What biblical principles or insights should guide Christian thinking on immigration? How do different Christians interpret this issue? Is it more important to extend grace or execute justice defined by the law of the land?
In a world that is constantly shrinking through technology but in which the divide between rich and poor keeps growing, it really shouldn’t be surprising that one out of every thirty-three people thinks the grass is greener in another country. In fact, the United Nations International Migration Report in 2010 found that migrants constitute the fifth most populous country in the world.
At it’s most basic, immigration involves the movement of a non-native person into a country where they would like to live and settle. The United Nations estimated in 2010 that 214 million, or roughly 3% of the worlds population are international migrants. Males and females appear to migrate equally with 49% of migrants being women.
The United Nations statistics reveal that the countries with the highest percentages of migrants are: Qatar (87%), United Arab Emirates (70%), Jordan (46%), and Saudi Arabia (28%). While on the other side of the scale, countries with a low percentage of migrants include South Africa (3.7%), Slovakia (2.4%), Turkey (1.9%), Japan (1.7%), Nigeria (0.7%), Romania (0.6%), India (0.4%) and Indonesia (0.1%).
A revealing study in 2012 by Gallup showed that given the chance, approximately 640 million adults would migrate permanently to another country if they had the opportunity. The United States topped the list of the most desirable country to migrate to with nearly a quarter (23%) of respondents selecting it. The other desirable nations respondents wanted to migrate to were the United Kingdom, Canada, France, Saudi Arabia, Australia, Germany and Spain.
The world economic downturn has had a surprising effect and resulted in what some are terming “remigration.” The Turkish Review reported in June 2011, that many Turks who migrated to the Netherlands are now returning to Turkey. They are taking with them the education and skills they’ve gained abroad and returning to what appears to be Turkey’s more appealing political, social and economic conditions.
It is plain that, whether legal or illegal, immigration is not going to go away, so it’s worthwhile considering whether there is a Christian position on this topic.
Factors That Influence Immigration Policies
All countries have policies which govern who may enter the country and under what circumstances. To a greater or lesser extent, countries also have laws and policies that determine what should happen to immigrants who enter or stay in a country illegally. Some common reasons for these laws include controlling economic prosperity of it’s native people; the governments responsibility to protect the country and have knowledge of who inhabits the land and finally as an attempt to protect the integrity of a nation’s historic culture, traditions and society.
It is plain that, whether legal or illegal, immigration is not going to go away, so it’s worthwhile considering the whether there is a Christian position on this topic.
Christians and Immigration
The Bible is full of stories of migration. In Genesis 37-46, we read of Joseph who was sent into slavery in a strange land and later was joined by his entire family. Then there is Moses who fled to Midian to learn the lessons of a migrant before overseeing the migration of the entire nation of Israel. In the book of Ruth, we find a widow who accompanies her mother-in-law to a new land, remarries and has children there. And then later, in the New Testament we read the story of Mary and Joseph who moved to Egypt when Jesus was a baby to hide him from the King (Matthew 2:13-15). In the Epistles we read all Christians are spiritual migrants and that our citizenship lies elsewhere (Philippians 3:20; Hebrews 13:14).
However, despite the many references to migration in the Bible, Christian churches have not managed to come to a consensus on the issue of migration. Most churches adopt one of the following positions:
1. The church honors God through obeying the law.
2. The responsibility of caring for the needy, including aliens and strangers, rests with the church.
3. Immigration is an issue that the church should stay clear of.
Dr. Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, summed up some of the tensions that churches feel in this area at a 2006 forum hosted by the conservative Christian group Family Research Council: “We have a right to expect the government to fulfill its divinely ordained mandate to punish those who break the laws and reward those who do not. Romans 13. We also have a divine mandate to act redemptively and compassionately toward those who are in need.”
Not all Christian groups take the middle ground however, as shown by the following statement made by Michele Combs, director of communications for the Christian Coalition of America, “We believe that immigrants like everybody else should respect the laws and the laws are tighter security.”
On the other side is the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops who believe, “The human dignity and human rights of undocumented migrants should be respected… Often they are subject to punitive laws and harsh treatment from enforcement officers from both receiving and transit countries. Government policies that respect the basic human rights of the undocumented are necessary.”
Perspectives on Immigration
In any conversation about immigration, whether legal or illegal, it is likely that at least a few of the following topics will come up. What follows is an exploration of each topic from a statistical, social and biblical point of view.
Jobs & The Economy
Many immigrants who move countries are seeking a better-paying job than one they could get in his or her own country. However, better paid doesn’t necessarily mean a better job, and many immigrants will take agricultural or factory jobs to earn an income. This often means that immigrant labor can actually complement a native workforce rather than replace it.
In America, tougher immigration laws in some states have forced farmers to look to Americans to do the work previously done by immigrants. “Many Americans simply don’t want the backbreaking, low-paying jobs immigrants are willing to take,” potato farmer Keith Smith told Associated Press. “Most show up late, work slower than seasoned farm hands and are ready to call it a day after lunch or by mid-afternoon. Some quit after a single day.”
The British economy shows a similar trend with Britons taking only 13% of 400,000 newly created jobs in 2011, with the balance going to immigrants. Frank Field, the former Labor minister of the UK advising on this situation believes unemployed British citizens are refusing jobs that they believe “are only fit for immigrants.”
A study by the National Foundation for American Policy found that highly skilled immigrants have a positive impact on job creation. A recent study found that for every immigrant who is hired on a “specialty occupation” visa, five new jobs are created. An example of this in America reveals that companies begun by Chinese and Indian immigrants in Silicon Valley, grossed more than $19.5 billion in sales and created nearly 73, 000 jobs in the year 2000.
Research by the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia reveals that finding a job as an immigrant isn’t always easy, “In Europe, 28% of foreigners between the ages of 25 and 49 are unable to find work, with unemployment rates as high as 35% for Turks and Pakistanis and 60% for recent immigrant groups such as Somalis.”
All documented or undocumented immigrants pay taxes, whether income, property, sales, or other, despite the fact that in most cases immigrants can’t benefit from federal and state local assistance programs.
This picture of life as an immigrant either being one of plenty or one of being forgotten and overlooked is seen in the Bible. Immigrants such as Joseph rose to prominence in Egypt after serving time as a domestic worker, and Moses was raised in a palace (Exodus 1-2). Daniel served several kings with distinction (see the book of Daniel in the Bible). Then there is Esther who became queen of the Persian Empire (see the book of Esther in the Bible) and Nehemiah who was cupbearer to the Persian king, Artaxerxes (Nehemiah 1:11).
However, even in the Bible, foreigners who rose to prominence were often stigmatized and ridiculed. Moses fled the palace in fear of his life (Exodus 2) and Daniel was punished for his faith and mocked in public (Daniel 5-6).
Taxes & Social Services
In the 2005 United States Economic Report of the President it was noted that, “more than half of all undocumented immigrants are believed to be working ‘on the books’…[and]… contribute to the tax rolls but are ineligible for almost all Federal public assistance programs and most major Federal-state programs.” According to the report, undocumented immigrants also “contribute money to public coffers by paying sales and property taxes (the latter are implicit in apartment rentals).”
All documented or undocumented immigrants pay taxes, whether income, property, sales, or other, despite the fact that in most cases immigrants can’t benefit from federal and state local assistance programs. In fact, a survey by the Immigration Policy Centre found that in over 25 states in America immigrants contribute more to state and local coffers than they take out.
In America, undocumented residents are not eligible for most welfare benefits including: food stamps, Social Security, Supplemental Security Income, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Medicaid (except for emergency services), Medicare “Premium Free” Part A, and public housing and Section 8 programs. Most countries with high numbers of immigrants only allow non-citizens to qualify for access to emergency health care (as mandated by law) and public elementary and secondary schooling for their children (if this is mandated by law).
In Matthew 2, we discover that Jesus was familiar with the life of an immigrant and a refugee–his family having been forced to flee to Egypt. While Jesus never tackles the subject of how to care for immigrants directly, we can draw on some of his teachings to create a model for our response.
In Luke 10:25 -37, we encounter Jesus having a conversation with a man who thought he knew it all. After hearing Jesus say he must love his neighbor the same way he loved himself, he followed up with this question, “Who is my neighbor?” In response, Jesus told him the story of a foreigner who was the only one to stop and help a wounded man. Throughout Jesus’ teaching we find him reaching out to the people who others classified as not worthy and redefining who we think our neighbors are and how we should treat them.
There is a common belief that most immigrants enter countries illegally. However, in the United States at least, almost half of all undocumented immigrants entered the United States on temporary visas – either as tourists, students, or temporary workers – and only became undocumented when they didn’t leave the country.
Weighing in on this issue, pastor Dean Cothill from Lorraine Methodist Church in Port Elizabeth, South Africa says, “I do think that I can never say that anything is “wrong” unless I am willing to be part of the solution. Maybe we need to respond the same way we do to drunk people at a bar. Maybe instead of laughing, we offer people a ride to get home safe. Maybe churches need to help with the paperwork or speak up for those who can’t speak for themselves.”
The question can arise why don’t more undocumented immigrants work towards becoming documented? The answer is complicated. Different countries have different requirements regarding what it takes to become legal. For example, The Indiana Bar Foundation advises that in the US to become a legal resident you either need a close relative who is a citizen to sponsor you, be in a profession or trade in which there are not enough American workers or face danger or persecution in your own country. In addition, an application to legalize may be turned down if you’ve been in the United States for more than 180 days. Legal fees to get everything processed can cost in the region of USD$5000 which is way out of reach for the average illegal resident in the US.
Moving to a new country and fitting in is no easy task for the legal or illegal immigrant. Matthew Soerens, World Relief Immigration Counselor and co-author with Jenny Hwang of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion, & Truth in the Immigration Debate says, “Refugees and other immigrants face many unique challenges: language confusion, cultural barriers, the haunting memories of the circumstances that led them away from their country of origin, and very often separation from family members left behind.”
In a nutshell, they experience culture shock and it can take awhile for them to fully integrate into the new country and culture. In almost all countries and cultures, immigrant integration takes more than one generation, sometimes two. There are two key factors that drive assimilation: learning the language of the country and the education and upward mobility of the immigrants children.
In the United States within ten years of arrival, more than 75% of immigrants speak English well. Amongst Latino immigrants unable to speak English on arrival in America 88% of the second generation of US born children are reported to speak English fluently.. In addition, these immigrants believe that in order to succeed in America and avoid discrimination they need to learn English. However, many immigrants find access to classes that teach the official languages of the new country to be difficult or too expensive to access.
Some countries put a great emphasis on basic language proficiency simply to qualify for immigration status. Canadian Immigration Minister Jason Kenney says, “You can’t succeed in a society if you don’t have the capacity to communicate in it. And it’s unfair, I think, to newcomers to make them believe otherwise.”
In the Bible we find a whole range of examples of immigrants who assimilated to a greater or lesser degree. These stories remind us that immigration is a very personal journey. Each person incorporates a new culture, tongue and experiences differently and each immigrant receives different reactions for their attempts.
At the one end of the spectrum there is Ezra, who does not want to make a home in Persia, because his hope is to return to Jerusalem and re-establish a life there. Then there is Nehemiah who remains informed about the situation back in his ancestral land (Nehemiah 1) but seizes the opportunity, with his employers support, to leave Persia for a time to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. At the other end of the spectrum is Joseph who adopted the Egyptian culture so completely that his brothers do not recognize him when they meet him (Genesis 42).
There is a common belief that most immigrants enter countries illegally. However, in the United States at least, almost half of all undocumented immigrants entered the United States on temporary visas–either as tourists, students, or temporary workers–and only became undocumented when they didn’t leave the country. Research by the Pew Hispanic Center, reveals that one third of all immigrants are undocumented, one third have some form of legal status and one third are now legal citizens. This applies to immigrants from Latin America as well as others.
Another common belief is that immigrants increase the crime in an area. In a 2000 report prepared for the U.S. Department of Justice, it was stated that immigrants maintain low crime rates even when faced with adverse social conditions such as low income and low levels of education. Further research suggests that immigrant communities do not increase the crime rate and that newly arriving immigrants tend to commit fewer crimes than native born Americans. In fact, according to one study by the National Bureau of Economic Research newly arrived immigrants are particularly unlikely to be involved in crime. On the other hand, the simple fact that immigrants are illegally in the country is a crime in itself.
The Bible verse most often used to address the issue of legality and immigrants is Romans 13:1-7. This verse clearly calls for submission to government authorities. Dr. M. Daniel Carroll R. author of Christians at the Border: Immigration, the Church, and the Bible puts this passage into context, “Christians should recognize that their agenda is set forth in chapter 12 of Romans, where it says that believers are not to be molded by the “pattern of this world” (12:2). Their lives should be characterized by service and compassion—even toward enemies (12:3-21)! The authorities, however, have a different purpose and way of doing things (Romans 13). While Christians are called to respect the government, this does not mean agreeing with everything that it might legislate or do.”
Whether you agree or disagree with government policies, there are a number of ways that Christians can make their voices heard on subjects like immigration. You can do this through voting, joining or establishing organizations that defend others and their points of views or lobby for changes and action in a particular area. Two helpful resources for those interested in immigration issues can be found on faithandimmigration.org and welcometheimmigrant.org.
Join the Conversation! What do you think?