Relevant Magazine, February 27, 2017
We’re Called to Serve Immigrants Regardless of Their Legal Status
By David Platt
Across this country, it seems everyone is up in arms about immigrants and refugees. Mostly, this is left as a political issue. But for Christians, how to care for outsiders is much more than a policy question.
The gospel not only affects the ways white and black Americans view each other in our culture, or the way we may view people in different countries, but this gospel also affects the way followers of Christ view migrant men and women who are living around us in our country.
A cursory reading of the Old Testament, combined with a clear understanding of Christ’s cross in the New Testament, calls into question the contemporary approach to immigration among many Christians in our culture. In addition to practical ignorance on this issue in the political sphere, our personal lives often reflect little concern for the sojourner in our midst.
Russell Moore writes that the Christian response to immigrant neighbors has been akin to saying, “You kids get off my lawn,” in Spanish. But if the God of the Bible possesses particular compassion for the immigrant, even equating him or her with the orphan and the widow, and if the cross of Christ is designed to compel outreach across ethnic divisions, then how much more should we as the people of God care for immigrants from other countries in our midst?
Consider the story of Sam and Lucas. Sam and Lucas live in Mexico in the midst of desperate poverty, unable to provide for their wives’ and children’s basic needs. One day, a friend tells them that he has found a way for Sam and Lucas to get jobs in the United States. There they can make money and send it back to sustain their families. Sam and Lucas see no other option and agree to go. They say good-bye to their wives and children, and they leave with their friend.
Weeks later, they find themselves lying down in the back of an old SUV, covered completely by a blanket as the truck bounces down the road. Finally, they arrive at a back entrance behind a popular restaurant, where the proud owner steps out. After speaking to the driver in a foreign language, the owner gives him some cash, then opens the back door of the SUV. He uncovers the men and tells Sam and Lucas to get out quickly.
They go inside the back of the restaurant, where the owner sits them down and serves them a quick meal. As they eat, the owner introduces Sam and Lucas to what will be their job: busing tables and washing dishes. After they’re finished eating, the owner escorts them by van to a decaying, shuttered, split-level home that they will share with a host of other workers like them. “I’ll pick you and the others up at 10 a.m.,” the owner says, and off he goes. Sam and Lucas have arrived at their new home.
Sam and Lucas now have a new life. Every day they are shuttled back and forth between the place where they sleep and the restaurant where they work. It is a well-known restaurant, getting all sorts of great reviews and attracting all kinds of different people—people like you and me. But amid all the crowds that surround Sam and Lucas, absolutely no one knows them. No one even notices them. They are destitute, sending as much money as they can back to their families while resorting to alcohol and prostitution to curb their loneliness.
It is not my aim here to stereotype migrant workers—although this story is true, it obviously doesn’t mean that all Latino dishwashers in restaurants have the same story. It is also not my aim to oversimplify either the plight of immigrants in our country or the predicament of how to provide for them. Finally, it’s not my aim here to propose comprehensive political answers for the practical legislative quagmire that illegal immigration presents in our country.
It is, however, my aim to show that the gospel message has implications for the issue of immigration, and particularly for illegal immigrants like Sam and Lucas. Amid necessary political discussions and inevitable personal disagreements, first and foremost the gospel reminds us that when we are talking about immigrants (legal or illegal), we are talking about men and women made in God’s image and pursued by his grace. Consequently, followers of Christ must see immigrants not as problems to be solved but as people to be loved.
The gospel compels us in our culture to decry any and all forms of oppression, exploitation, bigotry or harassment of immigrants, regardless of their legal status. These are men and women for whom Christ died, and their dignity is no greater or lesser than our own.
Likewise, their families are no less important than our own. Many illegal immigrants, like Sam and Lucas, are in the United States for understandable reasons, fleeing brutal economic and political situations in their own countries as they fight for the survival of their own families. Others came to the United States years ago and have now begun families here.
I think of Ricardo, a follower of Christ and the father of five children, three of whom are U.S. citizens. Ricardo entered the country illegally more than 20 years ago, and for the last 20 years he has worked to support his family while serving in his community. However, if Ricardo were to go back to his village in Mexico now, he would be resigning himself and his family to abject poverty.
His other option would be to split up his family, leaving his three “legal” children behind with a neighbor. Surely, just as the gospel compels us to respect the personal dignity of immigrants regardless of their legal status, it also compels us to protect their familial unity regardless of legal status.
All of this is obviously complicated by out-of-date legislation that is out of sync with the current labor market in our country. Add to this our selective enforcement of immigration laws, and it becomes clear to us all, regardless of personal political persuasion, that our system needs reform. And the gospel is not silent even here. The Bible clearly teaches that government exists under God to establish and enforce laws for the good of people. See Romans 13:1-7.
We have a responsibility before God as citizens under a government to work together to establish and enforce just laws that address immigration. Among other things, such laws should involve securing our borders, holding business owners accountable for hiring practices and taking essential steps that ensure fairness to taxpaying citizens of our country.
Likewise, we have a responsibility before God as citizens under a government to work together to refute and remove unjust laws that oppress immigrants. Failing to act in either of these ways would be to settle for injustice, which would put us out of sync with the gospel.
I don’t presume easy answers to any of the above, but I am proposing that the gospel requires Christians to wrestle with these questions. Regardless of personal or political views, none of us can escape the reality that we’re talking about our neighbors, and Jesus’ command regarding our neighbors is clear. As long as immigrants, documented and undocumented, live around us by God’s sovereign design—see Acts 17:26-27, we’re compelled to consider how to love them as we love ourselves—see Luke 10:25-37.
WASHINGTON, D.C., APRIL 1, 2016 — Despite heated political rhetoric, a majority of evangelicals across ethnic groups support the opportunity for undocumented immigrants to earn citizenship — including white evangelicals, a new survey finds.
The data from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) show that 54 percent of white evangelicals support the opportunity for undocumented immigrants to earn citizenship and another 12 percent support allowing earned permanent legal status. Only 30 percent support identifying and deporting undocumented immigrants.
Additional PRRI data show that although many are concerned about how immigrants affect “traditional American customs and values,” 55 percent of younger evangelicals believe that immigrants strengthen society.
“We are encouraged by this new research from PRRI that shows the majority of evangelicals support a path toward legal status or citizenship. The growing number of evangelicals who believe we should continue to be a country that welcomes immigrants is a clarion call at a crucial time in our nation,” said Stephan Bauman, President of World Relief.
“While there may be differences over policy details, evangelicals agree that the Bible calls us to treat immigrants with respect and compassion,” said Galen Carey, Vice President of Government Relations for the National Association of Evangelicals. “Thankfully, a majority of evangelicals of all ethnic backgrounds now embrace commonsense reforms allowing law-abiding immigrants to earn legal status and/or citizenship. We ask our political leaders to do the same.”
“I’m not surprised by these findings. Evangelicalism emphasizes God’s grace and mercy,” said Barrett Duke, Vice President for Public Policy and Research at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. “Evangelicals are simply seeking to do for others what God has done for them. We must continue to point people of faith to the Scriptures. God is changing hearts and minds.”
“It is heartening but not surprising to me that younger evangelicals are receptive toward immigrants,” said Shirley V. Hoogstra, President of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities. “On our campuses, love for our neighbors from around the world is a central value. This biblical value offers hope for just immigration solutions.”
“When people look to the Bible for wisdom on this complex topic, there is little room for ambiguity. The Scriptures compel us to love, welcome, and seek justice for immigrants,” said the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, President of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference.
On Reform, Recent Poll Indicates Broad Support in the Pews
WASHINGTON, D.C., MAY 22, 2015 — Evangelical Christians on the local and national levels continue to call for solutions for our broken immigration system and to address immigrants from a biblical perspective.
In the past week, more than 250 leaders from local churches around the country signed up for Evangelical Immigration Table webinars in English and Spanish on the biblical response to immigration and resources available to pastors as they engage their congregations in the conversation.
“Politicians may not be taking a serious, collaborative approach to solving the broken immigration system, but church leaders are working to ensure that their congregations look at immigration through a biblical and not a partisan lens,” said Noel Castellanos, CEO of the Christian Community Development Association. “We must bring attention to the fact that our immigrant brothers and sisters suffer daily because of injustice in our current immigration laws.”
From Alabama to Iowa, local pastors are continuing to speak out on the moral imperatives for reform and urge a constructive political conversation around immigration from candidates for president. Dr. Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, sounded a similar note in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed.
Reiterating his theme, Moore said, “The immigration skirmishes over the past several years have turned the topic into a culture-war issue it should never have become. America isn’t a silo of limited resources that will be spoiled by adding more people. Evangelicals have rightly insisted that people should never be regarded as a burden on society, and many of our healthiest and most evangelistic churches are filled with first-generation immigrants. More than that, evangelicals increasingly see the need for a tough but fair solution to our nation’s immigration crisis that highlights both justice and compassion.”
Meanwhile, more churches are engaging on immigration, including some of the largest churches in Iowa. Among pastors, the number signing on to the Evangelical Statement of Principles for Immigration Reform continues to grow as well.
“There is no doubt the issue of fixing our broken immigration system remains at the forefront of people of faith,” said Rev. Tony Suarez, Executive Vice President of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC). “Our moral convictions do not allow us to look the other way while children and families suffer.”
“Thanks to widespread Bible reading, prayer, preaching, and awareness campaigns, the groundswell of evangelical support for immigration reform continues to build in churches and communities across the country,” said Galen Carey, Vice President for Government Relations, National Association of Evangelicals. “Politicians seeking support from evangelicals in 2016 should take note and offer voters a positive vision for an immigration policy that is pro-family and that promotes economic growth.”
And this spring, LifeWay Research found that nearly 70 percent of evangelical Christians support broad immigration reform that provides not only for border security but also for an opportunity for immigrants lacking authorization to earn legal status and citizenship. The same percentage say Congress should act this year. The findings moved Daniel Carroll Rodas of the Denver Seminary to write in the Christian Post about an evangelical community interested in the biblical perspective on immigration.
“We are experiencing a significant shift in how evangelicals understand immigration,” said Stephan Bauman, President and CEO of World Relief. “Welcoming the stranger is a biblical and moral imperative, and fixing our current immigration system is urgent. LifeWay Research’s recent polling confirms that most evangelical Christians want Congress to take action and lead our country toward a more just, compassionate immigration system. We call upon Congress and the future presidential candidates to embrace the call of the faith community.”
“Despite the failure of Congress to act, we will continue our work of bringing people of faith together around the need for comprehensive immigration reform,” said Jim Wallis, President of Sojourners. “We will also hold all presidential candidates accountable for their policy positions on immigration, and we will keep at it until the job is done.”
“Recent research confirms that immigration reform is important to students,” said Shirley V. Hoogstra, President of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities. “Those who are undocumented and have no pathway toward legal status face hurdle after hurdle in obtaining the education that will allow them to fulfill their God-given abilities and to better their lives, their communities and the country they have lived in for most of their lives. The CCCU has joined the Evangelical Immigration Table to urge Congress to act and ensure that all students in the U.S. have the opportunity to pursue an education that will give them a brighter future.”
While voices ranging from political to cynical are leading the immigration conversation in Congress and among presidential candidates, more and more evangelical Christians are taking a biblical approach.
“Christians recognize the Bible calls us time and time again to treat the most vulnerable with compassion and care, with several passages specifically mentioning the refugees in our midst,” concluded Robert Zachritz, Vice President of Advocacy & Government Relations for World Vision. “Doing so in a manner that shows respect for the rule of law while also providing a path to citizenship is a way to bring hope to people in desperate situations.”
The Evangelical Immigration Table is a broad coalition of evangelical organizations and leaders advocating for immigration reform consistent with biblical values.
A student from Arizona once remarked in a class discussion on justice and immigration that it was against Arizona law to give a cup of water to an undocumented person. As a result of his understanding (or misunderstanding) of the Arizona law, he said he would not provide relief to someone he knew was undocumented. He was surprised when I asked, “What would Jesus do?” if our Lord faced the same situation. After all, Jesus often disobeyed the Sabbath laws of his day, for example, by healing people on the Sabbath (e.g., Mark 3:1-6). Regardless of the intricacies of the Arizona law and accuracy of the student’s claim, the discussion raised an important issue for Christians to discuss. Is civil disobedience ever warranted of Christians?
It is worth noting that, under current law—at least in most of the United States, most churches are not currently faced with this question of civil disobedience: nothing in federal law prohibits churches from ministering to undocumented immigrants in need, and there is no requirement that a church or an individual report someone whom they suspect of lacking legal status. Neither ministering to undocumented immigrants nor advocating for reforms to our immigration legal system puts a church or individual followers of Christ outside of submission to the governmental authorities. However, the political climate the past several years could put pressure on certain elements of a church’s ministry to the undocumented, making it appear unlawful, in view of ambiguously-worded immigration bills at both the state and federal levels. In this climate, the question of whether civil disobedience is ever warranted (or even required) of Christians in view of biblical texts on care for the stranger is worth considering (See for example Exodus 22:21, Leviticus 19:34, Matthew 25:43, and Luke 10:36-37).
The question of civil disobedience becomes more complicated when one considers such biblical texts as Romans 13. For many Christians like the student in my class, Romans 13 preclude the possibility of ever disobeying a government’s law in good conscience. Romans 13:1-7 reads,
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed (ESV).
From a surface reading of the text, it might appear that Christians are to offer blind obedience to the governing authorities. Such is not the case. We are to subject ourselves to the governing authorities as they do good, not evil, for God has authorized them to nurture and protect the good of all, not to do harm (Romans 13:4). Ultimately, Christians are to subject themselves to Christ in the sphere of the state. From the vantage point of Christ’s lordship over all spheres, the church and state are subject to Christ’s kingdom. Thus, Christians and the church are to approach the subject of obedience to the state in view of their ultimate allegiance to Christ and his call on his people to care for the stranger and neighbor in need.
In this context, it is also worth noting that the text that immediately follows in Romans 13 (verses 8-10) focuses on what is essential to fulfilling God’s law as revealed in the Old Testament—love your neighbor as yourself:
Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.
The church is to dedicate itself to fulfilling God’s law, which centers on love of neighbor, as well as the love of God (cf. Mark 12:30-31), even if that puts it at odds with the state from time to time. Jesus redefines for us who our neighbor is. He is not the person like us or who likes us or whom we like. It is the person who stands or lies before us, including the person in need, as in the story of the Samaritan of exceptional mercy in Luke 10:25-37. It could very well be the case that the Jewish religious leaders who passed the beaten and robbed man lying on the road did so because they feared he was dead and to have touched him would have made them ceremonially unclean. Jesus calls them and us to a higher law—love of neighbor. Only the Samaritan cared for their neighbor that day. Only he proved to be a neighbor to the person in need. And, as Pastor Rick Warren says, “A good Samaritan doesn’t stop and ask the injured person, ‘Are you legal or illegal?’”
Martin Luther King, Jr. demonstrates for us how to apply Romans 13 in our current democratic context. The Apostle Paul had no way of influencing legislation of laws in his day, but Christians, just like King, do so in our society. Providentially for us, King did not offer blind obedience to the state. If he had, we might still be experiencing forms of Jim Crow legislation today. Or else, the overturning of these laws might have come through violent forms of disobedience, not civil disobedience as with the movement inspired by King and the African American church.
From his Birmingham Jail cell, King responded to the white clergy who were troubled by his civil disobedience:
One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”
King understood the consequences for disobeying governing authorities—jail or worse. But King also understood the consequences of not obeying one’s own conscience and God himself, who calls us to promote just laws that favor the love of neighbor as ourselves regardless of the cost. King had the King of Kings as his exemplar: it is lawful to do good, not harm, to save life, not to kill, even if one gets killed in the end by the authorities for doing so, as happened with Jesus (See Mark 3:1-6).
The Evangelical Immigration Table offers a balanced approach to the subject of immigration reform in a democratic system. Rather than having to pursue blind obedience to unjust laws or dismissing the rightful rule of law, its principles include the following: respecting the God-given dignity of each and every person, whether documented or not, respecting the rule of law, and establishing a path toward legal status and/or citizenship for those who qualify and who wish to become permanent residents. Our current immigration laws are out-of-synch with the needs of our labor market and thus have been only selectively enforced for decades, sending mixed messages to immigrants desperate for work; a biblically-appropriate respect for the rule of law should guide us to reform a system that is not currently functioning well, restoring the rule of law while also respecting the human dignity of each person made in God’s image.
In the end, Christians have a responsibility in our democratic society to promote and live by laws that promote God’s law of love of neighbor—documented or not, as disclosed in Scripture and embodied in Jesus Christ.
Paul Louis Metzger is Professor of Christian Theology & Theology of Culture at Multnomah Biblical Seminary and Director of The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins at Multnomah University in Portland, Oregon. He earned his Ph.D. from King’s College, London and his Master’s Degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is the author of numerous books, including the award-winning Consuming Jesus: Beyond Race and Class Divisions in a Consumer Church (Eerdmans, 2007), and editor of Cultural Encounters: A Journal for the Theology of Culture.
This and other Evangelical Perspectives on Immigration represent one evangelical perspective on immigration—that of the author—and not necessarily the views of every member organization of the Evangelical Immigration Table or every signatory of the Evangelical Statement of Principles for Immigration Reform.
 Karl Barth writes of Romans 13 that “the last thing this instruction implies is that the Christian community and the Christian should offer the blindest possible obedience to the civil community and its officials.” Karl Barth, “The Christian Community and the Civil Community,” in Against the Stream: Shorter Post-War Writings, 1946-1952, ed. R. G. Smith, trans. E.M. Delecour and S. Godman (London: SCM Press, Ltd., 1954), p. 24. According to Barth, the church is to submit to Christ in the sphere of the state (See p. 29). The church’s ultimate allegiance to Christ puts a check on its submission to the dictates of the state. The church and state are subject to Christ, who is Lord over all spheres.
As discussions in Congress about immigration reform heat up, Christians should step back and ask how the Bible might inform their own view on immigration. Could the Bible have something to contribute to the national debate about changing immigration law?
Where do we begin the discussion? For many people, the place to begin is Romans 13. This is a very important passage, but it will be dealt with in another study. Here we start with a fundamental question that should guide the evaluation of any law: What kind of values do we want to be reflected in the laws of our country?
To answer that question we turn to Genesis chapter one. There we are told that human beings are made in the image of God. This means that each person has infinite value in God’s sight and that each human being has tremendous potential. This truth reminds us that any discussion about immigration ultimately is about people.
We need to ask: Do our immigration laws honor the worth of immigrants as human beings? And, do our laws facilitate the realization of their great potential for this country? To look at legislation from this perspective gives the discussion a constructive direction. Laws will focus on respect and on facilitating their contribution to society (such as at the workplace and in education).
Do we find migration in the Bible? The history of humanity is the history of migration. Not surprisingly, we find migration in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament. The reasons for the movements of these people are similar to the ones that drive people to migrate today, such as hunger (Abram, Gen. 12; Jacob, his sons and their families, Gen. 46-47) and displacement in war (Daniel, Ezekiel). The Bible also describes the lives and the positive impact of God’s people who had to live far from home (Joseph, Nehemiah, Esther). We find, too, the account of an immigrant woman and the process of her integration into a new community (Ruth).
Migration is so central to the Bible that it provides a picture of the Christian life! 1 Peter 2:11 tells us that all Christians are sojourners, strangers in a strange land (also note Phil. 3:20; Heb. 13:14; Eph. 2:11-22). In other words, Christians are migrants on this earth. We serve another king and are citizens of a greater kingdom, the kingdom of God. This suggests that the more we learn about immigration the more we will actually understand our faith. We will appreciate in new ways that Christians are vulnerable and dependent in a world that sees us as strangers.
Can Old Testament Law provide guidance? Some Christians may be surprised that we look to the Old Testament Law for guidance. We do not do so in order to imitate Israel’s laws dealing with immigrants. We do so in order to learn what set of values should be the moral foundations of the legislation that we seek to pass for our country. Those ancient laws are a testimony to the righteousness of God (Deut. 4:5-8).
In the ancient world, foreigners lived a precarious existence. On the one hand, they were far away from their extended family, which was the source of help in times of need at that time. There were no government social programs like we have now. On the other hand, in Israel it was difficult for foreigners to own land for farming. Land was handed down within Israel’s families through the male line. Therefore, foreigners would have to rely on the Israelites for protection, aid, and work.
Old Testament laws responded to these challenges in multiple ways. Foreigners were to have proper rest from their work like everyone else (Exod. 20:10; 23:12; Deut. 5:14) and receive a fair wage on time (Deut. 24:14-15). Law courts were to be fair to these outsiders and impartial (Deut. 1:16-17; 24:17-18; 27:19). There also were provisions for food in times of hunger (Lev. 19:9-10; Deut. 14:28-29; 24:19-22). Even more impressive was the command to allow foreigners to participate in Israel’s worship, the most precious part of their culture (Exod. 12:45-49; Lev. 16:29). The number and openness of Israel’s laws for foreigners is unique among all ancient law codes.
There were expectations for the outsiders, too. They would have had to learn Israel’s laws and speak the language to work and take part in the religious life of Israel (Deut. 31:8-13).
There is no indication that these laws were only for “legal” immigrants. Perhaps Israel monitored who entered the country, like some of other nations did, but we have no evidence of that. Distinctions were made, however, between those who integrated culturally into Israelite society (ger) and those that did not, for whom there was a different label. The issue was not legal status.
The Israelites were to love foreigners as themselves, just as they were to love their neighbors as themselves (Lev. 19:18, 33-34). Their history also was a motivation to treat them well (Exod. 22:21; 23:9; Deut. 24:17-18). Most importantly, they were to care for the foreigner, because God loves them (Deut. 10:17-19; 24:14-15).
Israel’s laws reached out to foreigners because of its history (the US is a nation of immigrants!) and the heart of God. How might our laws exhibit charity towards the needy from elsewhere?
What about borders? God establishes nations, which suggests that borders are important. To rethink immigration law is not to eliminate borders or the rule of law. It is to rethink what kind of laws to support in order to better reflect biblical values. What we have is inadequate and sometimes unjust. The Bible can set an agenda for change that will benefit immigrants and the entire nation.
M. Daniel Carroll R. (Rodas) is distinguished professor of Old Testament at Denver Seminary and the national spokesperson on immigration for the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. He is the author of Christians at the Border: Immigration, the Church, and the Bible (Baker Academic, 2008). He has a ThM from Dallas Theological Seminary and his PhD from the University of Sheffield.
This and other Evangelical Perspectives on Immigration represent one evangelical perspective on immigration—that of the author—and not necessarily the views of every member organization of the Evangelical Immigration Table or every signatory of the Evangelical Statement of Principles for Immigration Reform.
In Luke Chapter 10 Jesus confirms the Law—we must love the Lord with all our heart, soul, and strength and love our neighbors as ourselves. He goes on to show that even strangers are our neighbors. We learn here and in other parts of the Bible that we must show love to immigrants whether or not they serve our economic interests. Fortunately, immigration reform is not a situation where our Christian faith must trump our economic incentives. Immigration, both authorized and unauthorized, has economic benefits for all. Economists often disagree, but on the subject of immigration reform there is a strong consensus over both the theory and evidence. Reform of the United States’ current immigration policy can be done in a way that respects the God-given dignity of every person, protects families, and ensures no loss to taxpayers.
In Deuteronomy chapter 10 God gives specific instructions for how we are to treat foreigners living among us. We are to not only love them, but provide food and clothing. Why did he make such a demand of the Israelites? Because they too were once strangers in a land. In Matthew chapter 25 Jesus commands us to invite strangers in, feeding them and ministering to their physical needs. Immigration is a policy debate where both our faith and economic knowledge line up. The U.S. has a strong heritage of welcoming immigrants, and much of our economic success can be attributed the skills, creative ideas, and work ethic immigrants brought with them.
There is a strong case that immigration helps the U.S. economy grow faster than it would otherwise. Even undocumented workers improve our economy. A 2006 survey of economists by The Wall Street Journal found that 59 percent of economists believe undocumented workers have only a slight impact on wages in low-skill jobs, but 96 percent said undocumented workers are beneficial to the economy because these workers fill jobs many American workers won’t accept and hold down the rate of inflation.[i] Writing earlier this year in The New York Times, Harvard economist N. Gregory Mankiw said “… economists are receptive to the concept of immigration, partly because they tend to have a libertarian streak.”[ii] Economic analysis shows that free markets lead to the best outcomes for society, and the question of immigration’s impact on labor market is no different. When markets are open to trade prices are lower and the quantity produced rises. This increases the rate at which an economy can grow and provides more choices for consumers.
Economy theory also supports greater immigration because of its association with entrepreneurism. New business formation is a key to economic growth and immigrants start small businesses at higher rates than native-born US citizens. Economist Robert Fairlie from UC-Santa Cruz showed that immigrants play an important role in economy by starting new businesses, creating jobs, and increasing exports.[iii] In 2011 immigrant owned businesses added more than $775 billion dollars of revenue to the U.S. gross domestic product. Further, Professor Fairlie showed that this was true even when the overall economy was weak.
Other economic research shows that immigration is good for U.S. worker productivity. Anyone willing to move to a new country is generally ambitious, that is, a good worker. Whenever output per worker rises the economy grows at a faster rate. In a 2010 study, Professor Giovanni Peri of the UC- Davis and researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco found evidence that immigrants expand the economy’s productive capacity, stimulate new investment, and boost productivity.[iv] Their local-level data shows that states with higher immigrant worker populations have higher rates of output per worker. Immigrants raise the overall output. Higher economic output brings in more tax revenue, helping reduce the federal budget deficit and stretched state budgets.
By increasing the avenues for legal immigration and reducing the number of undocumented workers in the U.S. we can also address one of the key factors of poverty – the breakdown of the family unit. Census data shows that poverty in the U.S. is strongly correlated with family composition. Families headed by a female adult without a spouse present are more likely to live in poverty than a family headed by a married couple.[v] This can be thought of as another productivity issue. A tight family unit is more likely to be productive and have a higher standard of living. With immigration reform fewer workers will leave behind their spouses and children, the entire family will have more support, and poverty around the world is likely to be lower.
Some analysts have argued that undocumented workers place a strain on the many government-provided benefits in the United States. These researchers have tried to show that US taxpayer is providing unwarranted income and services to millions of workers. But assumptions in this body of research give rise to inflated costs and ignore benefits. The Heritage Foundation has produced many reports suggesting that any revisions to current law providing undocumented workers some permanent status are bad for this country.[vi] However, the Heritage studies falsely assume immigrants use many services they don’t pay for and fail to make any assumption about the potential economic gains that arise when undocumented workers gain legal status.
The most recent Heritage report uses what economists call static analysis. The reports states that undocumented immigrants increase GDP by approximately 2 percent, but goes on to say that these same workers will capture most of the gain from expanded production in their own wages. The authors write, “…while unlawful immigrants make the American economic pie larger, they themselves consume most of the slice that their labor adds.” This statement contradicts the economic theory outlined above and the findings of other studies. For example, Professor Leighton Ku and lecturer Brian Bruen of George Washington University studied data from welfare programs like Medicaid, food stamps and the Children’s Health Insurance Program. [vii] They found that the families of low wage immigrant workers consistently use such programs less than their native-born counterparts. They also showed that when these poor immigrants did accept assistance it was at a lower cost than that of native families. Immigrants come here to work; the US taxpayer is not at risk. In the unlikely event an immigrant family does seek government benefits the cost is low and the long-term benefits outweigh them.
Our faith and our economics are aligned. Immigration reform is not just the right thing for Christians to do, it is good economic policy. There is widespread consensus among economists that all forms of immigration improve the country’s standard of living. Immigrant workers keep prices lower by accepting many unwanted jobs, starting new businesses, and increasing overall worker productivity. With reduced barriers to legal immigration families are more likely to remain together and poverty rates will decline. Finally, the data don’t support any suggestion immigrants are a burden to U.S. taxpayers. The United States’ immigration policies should be reformed so that we better respect the God-given dignity of every person, reduce the risk of poverty by keeping families together, and grow the economy faster for the benefit of all.
Peter R. Crabb is Professor of Finance and Economics at Northwest Nazarene University in Nampa, Idaho. He holds a Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Oregon and an MBA in Finance from the University of Colorado. His research in economics and finance is published in the Journal of Business, the Journal of Microfinance, and the International Review of Economics and Finance, among others.
This and other Evangelical Perspectives on Immigration represent one evangelical perspective on immigration—that of the author—and not necessarily the views of every member organization of the Evangelical Immigration Table or every signatory of the Evangelical Statement of Principles for Immigration Reform.[i] http://online.wsj.com/article/SB114477669441223067.html [ii] http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/10/business/how-economics-has-benefited-from-immigration.html [iii] http://www.renewoureconomy.org/sites/all/themes/pnae/openforbusiness.pdf [iv] http://www.frbsf.org/publications/economics/letter/2010/el2010-26.html [v] See chapter 20 in Principles of Economics, N. Gregory Mankiw, South-Western Cengage Learning 2012. [vi] http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2013/05/the-fiscal-cost-of-unlawful-immigrants-and-amnesty%20to-the-us-taxpayer [vii] http://www.cato.org/publications/economic-development-bulletin/poor-immigrants-use-public-benefits-lower-rate-poor