Reuniting families isn’t enough: A case for holistic immigration reform

Reuniting families isn’t enough: A case for holistic immigration reform


Originally published by The Hill

Attorney General Jeff Sessions irked theologians when he chastised his “church friends” for saying that his “zero tolerance” policy separating children from parents at the U.S.-Mexico border was unbiblical and unjust.

Sessions’ exegesis of St. Paul’s instructions to the Romans to submit to governing authorities — essentially, “the law is the law and should be obeyed and enforced, no exceptions” — fails to account for biblical examples of civil disobedience, including from Paul, who wrote several epistles from jail, on the wrong side of unjust laws.

But Sessions isn’t all wrong. Just because the passage has been misapplied to justify heinous deeds does not mean that we should rip it from our Bibles. The rule of law matters. But the reality is that our immigration system has often mocked the very principle that the attorney general holds up.


Rather than crafting truly effective immigration laws, we’ve selectively enforced outdated ones. Entering the country without a visa can be a misdemeanor offense, but federal prosecutors can and traditionally have exercised discretion. Just as no reasonable officer would fine a father speeding to the hospital with a desperately ill child, so federal law enforcement has exercised discretion by not prosecuting those with small children or those seeking asylum. Such cases have been handled as civil immigration violations, minimizing the likelihood of family separation or detention.

More broadly, discretion is necessary because full enforcement of all immigration laws, including the deportation of roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants, would be catastrophic. Family separation would increase exponentially, as there are an estimated 800,000 U.S. citizen spouses and 4.5 million U.S. citizen minor children of undocumented immigrants in our country.

The fiscal costs would be astronomical. The American Action Forum estimates costs between $100 and $300 billion to deport the country’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants. The long-term economic consequences would also be steep: an estimated $1.6 trillion lost to our GDP over 20 years, potentially thrusting the nation into recession. We would lose millions of taxpayer, consumers and entrepreneurs at a time when there are more jobs available than individuals seeking employment.

For many years, our leaders have looked the other way as our overly broad laws are ignored. Why? Doing so serves our national economic interests and the common good more than fully enforcing the law. But it’d be much better to carve out more specific laws that could be fully enforced.

Broadly, that requires us to make it easier to immigrate legally and harder to immigrate illegally. Yes, we should invest in border security, prevent those on temporary visas from overstaying and verify that employees are work-authorized. But if we pursue these policies without facilitating lawful migration and adjusting visa quotas to the demands of the labor market, we will still find ourselves making exceptions and failing to actually enforce the law.

Given the many job openings that do not require a master’s degree, we’re inviting selective enforcement when our laws restrict the annual number of employer-sponsored visas for other-than-highly-skilled workers to just 5,000. (About a century ago, 5,000 mostly-poorly-educated immigrants came through Ellis Island daily).

Rather than ignoring the 11 million immigrants present unlawfully in the country, we should adopt an earned legalization process: admit to having violated the law, pay an appropriate fine and submit to a background check. Those with serious criminal convictions would be deported, but the majority would be able to earn permanent legal status and eventual citizenship.

The same principle of facilitating legal immigration applies to those whose motivation for leaving their country is fear of violence. We should exempt those seeking asylum from the legal definition of improper entry, regardless of how they arrive. We should more quickly adjudicate claims and ensure due process by providing asylum seekers access to legal counsel. Except in cases where an individual poses a potential threat to public safety, asylum seekers should not be incarcerated for trying to seek the protections offered by our laws.

Most importantly, we should expand the U.S. refugee resettlement program, which allows those who fear persecution to register and be vetted abroad, then enter safely on an airplane. More than 200,000 refugees were admitted in 1980, which dropped to about 100,000 in 2016 and to an anticipated 22,000 this year.

Many Americans would support such changes, as most say they support legal immigration, and many members of Congress have long echoed the same popular mantra.

So why did four out of five House Republicans vote recently for a bill that would have cut legal immigration by up to 40 percent? Why have so few spoken up as the executive branch has constricted the refugee program by more than 75 percent in just two years? Why have decisions by the administration to withdraw legal status from more than one million lawfully present individuals failed to be successfully addressed?

If these lawmakers really support legal immigration and the rule of law, they’ve given little evidence of it. Too many have been influenced by a once-fringe view that sees immigrants as a problem. As commentators have observed, the “intellectual roots of nativism” are linked to a neo-Malthusian worldview that sees more people as a problem, competing for limited resources, jobs and happiness.

A truly biblical view of immigration sees all people as made in God’s image, with inherent dignity and potential, such that more people will generate more innovation. We need not fight over resources, because we were made in the image of a Creator — with the capacity to create and grow more resources.

That does not mean open borders, but it does mean legally accepting as many immigrants as are clearly in our national economic interest — and perhaps a few more driven by humanitarian and foreign policy interests. If we seek to honor the law, we do so by facilitating legal immigration, not by looking the other way as archaic laws are violated or unenforced.

Christians who call for immigration reform are not dismissing the rule of law. They’re calling for reforms that, as evangelical pastor John Piper has said, “would give honor to the law and show mercy to the immigrants.” If the attorney general and other national leaders would consider the whole counsel of Scripture, they’ll find we can both be compassionate and honor the law, leveraging the economic benefits of migration both for American citizens and immigrants.

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