Recently CNN and other news agencies reported that a “growing chorus of conservative evangelical leaders have broken with their traditional political allies on the right … and are attempting to … push for federal immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.”
These evangelicals are planning to lobby Republican Senators in Washington for “comprehensive reform.”
I know many of these leaders, and respect all of them. We agree on many biblical essentials, including fervent opposition to racism and racial profiling and the importance of recognizing the dignity of every person and treating all people with respect and compassion.
I also believe it is critical that American Latinos understand that opposition to illegal immigration should have nothing to do with race, and that we welcome them with open arms to the conservative movement, with our shared cultural values and commitment to rewarding entrepreneurialism and hard work.
But the policy proposals set forth by some evangelical leaders are the same unworkable ideas already rejected by Congress and the American people.
More significantly from my perspective as an evangelical – they are largely in conflict with biblical notions of Christian ethics, justice and God’s purposes for government.
In 2006 I won the Republican nomination for Governor of Arizona, and during that primary campaign it became clear that, unlike any previous election, illegal immigration was the only issue most Arizona voters wanted to discuss.
I realized quickly that the issue of illegal immigration is so contentious because it seems to pit two fundamental American values against one another — our commitment to justice and the rule of law, versus our history as a compassionate and welcoming people. Both of these values are deeply rooted in our nation’s historic Judeo-Christian ethic.
In that campaign I spent more than a year thinking and praying through the moral, legal and ethical issues surrounding this controversy. I heard from people on all sides.
I cried with a group of college-age students who were brought here illegally as children, who have no ability to legally go to college or hold a job in the only country they have ever known.
I also met with friends of a couple who were killed by a runaway van packed with illegal aliens trying to evade the Border Patrol. I met with American citizens forced to abandon their homes and land near the border because they feared for their lives. I toured the border at night with a law enforcement official as he recounted altercations with AK-47 toting drug cartels, and shared his heartbreak at recovering dead bodies of children and pregnant women who tried to cross the desert.
I argued in 2006 that we need to secure the border first, and that a nation that sent a man to the moon and secured the border of Iraq could find a way to secure its own borders. In a post 9/11 world, this is a matter of vital national security.
And yet, almost incomprehensibly, four years later we still have hundreds of thousands of people sneaking into our country every year. We have no idea who they are, where they are going, and what their intentions are. Some are no doubt coming to find work. Others are coming to commit crimes. And some may be planning and preparing horrific acts of terror and violence against our nation.
That we have allowed this to continue is a complete dereliction of duty on the part of all our elected leaders. The first role of government is to protect its citizens, and our leaders have failed year after year.
The result of this ongoing failure is the presence of millions of people who, on a daily basis, knowingly violate the laws of the United States.
Now we are hearing from evangelical leaders who argue that biblical notions of justice somehow require us to provide a “path to citizenship” for those millions who have violated our laws and now live illegally in our nation.
But rather than an even-handed attempt to evaluate how Christian values apply to this weighty issue, we have seen only a one-sided, conclusory presentation of a few biblical principles, mostly misapplied. Principles like “love thy neighbor,” and “show compassion and mercy for the alien,” are true and important instructions for Christians, but cannot be selectively appropriated to make political points.
At the same time, there is no recognition by these evangelical leaders that the admonitions they cite are directed primarily at individual believers, and not necessarily at nations and governments.
Nations and governments are given specific instruction about their duties. At the same time, we receive guidance about our responsibilities as Christian citizens. Yet somehow, when discussing our national response to this crisis, these evangelical leaders manage to completely ignore principles such as these from Romans 13:1-4:
“Everyone is to obey the governing authorities. For there is no authority that is not from God, and the existing authorities have been placed where they are by God. Therefore, whoever resists the authorities is resisting what God has instituted … For rulers are no terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you like to be unafraid of the person in authority? Then simply do what is good, and you will win his approval; for he is God’s servant, there for your benefit. But if you do what is wrong, be afraid! Because it is not for nothing that he holds the power of the sword; for he is God’s servant, there as an avenger to punish wrongdoers.”
That passage seems to have specific application to those who are here unlawfully, and should instruct all American citizens of faith to recognize that there are consequences for violating the law. Illegal aliens in America tragically live in the shadows because they are afraid “of the person in authority” due to the “wrong” they have done by knowingly breaking the law. And sadly, almost inexplicably, some American Christians want to excuse this unlawful behavior.
These general principles are not absolute, but Scripture provides only two circumstances when defying the law is permissible: when the law requires you to do something God forbids – such as participate in a murder — or when the law forbids you from doing something God commands. Thus, the Hebrew midwives refused to murder innocent babies at the command of their King (Exodus 1:15-17), while in the New Testament Peter and the apostles, when arrested for preaching the Gospel, responded by saying they must “obey God and not man” and continued to preach (Acts 5:29).
There are many heart-rending, tragic stories of illegal immigrants that tug at the heartstrings of all Christians and people of faith. And there are undoubtedly flaws in our immigration laws. But there is simply no serious argument that our immigration laws force Americans or those from other countries to violate the law of God, and as a result, there is no biblical argument for defending or justifying such mass lawbreaking.
While that passage speaks to the Christian response to those who are breaking our current laws, it does not answer the question – what principles should guide our immigration laws?
Scripturally, we know that the primary purpose of government is to maintain the peace, security and order of a community or nation, and to promote justice.
The whole concept of lawful versus unlawful entry into our nation – also the foundation of Arizona’s new SB-1070 — is based on principles of property rights that flow from the 10 Commandments. Those who violate our immigration laws by jumping the fence are stealing rights of citizenship (to live and work in America) and, in essence, coveting and stealing their neighbors’ property.
These evangelical leaders also claim we must “think about immigration from the perspective of justice.” Well, that’s fine. Let’s start by considering the enormous injustice of telling those who have followed the legal immigration process that they must wait in line, year after year, while those who have cheated and broken the law to get in are allowed to stay. Where is the justice for these law-abiding aliens who also desire to emigrate? Or do we only have “compassion and mercy” for those who break the law?
Let’s do a quick comparison. Two men born in Mexico desire to move to America to work, and hope to eventually become U.S. citizens. One hires a coyote to sneak him across the border. He moves to Phoenix, works in construction, uses a fake social security number to collect his pay, eventually buys a house and raises a family, all the while knowingly breaking multiple laws. Other than the law-breaking, he’s a productive member of American society – though he can never completely relax because he is using a fake name, a fake social security number, and knows if caught he will be prosecuted and deported.
The other man tries to get a work visa, but is unsuccessful. He tries to get U.S. citizenship, but is unsuccessful. Yet he waits patiently, and legally, year after year for the opportunity to come to the land of opportunity.
Under the approach favored by these evangelical leaders, the first man gets a chance to pay a fine, take some classes in English, and become a citizen. By cheating the system, he gets to live here for years illegally, and then eventually become a legal worker or legal citizen. He jumps the line, then never really has to get back in it.
The man who follows the laws of Mexico and the United States – just as industrious, just as hard-working, just as desirous of getting to America, but with a greater commitment to integrity – continues to wait for a legal opportunity to come to our nation.
By what standard of ethics could this be considered a just result?
Most Americans would favor reform of our immigration laws to give the second man, rather than the line jumper, a better chance to legally work and live in the United States. But the so-called “reform” proposed by these evangelicals produces the opposite result.
To summarize, there are serious and principled reasons, consistent with Scripture, that justify evangelical support for enforcing tough laws against illegal immigration. The accusation by some evangelical leaders that opponents of illegal immigration somehow lack compassion or a commitment to justice is simply untrue.
Members of the faith community should despise racism and oppose racial profiling, have compassion and concern for the alien among us, love and appreciate Latinos and the richness of Latino culture – yet still believe in the rule of law and the need for a strong governmental response to illegal immigration.
What we need from leading evangelicals is not a push for “comprehensive immigration reform,” but rather a push for what they have so far failed to provide — a “comprehensive biblical analysis” of this issue.
Attorney Len Munsil was the Republican nominee for Governor of Arizona in 2006, and has been an adjunct professor of Christian ethics at Southwestern College. A more detailed response to the “Draft White Paper: Principles for Just Immigration Reform” is available at www.lenmunsil.com.