Evangelicals for Immigration Reform

By James Robb
Volume 9, Number 1 (Fall 1998)
Issue theme: "Making the case for faith-based immigration reform"

-At meetings of immigration reform advocates, I sometimes stick out. I am an Evangelical, the sort of conservative Christian often (but mistakenly) identified as a fundamentalist. There are scores of millions of us in the United States, according to estimates.

I share a set of beliefs with fellow Evangelicals found in various Protestant denomi-nations around the world. Some of these beliefs are the divinity of Christ, Man's sinfulness and inability to save his own soul, the necessity of being 'born again' (meaning changed from within by accepting the claims of Christ), the authority of the Bible, and the imperative to do good works as Christ commanded.

A new movement is under-way to help Evangelical Christians understand how necessary it is to reform America's immigration laws. Although there are lots of Evangelicals, there aren't huge numbers of us in the immigration reform movement at present for a couple of reasons. First, a certain number of immigration reform activists have come to the issue through their involvement in the population issue. Traditionally population activists have supported and even promoted abortion rights. Nearly all Evangelicals, on the other hand, accept the pro-life point of view. We vigorously oppose abortion, although most of us strongly support non-abortive birth control methods. So, frankly, Evangelicals have often felt out of place in immigration reform meetings.

But this begs the point. Are there reasons other than population to support bringing down levels of immigration? Well, there must be, if you study the polling numbers carefully enough. In the Harris Poll conducted in 1997, highly religious persons were found to be just as overwhelmingly supportive of immigration reform as were non-religious and moderately religious types. My experience tells me that these highly religious persons have little interest in population as an issue.

Although the majority of Evangelicals at the grass-roots level support immigration cuts, their leaders are more ambivalent. Especially in Washington, Evangelical leaders and pundits tend toward what amounts to an open borders approach. Some of these are guided by an interesting twist on the missionary impetus - they have explained to me that the best way to convert non-believers is to bring them to the U.S. Other leaders are motivated more from simple compassion. They simply cannot bear to refuse the request of poor people asking for a chance to better themselves.

Being an Evangelical, I, of course, identify with a desire to save souls and help the needy. Yet I also know that my instincts tell me that America's present immigration policies are ill-conceived and lead to severe consequences.

Also, I have seen that the (in my view) wicked Libertarian movement, which has made such strong headway among political conservatives, has begun to infect religious conservatives as well. This is truly alarming. Libertarians celebrate the rights of the individual to an excess and excoriate the need for the protections that only a nation-state can bring. National borders are seen as an evil by hard-core Libertarians.

About a year ago I began to think, Is there a way to explain the need for immigration reform using the Bible? I knew that I would not get very far with most of my fellow Evangelicals if I couldn't explain how my views on immigration were rooted in my faith. More important still, I needed to see for myself.

So I took up the project and developed six principles concerning immigration reform I felt could be fairly supported from Scripture. I was encouraged by how right these principles felt to me. This is how the Evangelicals for Immigration Reform (EIR) coalition was begun early in 1998.

The Six Principles

1) God loves all human beings equally and shows no favoritism among nations. As the New Testament says, in Christ there is "neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female..." (Galatians 3 28).1 While America does enjoy remarkable blessings, we do not suggest God loves poorer or more poorly ruled nations any less.

"...God in Scripture has explicitly endorsed the need for both national communities and national boundaries. The chaos of ‘open borders' is not an option."2) America should be a welcoming country, allowing a generous level of immigration. As believers, we are eager to share our blessings with as many newcomers as possible, just as our ancestors were once welcomed here. We wish to identify with the patriarch Job who said, "I was father to the needy; I took up the case of the stranger" (Job 29 16). We absolutely reject hatred of foreigners, racial demagoguery and the like.

3) Yet we also believe that God in Scripture has explicitly endorsed the need for both national communities and national boundaries. The chaos of "open borders" is not an option. The Apostle Paul in his speech to the Athenians made this clear "From one man, [God] made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places they should live." (Acts 17 26).

4) Governments have a responsibility to maintain order and also to protect the vulnerable among us. These include poor Americans and the immigrants already here. As one proverb commands, "Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute" (Proverbs 31 8). Decisions on immigration policies must take into account the impact additional immigrants may have on struggling families, the communities which shelter them, and the schools which educate them.

5) Therefore, the government must resist helping newcomers at the expense of our own poor and minorities - some of whom, as in the case of black Americans, have toiled here for hundreds of years. As Paul wrote to early Christians, "If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever" (I Timothy 5 8).

6) Finally, the government must not introduce new cultures and religions into the country so rapidly that social cohesiveness is threatened. No nation can successfully absorb change as fast as America has been asked to do in recent years. Much of the Old Testament concerns itself with the struggle of the people of Israel to maintain their national identity. Failing to respect social unity invites a resurgence of nativism, the belief that immigrants should not possess full civil rights.

Policy Implications

One thing I want to stress is that neither EIR nor I presume to represent all Evangelicals, or to have the only legitimate Evangelical opinion on the issue of immigration. Quite the contrary - I understand too well that many Evangelical leaders have sometimes embraced an "open borders" position without considering the consequences for the nation.

The good news is that many of these Evangelical leaders are reachable. After all, Libertarianism, with its libertine social ethic and beggar-your-neighbor economics, is incompatible with Christianity. It has only made inroads because the very liberal social agenda of the U.S. federal courts have made conservative Christians dislike their national government. Libertarianism is the proverbial wolf in sheep's clothing and must be knocked down. Evangelicals, when confronted with a few basic facts, are generally soon ready to acknowledge the need for national protections, borders, and immigration controls.

They respond especially well to concerns that today's high level of immigration is causing a "brain drain" of educated people from the countries that can least afford to lose them. Also, in private, most Evangelicals are willing to own up to their discomfort with the large wave of non-Christian immigration, especially that of Muslims. They fear a "Balkanization" of the country. They support the English language and rapid acculturation and are the deadly enemies of multiculturalism.

Progress at EIR

Since EIR is not a membership organization, progress is not at all easy to judge. However, we are having significant opportunities.

For example, in April, 1998, I was asked to testify before the House Immigration Committee on behalf of EIR. The subject was the Wolf-Specter religious freedom bill then pending in Congress. The legislation as introduced threatened to bring in hundreds of thousands of new asylees claiming religious persecution. The problem was that the bill did not require them to prove that they personally had been molested; only that they were members of a persecuted faith. That would, for example, qualify all of China's 50 million Christians for immediate entry to the U.S.

Let me also give our readers this extended example of a discussion about ethics from the Evangelical viewpoint that illustrates the usefulness of coming forward with such an organization as EIR.

The St. Joseph Dayworker Center

This summer a trustee of the St. Joseph Dayworker Center, a charitable religious institution, contacted me through my Evangelicals for Immigration Reform site on the world wide web (www.eir.org). The trustee informed me that his center provided shelter for immigrant workers awaiting day jobs. While they waited, the center provided counseling and English lessons. Yet the board of directors was troubled, he wrote, because they understood that many of their clients are illegal immigrants. What was their religious and ethical obligation in this case, he asked. Their board was soon to undertake a planning retreat and he needed input.

I responded in writing to indicate that the issue in my view seems to be does the illegal status of the shelter's clients make it wrong to exert any effort to "The legislation as introduced threatened to bring in hundreds of thousands of asylees claiming religious persecution."help them? The issue is complex and not subject to truisms and can be divided into the following questions.

Is it legitimate for Christians to support the vigorous enforcement of immigration laws?

Many believers are troubled by this. They believe that Christ's general command that we take the part of the weak and defenseless ends the conversation before it begins. True, it is unthinkable for a Christian to harm "the least of these" because it might somehow pay us to do so. Nor are we even allowed the option of ignoring the weak. Christ made clear that he does pay attention to our acts of mercy. So, I applauded the efforts of the Center to help these humble people. Waiting outside in the rain and cold for someone to come by and offer work must be a hard life.

However, as both Catholic and Protestant teaching agrees, poverty does not trump law. St. Paul exhorts the faithful to "obey the emperor" (Romans 13). Jesus advised paying taxes, so it seems that a synthesis of New Testament teachings directs us to help the stranger but not break the law. As Christians, we could only justify breaking the law if that law is deemed grossly immoral.

Are the laws against illegal immigration immoral?

If a poor man approaches another man with a knife, his poverty does not give him license to steal the latter's wallet. This is even more true if the victim is also poor. When it comes to day laborers, it seems to me that there is more than one group of poor involved. What of the day workers who are legal immigrants, struggling to eke out a living in a labor market that takes advantage of their lack of education, English skills, and organizing capability. Illegal immigrants could be seen as stealing jobs which should be going to the working poor who are legal residents. Very often illegal aliens are competing not with middle class "Anglo" workers Pope Urges Amnesty for Illegal Immigrants

VATICAN CITY, October 10, 1998

Pope John Paul yesterday urged a world amnesty for illegal immigrants in the year 2000, denouncing what he said was growing xeno-phobia.

"Almost everywhere today there is a tendency to close frontiers and return to rigorous con-trols," he told participants at a world congress on the issue at the Vatican. "Migration is spoken of more than before and always in alarmist tones," he said.

- Associated Pressbut with other immigrants like themselves - except that the other group followed the rules of entry.

At other times it is the American Blacks that are being displaced. I can remember that here in my own area near Washington, D.C., maids in hotels were exclusively black women. Today they are Hispanic women, many of them undocumented. Is it safe to assume that all the black women are now working in higher-end jobs? I don't think so. While many African-Americans have moved up in the workforce, others have been forced down in the past several decades. Should we not feel compassion for those who have been toiling away on this continent for four centuries now, often with no pay at all.

The first duty of government is to protect its citizens, especially the weak. The hundreds of thousands of new illegal workers entering this country annually makes life more difficult for our poor by overcrowding our inner-city schools, stretching thin our social welfare resources, making it more difficult for our poor citizens to get decent housing, and, finally, competing with our most vulnerable in low-wage occupations and depressing wages. As the Supreme Court has ruled, the purpose of immigration laws is to protect American workers. I believe our laws against illegal immigration are moral and necessary.

Should centers like St. Joseph help people regardless of their legal status?

This is by far the trickiest question. The answer is not easy. I certainly do not believe that a group should make it a mission to help illegal immigrants evade the law. No active role should be taken in encouraging illegals to stay. To do so would put the group at odds with EIR's interpretation of Christian teaching. Certainly one's spiritual life could be imperiled by giving the false impression that the illegal action does not matter.

On the other hand, the center is not an arm of the government. There seems to be no ethical mandate to turn people away, to check I.D. papers, to inform on illegals. Offering shelter and English lessons for workers is an appropriate service. But there are some steps to be taken that honor both a Christian mission of mercy and one's Christian duty to honor the law and its enforcers.

How can respect for law be shown in such a mission of mercy?

A surprising number of illegal immigrants are basically stuck in the United States. They are not happy here. They would return home if they could. Since they are illegal, they might have a hard time getting out (no passports, etc.). A center like St. Joseph could post a large sign in Spanish saying something like, "Homesick? No way to get home? Ask us for help!"

It would also be helpful to have a simple, non-threatening sign posted that affirms the center's double commitment to helpfulness along with obedience to the law "We are here to serve everyone regardless of legal status. We will not ask you for papers. However, we want you to know we support the laws of the United States. We hope any who are not legally in the country will either regularize your status or allow us to help you return home."

Certainly, such an institution as the St. Joseph Dayworker Center should not interfere with efforts of the Immigration and Naturalization Service to check workers there for documentation.


I am hopeful that the opportunity to open up dialogue among Evangelical Christians will lead to a realization on the part of many that immigration reform - taking a new look at the numbers -is very compatible with Christian teaching and will turn out to be of greater service to the greater number of our citizens. We invite comments, questions and open dialogue to www.eir.org. TSC


1 All scripture quotes are taken from the New International Version of the Bible.

About the author

James Robb is a contributing editor of The Social Contract.