Balancing Justice and Mercy in Immigration Reform

July 14, 2014

Immigration reform is one of the most incendiary topics in U.S. politics right now and, like many debates on the American stage, the argument is being waged largely as a battle between political conservatism and liberalism. Regretfully, for some conservative pundits, the major concern involved in a debate about gaining citizenship for illegal immigrants is which party would earn the votes of the immigrants once they become citizens. Such political concerns may be wise gamesmanship, but as Christians we are called to seek the good of “our neighbor” more primarily than seeking the good of “our party.”

The Southern Baptist Convention passed resolutions in 2006 and 2011 in an attempt to influence immigration policy in a way that would reflect Christian love and wisdom. Both resolutions acknowledge that the real problem of illegal immigration is to secure the nation’s borders and enforce employment laws. In addition to these security measures, however, the resolutions call for restoration and reconciliation, and express hope for a path to legitimacy for immigrants. In 2011, Richard Land and Barrett Duke of the ERLC published an article in the Regent Journal of Law and Public Policy laying out the biblical support for the call for immigration reform. These statements are worthy of reading in their entirety.

Americans are faced with the choice between a simplistic and reactionary solution which would undermine Christian wisdom and love, and a more complex and constructive solution which upholds wisdom and love while at the same time being more difficult to implement. On the one hand, the simplistic solution to a complex problem is to argue that undocumented immigrants broke the law and should be sent back to where they came from. But this approach would have significant and deleterious repercussions for immigrants and their children.

On the other hand, the more complex solution is to recognize that, although many immigrants have broken American laws, they often have done so out of desperation and now live in America, as our neighbors, with their children and grandchildren. As such, our policy should be gracious towards our neighbors who have already immigrated while at the same time bolstering security at the borders and enforcing employment policies.

As Russell Moore, president of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, noted in 2011,

It is easy to lash out at undocumented immigrants as “law-breakers,” and to cite Romans 13 as reason to simply call for deportation and retribution. But this issue is far more complicated than that. Yes, undocumented immigrants are violating the law, but, first of all, most of them are doing so in order to provide a future for their families in flight from awful situations back home.

Moore also noted that many of the illegal immigrants were and are children who were brought into the U.S. by parents. Certainly their residency in the U.S. violates the law, but can we consider them morally accountable for the sins of their parents? Is it wise or loving for us to make immigration policies in which we deport individuals who have lived in the US most of their lives, been educated in American schools, and may have no recollection of their actual nation of origin? These questions illustrate the complexity and the weight of the question of immigration.

Thus Moore writes:

The larger issue is in how we talk about [immigration reform], recognizing that this is not about “issues” or “culture wars” but about persons made in the image of God. Our churches must be the presence of Christ to all persons, regardless of country of origin or legal status. We need to stand against bigotry and harassment and exploitation, even when it’s politically profitable for those who stand with us on other issues.

In other words, our arguments need to transcend political categories and be argued along biblical lines.

Does this mean that unconditional amnesty should be granted to all immigrants in the U.S. illegally? Certainly not. However, it does mean that we should look for and work toward policies that offer real solutions, realistic hope, and a balance between justice and mercy. We should recognize that we aren’t dealing with weeds in our yard but with people made in God’s image.

This means that we should not advocate for solutions that will automatically and without consideration separate families and disrupt communities. We cannot speak in such forceful voices that a large segment of the population should fear that Christians are more concerned about seeing them deported than seeing them come to Christ. Instead, we need to recognize some of the systemic evils that led to the very real problem of illegal immigration.

The borders need to be secured and employment policies need to be enforced. This means that those individuals who lack the legal status to work in the US will not be able to get in and that they will not be able to work if they do get in.

But for those who remain we should look for a solution that balances justice and mercy. Amnesty, which would be immediate citizenship with no consideration for criminal history or how they arrived, is not a just option. However, neither is the marginalization of a large segment of our population and the call for their removal, either by forceful deportation or merely through economic privation, a perfectly just option.

The question of illegal immigration is an example where a wisely applied mercy is as necessary as justice. We must craft an immigration policy which avoids substituting the evil of the separation of families for the evil of violating immigration laws. As the saying goes, two wrongs don’t make a right.

Bruce Ashford

Dr. Ashford has been teaching at Southeastern since 2002 and became the provost in 2013.  His goal in teaching is to encourage his students to bear witness to the truth, goodness and beauty of the gospel and to work out its implications in all facets of their lives and in … Read More