Just Mercy: Why Christians Should Support Immigration Reform

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Bruce Ashford Bruce Ashford is a political speechwriter and Senior Fellow at the Kirby Laing Centre for Public Theology. He is the author of Letters to an American Christian. Follow him on Twitter, @BruceAshford.
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Illegal immigration and immigration reform have recently found their way back to the front page. Recently, thousands of students on a number of college campuses walked out of class to demand that their institutions declare themselves “sanctuaries” for undocumented immigrants.

During his campaign, President-elect Trump pledged to deport millions of undocumented immigrants and to cancel all funding to sanctuary cities. He has reportedly offered the job of Attorney General of the United States to immigration hard-liner Jeff Sessions.

Many Democratic leaders support the walk-outs and are threatening to oppose President-elect Trump’s plans for immigration reform. Over the past several days, a number of Democratic mayors of so-called “sanctuary cities” have vowed not to cooperate should President Trump order the deportation of unauthorized immigrants in the future.

But Democratic leaders should stop using immigration reform as a political piñata. Why was there so little indignation when President Obama expelled more than 2.7 million unauthorized immigrants during his first seven years in office? In fact, President Obama’s deportation policies earned him the title of “deporter-in-chief” from Clarissa Martinez de Castro of the Hispanic advocacy group National Council of La Raza.

Two Pillars of Immigration Reform

Instead of making immigration reform a matter of contention, members of both major parties—especially Christians—should support two aspects of immigration reform: securing the borders immediately and crafting immigration laws that are both just and merciful.

First, we should secure the borders immediately, an action that has been counseled (but largely ignored) for roughly thirty years. It is clear that the reason we are experiencing a national uproar about illegal immigration is that we have not enforced the immigration laws already on the books. Failure to secure the borders not only undermines the rule of law but also sends mixed signals to persons who are considering entering our nation illegally.

Second, we should craft new immigration policy that is just (in recognizing that undocumented immigrants have broken a law) and merciful (in recommending a penalty that is humane and appropriate). Justice and mercy are both central to the Christian faith, and they should likewise be central to our treatment of persons who immigrated illegally.

Seven Characteristics of Just and Merciful Immigration Reform

What should immigration reform look like if it is undergirded by justice and mercy? It should include at least these seven characteristics:

  1. A path to deportation: we should agree to deport undocumented immigrants who have a criminal record in their nation of origin or in the United States.
  2. Multiple paths to legal status: we should provide paths that allow undocumented immigrants to become citizens, to work in our nation for a limited period of time before returning to their country, or to work indefinitely while retaining citizenship in their home country.
  3. Incentives for selected immigrants: we should provide incentives for highly-skilled immigrants in order to bolster our nation’s long-term economic competitiveness.
  4. Up-front limits on chain migration: we should limit the influx of extended family members.
  5. Appropriate penalties: we should not simply grant amnesty. If undocumented immigrants wish to gain legal status, we should require them to “go to the back of the line” behind those who are already in line legally, to undergo a criminal background check, and agree to a plan to pay back taxes for previously undocumented income.
  6. Cut-off date: we should provide a cut-off date to apply for legal status so that undocumented immigrants will come forward in a timely manner.
  7. Employer penalties: we should build a responsive system that enables employers to verify an employee’s legal status quickly, and we should penalize businesses—appropriately and not cripplingly—for ignoring the legal status of their employees.

Citizens Together in the City of God

For Christians, a “just mercy” version of immigration reform should be intuitive. The Bible teaches that God ordains government in order to secure justice. Every nation reserves the right to secure its borders and to enforce its laws by penalizing those who break them. Christians should recognize the government’s role in upholding justice.

At the same time, the Bible repeatedly emphasizes that Christians should exhibit mercy. While our nation should enforce its immigration laws, we should demand that it does so in a humane and compassionate manner. Immigrants are not sub-human. They are created in God’s image (Gen 1:26-27) and are the recipients of Jesus’ love (Jn 3:16). The Bible instructs us not to oppress immigrants (Mal 3:5) or to treat them in ways that we would not want to be treated ourselves (Mt 7:12).

After all, Christians believe that Jesus will return one day to rule over a kingdom that includes worshipers from every tribe, tongue, people and nation (Rev 5:9). We must remember that many immigrants will one day be—and in Christ already are—citizens with us in the City of God.

Bruce Ashford is Provost and Professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the co-author of “One Nation Under God: A Christian Hope for American Politics.” Follow him on Twitter @BruceAshford and on the web at http://bruceashford.net/about/.