the only ones who can quote Scripture. Here is something that I mentioned in the comment thread on the post by Mark Tooley:

    Consider Luke 8:26-39, the healing of the demon-possessed man known as Legion. He was from the region of the ancient towns of Gadara and Gergasa, in what is today Jordan. This was a Greek, not Jewish, area (hence the herd of swine in the story). Jesus traveled to the area, met Legion where he was, healed him in his (Legion’s) own land, and — this is key — urged the man to stay where he was and proclaim God’s glory to his own people. Were Jesus like so many modern immigration do-gooders, he would have arranged for passage of the demon-possessed man — who, lest we forget, was a violent danger to the community — to wealthier Judea, dumped him, unhealed, on some unsuspecting neighborhood (where he would have gone on a rampage), and gone on his (Christ’s) merry way back to Galilee, denouncing any objection to his deeds as bigotry and nativism, and repeating “love the stranger” like some magic incantation.

    In any case, CIR advocates distort the Scriptures in support of a destructive and self-righteous earthly agenda. Mass immigration has done great harm to many Americans, especially the poor and vulnerable, but Mr. Soerens and those of his political persuasion shed no tears for them. The Bible says much about those who exploit the poor to enrich themselves: could the implications for those who want more cheap imported labor to undermine American workers in the labor market be more obvious? The Bible says much about rulers who fail to protect those whom they rule from violence and robbery: do not our leaders stand condemned when they allow Americans to be victims of identity theft, drug trafficking, drunk driving, welfare fraud, and even murder at the hands of immigrants? Do not CIR advocates stand condemned when they ignore or trivialize these evils?

    One last thing: Mr. Soerens totally ignores the aftermath of the illegal alien amnesty of 1986? Does he know the slightest thing about this law and its consequences? Why does he refuse to acknowledge it, let alone wrestle with it, when he makes his case for CIR? Must “secular” history be shoved aside when one is certain that God Almighty endorses one’s pet political cause without reservation?

    As it says in Hosea 4:6: “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge; because you have rejected knowledge, I reject you from being a priest to me.”

  • kate

    Since when Christianity became so…. “American”…

    69. Make English the official language of the U.S.
    70. Require valid Social Security # and NOT Employer Identification Number (EIN) for all individuals on 1040 tax return. EIN s/b valid on business returns only; not to be used by individuals in lieu of SS#.
    71. Require illegal immigrants to provide or pay for their own interpreter.
    72. Require illegal immigrants to pay for past welfare services received to qualify for citizenship or work visas.
    73. Deport illegal immigrants who are guilty of a crime or felony in addition to the original crime of illegal entry.
    74. Deport illegal immigrants who vote or attempt to cast a vote.
    75. Deport illegal immigrants for failure to file tax returns or failure to pay wage income or sales taxes.
    76. Charge illegal immigrants for back taxes, tuition, and welfare benefits received or face deportation.
    Request copy of 6-page 85-point plan “To Fix It All” from albertmaslar2@gmail.com

  • Dear Mr. Soerens, I am president and executive director of US Inc., John Tanton’s organization that was mentioned in your article. I also happen to be a pro-Life, evangelical Christian, convictions of which John Tanton has long been aware, and serve on the Vestry of my local (Anglican) church. It seems to me that you and other Christian leaders who use false guilt by association tactics in an effort to discredit those with who you disagree, and selectively quote from the Bible to advance political legislation like comprehensive immigration reform and amnesty, are the ones who are acting in an un-Christian fashion. Regardless of their views on immigration, economists agree that those most adversely affected by unrestricted immigration are the poor, the disadvantaged, and those at the bottom of the economic ladder, while those who benefit the most are the owners of capital and those at the top such as the CEOs of major corporations. Is it our duty as Christians then, to align ourselves with the CEOs and numerous special interest groups who stand to profit either economically or politically from unrestricted immigration? With all due respect. I don’t think so.