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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