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).
Throughout the Bible, we see God carrying out his purposes through families: He makes a covenant with Abraham and his descendants (Genesis 17:7). Both Matthew and Luke include genealogies of Jesus, tracing the family lineage through which God ultimately took on human flesh (Matthew 1:1-17; Luke 3:23-38).
God designed the family unit to be the primary place of nurturing and instruction for children. Research affirms the wisdom of God’s plan, as children raised by a married mother and father “enjoy better physical, cognitive and emotional outcomes, on average, than children who are raised in other circumstances.” 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.
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. In the criminal justice context, the commission of a crime by one parent sometimes results in the separation of a family. But, usually, the decision of whether to deport one parent in the immigration context is more complex. This does not mean that family unity is the only important principle in our immigration policy, but preserving family unity should surely be a factor with which other policy interests are balanced. At a minimum, we should not be indifferent to the impact of our immigration policy on family units, particularly when some members of the family are American citizens.
Even during arrests or a deportation proceeding, immigration policy should reflect a pro-family approach. When individuals are apprehended for entering the country unlawfully, every effort should be made to keep families together, with a particular concern for treating vulnerable children with care.
Researchers have documented the long-term traumatic effects on children who are separated from their parents and held in group settings. Drs. Karyn Purvis and David Cross of Texas Christian University have found that such children experience trauma that alters their brain chemistry and harms cognitive, emotional and physical development. And Jesus reserves some of his harshest words of judgment for those who would cause harm to children (Luke 17:2).
Just as immigration policies should avoid separating families whenever possible, they also should help to facilitate the reunification of families who have been separated. As noted by Christianity Today editor Andy Olsen, “The history of our faith traces through a constellation of families that were united across national boundaries: Rebekah emigrated to marry Isaac, Ruth emigrated to Bethlehem to follow and support her mother-in-law, and all of Israel’s history pivoted on Pharaoh’s consent to allow Joseph to bring his sprawling clan to Egypt.”
This does not mean that family reunification is the only legitimate immigration priority. There is an important and worthy policy debate about including a merit-based component in the U.S. immigration system. Such a program may be a worthwhile policy change to prepare the United States for the future. But even here, policy should reflect the fact that when families are reunited, the individuals that make up that family are stronger and better supported.
There’s a popular misconception that U.S. laws allowing for family reunification can lead to what some call “chain migration,” where one immigrant admitted to the U.S. can sponsor an unlimited number of additional immigrants, exponentially increasing the number of immigrants allowed to come to the U.S.
In reality, current U.S. law allows U.S. citizens to petition for their close family members — for spouses, children, parents and siblings — not extended family members such as cousins, uncles, aunts or grandparents. Lawful Permanent Residents (those with a “green card”) can petition only for unmarried children and spouses. In some cases, such as for a spouse or minor children of a citizen, these reunification processes can take six months to a year to complete, but in other cases — such as for an adult child of a U.S. citizen, the process can take decades to complete, with some cases currently being processed from the mid-1990s.
Beyond questions of public policy, it’s also vital that evangelicals do everything possible through our churches and ministries to strengthen and support families, including immigrant families who often face the stress of cultural adjustment and economic challenges in addition to the dynamics facing any family in the United States. Ultimately, strong families lead to a strong, healthy society.
This is an excerpt from Thinking Biblically about Immigrants and Immigration Reform, an e-book recently published by the Evangelical Immigration Table (EIT).