Applying biblical principles to immigration reform

Part 2

October 30, 2019

In recent years, few issues have dominated the headlines as frequently and divided the country as deeply as immigration. Many Americans—including many Christians—feel conflicted as they think about such a complex issue: They want the United States to be a secure country with just and fair immigration laws that welcome those immigrants who want to contribute to our communities and become a part of the American story.

This is why we published A biblical view of immigrants: Part 1 to equip Christians with how Scripture calls us to treat immigrants and what that means for our own communities today. In the second part of this series, we want to explore how biblical principles can apply to a policy framework for immigration reform.

Upholding the God-given dignity of every person

One of the most foundational biblical passages for thinking about public policy is the truth that every human being is made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26).

One ramification of this belief as applied to immigration policy is that, since human life is sacred, it should always be protected; that’s one reason that U.S. asylum laws, which guide the government not to send someone back to a situation of danger, are so vital. The notion that immigrants are made in God’s image also should inform the way that we speak about them. James laments the use of the same tongues to praise and worship God and to “curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness” (James 3:9). 

Not only does each immigrant — like every other human being — have dignity and value, but the belief that each person is made in the image of the Creator also implies the potential to create and to contribute. Indeed, immigrants have used the potential God has placed within them to contribute mightily to the U.S. economy: 20 percent of Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants and another quarter were founded by the children of immigrants. Were it not for immigration, close to half of these companies that employ tens of thousands of Americans — including Amazon, Apple, AT&T, Disney, General Electric, Google, Home Depot, Kraft, McDonald’s, UPS and many others — would likely not be American companies, and might not exist at all.

Protecting the unity of the immediate family

Christians believe that the family unit was established by God at creation as the fundamental building block of society. The reformer Martin Luther recognized three institutions ordained by God: the household, the government and the church. Even before God ordains the church (Matthew 16:18) and the government (Matthew 22:21, Romans 13:1), he first establishes the family unit (Genesis 2:18-24). 

One of the most foundational biblical passages for thinking about public policy is the truth that every human being is made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26).

God designed the family unit to be the primary place of nurturing and instruction for children. Our immigration policies should reflect this value, keeping children with their parents and keeping husbands and wives united. If the family truly is the core building block of our society, all American policy, including immigration policy, should prioritize the strength and unity of families. While this may not always be possible — and the church, as the family of God, should take particular concern for children not able to experience this ideal — government policy should prioritize the unity of families wherever possible. Broadly, this means that immediate families should be able to stay together except in the very rarest of circumstances, such as when the life or well-being of a child is at risk. 

Respecting the rule the law

Whether by crossing the border illegally or overstaying their visa, a significant minority of immigrants in the United States, likely between 10 to 12 million, are living here unlawfully. Undocumented immigrants often choose to come to the U.S. illegally under very difficult circumstances, fleeing serious economic hardship or even persecution. However, except for those brought as minors or trafficked to the U.S. against their will, they still did knowingly break U.S. law. This is why amnesty is wrong: Amnesty communicates that the law doesn’t matter. Even when laws don’t work well, they shouldn’t simply be ignored — participants in a democratic society should work to change them. 

The best way forward — both to respect the law and to keep families together — is to have an earned legalization process, which includes the payment of a monetary fine as restitution for adults who willfully violated U.S. immigration laws and, of course, criminal background checks. For many who have lived under both the fear and shame associated with their unlawful status for many years, the opportunity to earn legal status would feel akin to the biblical Year of Jubilee, a time of redemption, when debts were canceled (Leviticus 25:8-17). 

Guaranteeing secure national borders

While immigration is a much broader topic than just the U.S.-Mexico border — after all, most immigrants come to the U.S. via airplanes, including many unauthorized immigrants who initially enter on temporary visas — the security of the United States’ borders with both Mexico and Canada is an important matter. Christians want to be part of a compassionate nation that welcomes immigrants, and we also want to be safe. That’s consistent with the God-ordained role of government described in the Bible (Romans 13:1) and with the Israelites’ establishment of fortified cities “for protection” (Numbers 32:17).

The role of secure borders should be to protect the nation, however, not to keep out those fleeing persecution. The U.S. refugee resettlement program is a great example: Since 1980, when the Refugee Act was signed into law, roughly 3 million refugees have been identified overseas, vetted and then invited to rebuild their lives in the U.S. Of those 3 million refugees admitted since 1980, not a single one has taken an American life in a terrorist attack.

One of the best ways to reduce illegal immigration is by building a more functional, robust legal immigration system — not just for those fleeing persecution (who may qualify for asylum or refugee status) but also for those seeking to meet a labor need in the U.S. Most immigrants would much rather go through an application and vetting process closer to their homes and then come safely to the U.S. on an airplane with a visa than make a very dangerous journey across Mexico.

A functional legal immigration system would go a long way toward reducing illegal immigration and allow the Department of Homeland Security to improve border security to keep Americans safe.  

Ensuring fairness to taxpayers

It’s important that immigration policies are fair to taxpayers. The Apostle Paul wrote to the Thessalonian believers that those who were unwilling to work should not eat (2 Thessalonians 3:10), and likewise it’s right to expect immigrants to work, not to depend upon social programs funded by the taxes paid by others.

It’s true that some categories of immigrants receive some governmental assistance, which involves some costs to taxpayers. But, while there may be a net cost to taxpayers for a few years, in the long run these individuals actually contribute more in taxes than they receive: A study by economists at the University of Notre Dame finds that, 20 years after arrival, the average refugee adult has contributed about $21,000 more in taxes than the combined costs of public benefits they have qualified for and initial resettlement assistance. 

Many presume that undocumented immigrants — those living and usually working in the U.S. unlawfully — are not paying taxes, but this turns out not to be true. Like anyone else in our economy, they pay sales tax when they go shopping or buy a car. Those state and local taxes add up to about $7 billion annually for all states. Undocumented immigrants also pay property tax, whether directly as homeowners or indirectly as renters, and those taxes from all states add up to roughly $3.6 billion annually.

However, the fact remains that some undocumented immigrants have not fully paid their taxes, which is unfair to the rest of American taxpayers who have worked hard and paid their fair share. This is another reason why amnesty is the wrong approach. Any path to legal status or citizenship should make sure that American taxpayers are treated fairly in the process by requiring undocumented immigrants to make things right through a process of restitution. 

Immigrants are an important part of the U.S. economy. While Christians should value immigrants as human persons made in God’s image regardless of any economic contribution, it is fair that the government consider economic opportunities and impacts as it develops immigration policy, pursuing flourishing for all Americans and being fair to taxpayers.

Making things right through a restitution-based path to legal status

Unauthorized immigrants, including many within evangelical churches, are often desperate to get right with the law, and many yearn to be citizens of the United States, a land they have come to love. Many Americans rightly wonder why undocumented immigrants don’t simply begin the process to become citizens. But the fact is, for most undocumented immigrants, there simply is no process for them to actually come out of the shadows and make things right. With very limited exceptions, it’s not a question of them being unwilling to wait their turn in line: There is no line in which they qualify to wait.

Our country needs a better way forward — one that honors the law, is fair to American taxpayers and keeps families together. That way is an earned legalization process, including some form of restitution. And for the subset of these immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children, commonly known as “Dreamers,” an earned legalization process should not include a requirement of restitution, given the biblical and legal principle that we do not hold children accountable for their parents’ decisions (Ezekiel 18:20).

This sort of a restitution-based, earned legalization process, paired with improvements to border security, is supported by more than two-thirds of American evangelical Christians, according to a poll from LifeWay Research.

Indeed, while the Bible guides us to reject public policy proposals that undermine the rule of law, it also compels us to believe in restoration. Were elected officials to pursue a restitution-based legalization process for qualifying immigrants, it would give these immigrants the chance to earn their way back into right standing with the U.S. government, which would be a tremendous relief to them and a reaffirmation of the importance of the rule of law. 

There would be great community celebrations as neighbors, family members, fellow church members and employees welcome immigrants with open arms out of the shadows and into lawful and permanent status. This process would invite the formerly undocumented to participate fully and completely in American society, finally being able to add their strands of colorful fabric to the great and beautiful tapestry that is the United States of America. 

The invitation: Take the next step

Reforming the U.S. immigration system is not a simple task, nor is it easy politically. But nearly all Americans agree that our current system isn’t working, that people are harmed along the way, and that Washington needs to come together for a solution.

What's one step you can take? You can learn more about these issues by reading the extended articles for each area of engagement and policy reform.

This is an excerpt from Thinking Biblically about Immigrants and Immigration Reform, an e-book recently published by the Evangelical Immigration Table (EIT).