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Who Speaks? Reflections on the National Association of Evangelicals’ Resolution on “Immigration 2009”Alan F.H. WisdomOctober 22, 2009
On October 8 the Board of Directors of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) adopted a new resolution advocating liberalized U.S. immigration policies. On the same day, NAE President Leith Anderson joined other religious leaders advancing a pro-immigration position at a Senate hearing.
This high-profile advocacy places the evangelical association firmly on one side of a volatile political debate about which the NAE’s constituency is divided, and regarding which the Bible gives little specific guidance. It marks a departure from previous NAE statements on immigration, which had avoided taking positions on divisive policy particulars. On the other hand, the latest immigration resolution follows a more recent pattern in which the NAE has shifted leftward on issues ranging from the environment to U.S. treatment of terrorist detainees to nuclear disarmament.
The NAE’s “Immigration 2009” resolution favors some kind of amnesty for illegal aliens: “a sound, equitable process toward earned legal status for currently undocumented immigrants.” It suggests that greater numbers of legal immigrants should be admitted to the country. “[M]any jobs and industries rely on immigrant workers,” the NAE resolution says, and “[c]urrent quotas do not grant enough visas to meet these needs.” Therefore, it calls for “more functional legal mechanisms for the annual entry of a reasonable number of immigrant workers and families”—“reasonable” meaning, apparently, a much higher number than the current one million “green cards” granted annually.
The resolution accepts a need for “mechanisms that safeguard and monitor the national borders”; however, once persons have entered the U.S. illegally, it seems less keen on enforcing immigration laws. The NAE recommends “reevaluating the impact of deportation on families” and urges that “immigration enforcement be conducted in ways that recognize the importance of due process of law, the sanctity of the human person, and the incomparable value of family.”
We at the IRD do not take a position on the specifics of U.S. immigration policy. But we have criticized the NAE’s pro-immigration advocacy as inappropriate and unwise. IRD President Mark Tooley, in a recent press release, lamented: “Like the National Council of Churches for which the NAE was founded as an alternative, today’s NAE elites are too quickly adopting political stances in God’s name and without consideration for their own churches’ members. The ultimate outcome for NAE, as for the NCC, may unfortunately be irrelevance.”
A number of us at the IRD agree with parts of the new NAE immigration resolution, while others disagree. So why criticize the resolution? It is necessary to take a closer look at the text. It raises a number of questions that it does not adequately answer.
Who is speaking here?
Is it God, as revealed in the Bible, who is delivering this message about U.S. immigration policy? Or is it the members of U.S. evangelical churches who are speaking their convictions? Or is it just an elite group of evangelical leaders voicing their opinions? NAE leaders are not delivering a consistent answer.
The NAE’s statement of faith begins, “We believe the Bible to be the inspired, the only infallible, authoritative Word of God.” So if the NAE were to speak authoritatively on any topic, it would have to speak on the basis of Scripture. Indeed, the NAE resolution claims that its “call for the reform of the immigration system” is “guided by the Scripture.”
The resolution admits, “The Bible does not offer a blueprint for modern legislation.” Yet it goes on to offer a blueprint that goes far beyond anything the Bible says. There are no verses in Scripture that mandate “a sound, equitable process toward earned legal status for currently undocumented immigrants.” The Bible does not tell us whether the U.S. government currently hands out too few—or too many—immigrant visas. It does not indicate whether immigration enforcement should be stepped up or scaled back. The NAE’s policy prescriptions may or may not be correct; however, they have not been revealed by God in the Bible.
So do these prescriptions express the views of NAE members? The press release announcing the new immigration resolution claims that, in approving it, the NAE Board of Directors was “representing 40 denominations, scores of evangelical organizations and millions of American evangelicals.”
At an October 8 Senate hearing at which NAE President Leith Anderson and others testified, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) welcomed their pro-immigration stance as a sign of “evangelicals’ community support for immigration reform.” But when Schumer probed the depth of that support, NAE board member Samuel Rodriguez conceded, “There’s a disconnect between the pulpit [presumably more pro-immigration] and the pews, particularly in non-ethnic congregations.”
A 2006 Pew Forum poll showed that 64 percent of white evangelical Protestants agreed that “immigrants today are a burden because they take our jobs, housing and health care,” and 63 percent assented that “the growing number of newcomers from other countries threatens traditional American customs and values.” Evangelicals supported legalizing undocumented immigrants by a 54-38 margin. On the other hand, only 12 percent said “legal immigration should be increased,” as opposed to 49 percent who wanted to reduce immigration.
In every case, evangelical respondents were 5 to 15 percent less favorable to immigration than the general public. These anti-immigration attitudes may or may not be justified; however, it is clear that the NAE’s claimed constituency is not behind the evangelical association’s new position on immigration. At best, the constituency is deeply divided on the question. At worst, the evangelical constituency is firmly opposed to the stance being taken in its name.
So the NAE board is not speaking for the evangelical community in advocating liberalized immigration. Apparently, the 75 board members spoke only for themselves. And now even some of the denominations represented on the board are distancing themselves from the NAE immigration resolution.
Is the resolution selective and manipulative in its use of Scripture?
The resolution’s opening section on “Biblical Foundations” is almost entirely about how “Christians should show compassion and hospitality to outsiders.” It recalls how “[t]he Bible contains many accounts of God’s people who were forced to migrate” and God’s people were expected to show a “generous spirit” toward others who had been similarly displaced.
All of this biblical material is significant. Indeed, Christians should be kind to immigrants. But none of these verses answers the current political questions: How many immigrants should there be? What should be the standards for their admission into the United States? What should we do when large numbers of people violate the standards? The NAE is stretching these scriptures very far in citing them as the basis for its “call to action” on U.S. immigration policy today.
Moreover, there is another strand of biblical teaching that the NAE resolution severely underplays. It devotes less than two lines to the importance of upholding the law. “An appreciation of the pervasiveness of migration in the Bible,” according to the resolution, “must temper the tendency to limit discussions on immigration to Romans 13 and a simplistic defense of ‘the rule of law.’ God has established the nations (Deut. 32:8, Acts 17:26), and their laws should be respected.”
So, rather than limiting its discussion to Romans 13, the resolution avoids any discussion at all of that most important New Testament passage on the responsibilities of civil government. It puts sneer quotes around “the rule of law”—a concept deeply embedded in the Judeo-Christian tradition and crucial for the development of modern western democracy. It caricatures fellow evangelicals who emphasize the rule of law as “simplistic” in their thinking. This is not a balanced and thoughtful presentation of “Biblical Foundations.”
Is the resolution balanced in its depiction of the current situation regarding immigration?
The section on “National Realities” focuses on two realities: the benefits that immigrants bring to the U.S. economy, society, and evangelical churches, as well as the sufferings of illegal immigrants who are separated from their families, mistreated by employers, and threatened with deportation. Together, these realities constitute an argument for increased legal immigration.
On the other hand, the section pays scant attention to realities that point in the other direction. It only briefly notes that “[s]ome communities now struggle with significant stress on infrastructures in education, health care, social services, and the legal system.” It shows little awareness of the arguments for reduced immigration and stricter enforcement of immigration laws. If one were interested in such arguments, one could find them in a recent panel discussion and papers sponsored by the Center for Immigration Studies. NAE leaders might disagree with such arguments; however, they could not so easily dismiss them as “simplistic.”
Does the resolution distinguish adequately between different types of immigrants?
The resolution habitually speaks of immigrants as a bloc. At only a couple places does it observe a distinction between those who are in the country legally or illegally. It refers euphemistically to the latter as “undocumented immigrants”—as if their situation were the result of an inadvertent paperwork error.
Yet, morally as well as practically, the distinction between legal and illegal immigration has huge significance. Those who follow the law can properly demand justice; those who break the law can only ask for (and perhaps receive) mercy.
Regarding legal immigrants, the resolution fails to note the crucial difference between economic migrants and refugees. Under international and U.S. laws, refugees who are fleeing war or persecution have a right to asylum and a priority over economic migrants. It is a proud American tradition, widely supported by church members, that our country has led the world in accepting refugees. The NAE’s sister evangelical agency, World Relief, has aided in the resettlement of more than 200,000 refugees. It is a startling oversight that the new NAE immigration resolution says nothing about the higher claims that refugees have upon our consciences and our resources.
Is the resolution one-sided in its policy prescriptions?
The “Call to Action” section lays almost all its stress upon expanding the opportunities available to immigrants, legal and illegal. It goes on at some length about “reconsidering the number and categories of visas available for family reunification, by dedicating more resources to reducing the backlog of cases in process, and by reevaluating the impact of deportation on families” as well as “a sound, equitable process toward earned legal status for currently undocumented immigrants, who desire to embrace the responsibilities and privileges that accompany citizenship.” It also urges the importance of “functional legal mechanisms for the annual entry of a reasonable number of immigrant workers and families” and “fair labor and civil laws for all residing within the United States that reflect the best of this country’s heritage.”
By contrast, the resolution’s reference to “mechanisms that safeguard and monitor the national borders” is cursory. Likewise, the mention of “immigration enforcement” is immediately qualified by the insistence that it should be “conducted in ways that recognize the importance of due process of law, the sanctity of the human person, and the incomparable value of family.” Each of these concerns is quite legitimate; however, one is left with the impression that NAE leaders are not much interested in figuring out how to make immigration enforcement effective. Nor do they address another notable problem: the rising numbers of foreign-born residents who do not seek U.S. citizenship but rather retain their allegiance to other nations.
Does the NAE, in this resolution, go beyond its political competence?
The organization’s major expertise, as an evangelical body, would seem to be in setting forth biblical teachings to shape our basic outlook on immigration and everything else. It might also speak helpfully about the experiences of evangelical churches in resettling refugees and ministering to the spiritual and physical needs of immigrants.
But one wonders how the NAE acquired the economic expertise to declare that “[c]urrent quota systems do not grant enough visas to meet these needs” for immigrant labor. Is the NAE really sure that the illegal immigrants the U.S. is getting are a good match for the actual labor needs that the country has? Many would contest this economic judgment—especially in the midst of a recession with unemployment shooting above 10 percent.
How does the NAE discern that the positive impacts of immigration outweigh the “significant stress on infrastructures in education, health care, social services, and the legal system”? How much does the NAE know about “local, state, and federal laws” by which “avenues to assimilation and citizenship are blocked”? There are so many unanswered questions here.
Does the resolution take proper account of unintended consequences?
In a sinful, fallen world Christians must realize that good intentions are not enough. Policies enacted with the best of intentions, but carried out by fallible human beings, can go terribly awry in practice. A case in point is this basic rule of economics: Whenever one subsidizes or otherwise rewards persons engaging in a destructive behavior—perhaps with the noble intention of relieving suffering caused by that behavior—one will likely see more of that destructive behavior and the consequent suffering.
Applied to immigration, the rule suggests: If we grant coveted U.S. residency status to those who entered the country illegally or overstayed their temporary visas, we will likely see more persons engaging in those kinds of lawbreaking. Persons who might otherwise have waited long years overseas to obtain a visa through the proper channels will learn an unintended lesson: It is easier to sneak across the border and get a fast track to permanent U.S. residency.
We have already seen this “moral hazard” demonstrated with the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. Its amnesty for most who had been in the country illegally led to a spike in new illegal entries. The problem of illegal immigration was not solved; it was amplified.
There is a serious concern that the policies now advocated by the NAE might unleash a similar sequence of events. But the NAE resolution never even mentions the concern. Perhaps the NAE leaders estimate that the benefits of liberalized immigration would exceed the damages inflicted by this “moral hazard.” To make that determination, though, they would first have to acknowledge the problem.
Does the resolution distinguish properly between the obligations of church and state?
The resolution asserts, “Exemplary treatment of immigrants by Christians can serve as the moral basis to call for government attitudes and legislation to reflect the same virtues.” The assumption seems to be that the church and the government are called equally to “reflect the same virtues” and act in the same manner. But most major branches of the Christian faith teach otherwise.
The church, the body of Christ, is indeed called to show the mercy of Christ. It must welcome and serve all, regardless of their nationality or legal status, as Christ received all who came to him.
The state, according to most Christian interpretations, has a different identity and a different calling. Its mission is more centered on doing justice and seeking the common good of its citizens. It must “execute wrath on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4), tempered with mercy and prudence as the occasion advises.
None of these considerations dictates whether U.S. immigration policy should be stricter or more liberal. And the NAE board is mistaken if it thinks otherwise.
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