Religious Leaders Make a Flawed Case for Mass Immigration

Ira Mehlman

8/20/2010 12:01:00 AM - Ira Mehlman

In recent months, prominent leaders of the Evangelical Christian movement have joined with mainline Protestant churches, the Catholic Bishops, the Conservative and Reform branches of Judaism, and other establishment religious groups in calling for an overhaul of U.S. immigration policy that includes amnesty for current illegal aliens and significant increases in legal immigration to the United States.

Evangelical Protestantism has often been the odd-man-out in the arena of religious political activism, tending to take a more conservative line than other established religious denominations on contentious political and social issues. Thus, when leaders of the Evangelical movement start singing from the same political hymnal as their more left-leaning brethren, one might assume that the moral issues of the current immigration debate are a matter of settled religious doctrine.

Yet, in the United States, arguably the most religious of all Western societies, the majority of people continue to resist amnesty for illegal aliens, insist that immigration laws be enforced, and oppose increasing levels of immigration to the United States. It seems implausible that these millions of otherwise decent, generous, church-going folks would suddenly exhibit a moral blind spot on the issue of immigration.

The disconnect between the clergy and the people who fill the pews suggests that the moral questions surrounding immigration policy are not as clear as they might seem.

It is easy to understand the position taken by religious leaders when immigration is viewed solely from the perspective of immigrants. We all understand and empathize with the human aspirations that drive people to leave one country and come to another. It is undeniable that immigration always benefits immigrants – they wouldn’t come otherwise.

What is missing from this narrow perspective on immigration is a thoughtful assessment of how immigration affects people in the receiving society (or even how large-scale emigration might impede morally desirable social and economic reforms in the sending nations). The reason the United States, and every nation on Earth, restricts immigration, however, is precisely because we recognize that what is in the individual interest of a would-be immigrant is not necessarily in the interest of everyone else in the receiving country.

Those who support amnesty for current illegal aliens and expanding legal immigration (above its already record levels) do not necessarily claim a higher moral ground. They tend, instead, to claim a higher rung on the socio-economic ladder, or see an immediate personal, political or economic benefit in more open immigration.

The divide over immigration policy in America is not a left-right one, and certainly not between the kind-and-generous among us versus the stone-hearted ingrates. Rather, the debate tends to pit the elite – those who are well-insulated from the adverse consequences of mass immigration – against everyone else.

The economic and social elite in America generally don’t find that their jobs, wages, their kids’ schools, their access to vital services, and their communities are adversely affected by large-scale immigration. In fact, immigrants can often provide the elite with subsidized nannies, gardeners and other domestic help that makes their lives easier. Thus, they are more likely to support amnesty and broader immigration.

The same cannot be said for many other Americans. These Americans see mass immigration – especially illegal immigration – as a threat to their well-being. People who have to compete for jobs and wages with immigrants, whose kids attend schools that are strained by meeting the special needs of non-English-speaking students, and who suddenly feel like strangers in their own communities, tend to view things a little differently.

These folks – according to polls, a significant majority of Americans – are not uncaring, nor have they forgotten their own family histories. However, a 21st century immigration policy that is based on nostalgia for the 19th century is irrational and ignores the inescapable reality that everything – with the exception of the aspirations of migrants – has changed dramatically.

There is no moral or religious code that permits charity with other people’s resources. It is neither kind nor ethical to satisfy one’s own sense of morality with someone else’s job, or someone else’s children’s educational opportunities.

Unfortunately, there is no easy moral path to correcting the failed immigration policies of recent decades. The most immoral option of all, however, would be to try to “solve” the problem on the backs of ordinary Americans. They didn’t ask for this. In fact their pleas for rational enforcement of immigration laws have fallen on the deaf ears of the political elite. Amnesty and legal-immigration-on-demand would only compound the adverse impact that law-abiding Americans have experienced, and punish those who are least to blame for the mess.

Instead, what we need are policies that encourage those who are here illegally to return home. Let’s be very clear: no one is rationally suggesting that we can deport our way out of the current crisis. However, enforcement of policies that make it difficult for illegal aliens to find jobs, gain access to nonessential, nonemergency government benefits and services, or guarantee citizenship to their U.S.-born children would, over time, convince many current illegal aliens to return on their own.

Even those of us who advocate this type of enforcement recognize and are conflicted by the hardships it would cause to the people who are living here illegally and innocent family members. By and large, illegal aliens are good people who have made bad decisions for understandable reasons. However, all of us know that both God and man have established rules that constrain us from doing things we might otherwise want to do, and that there must be consequences for violating those laws. These rules are not arbitrary and capricious, but exist because our actions affect not only ourselves, but others around us.

It is important that a national debate about the moral issues involved in immigration take place. The issue is a highly complex one, and what may appear on the surface to be easy moral questions to answer may not be once we begin looking beneath the surface.

Perhaps one important ground rule for having a productive debate is for all of us to distinguish between immigrants and immigration. Immigrants – regardless of legal status – are human beings who must always be treated with respect and dignity, but also as people who must be held accountable for their decisions and their actions. Immigration, like any other public policy, must be formulated and enforced in a manner that serves the best interests of the American people.

For people who are motivated by their faith to do good in this world, there is no shortage of ways in which their energies and devotion can be put to effective use. But, as global population rapidly approaches 7 billion people, mass migration is simply not a viable response to the poverty and misery that afflicts so many people around the world. In the end, well-intended calls for still higher levels of immigration would only undermine the well-being of millions of Americans while doing little to benefit the billions around the world who could be better served in other ways.