Recently there has emerged a faith-based coalition in favor of liberalized immigration. The National Association of Evangelicals has joined the Roman Catholic bishops and the mainline Protestant denominations in advocating higher legal immigration quotas as well as a plan allowing current illegal immigrants to become U.S. citizens or legal residents.

With so many Christian leaders on one side of immigration reform, how could there be any doubt? But there is doubt. Polls show church members with deeply divided opinions. The issue is far more complicated than the rhetoric used by many who favor liberalizing current immigration law.

Here are some of the complexities:

  1. The United States is not analogous to ancient Israel. Biblical "sojourners" are not easily comparable to modern-era illegal immigrants. The "foreigners" in ancient Israel were non-Israelites who were permitted to pass through or reside in Israel. They were required to comply with Israel's laws and respect its customs.
  2. The oft-quoted command in Leviticus 19 that "you shall not oppress the alien" should indeed inform our attitudes. But this passage provides no clear guidance on how the United States should set limitations on immigration. It does not indicate whether 1 million "green cards" granted every year are too few, too many, or just the right number.
  3. Alongside the biblical teachings about hospitality to strangers also stand the teachings about the rule of law. The Christian point of view on immigration reform should also look at passages such as Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2. They stress a clear responsibility to obey properly constituted human authorities when their demands do not violate conscience. U.S. authorities are well within their proper powers in controlling immigration. Christians on all sides acknowledge that power, but the question is how to balance justice against mercy toward those who have broken the law.
  4. It is important to distinguish the callings of church and state. The church is called by God to welcome all with the grace of Jesus Christ. It does not make distinctions according to nationality or immigration status. The state is called by God to enforce justice. It properly makes distinctions between those who obey and those who break the laws. It properly looks first to the interests of the citizens for whom God holds it responsible.
  5. There is no place for racism in the immigration debate. Our nation is not defined by the racial identity of its inhabitants. It is defined instead by a democratic experiment in self-government that we undertake together. But contrary to some rhetoric, not everyone who advocates greater immigration restriction is inherently racist.
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  1. It is crucial to distinguish between types of immigrants. The U.S. immigration policy appropriately gives priority to people fleeing war or persecution. We also give preference in allowing spouses to live together, as also parents and children. It is not unreasonable or anti-family to suggest, as some have, that the priority of more extended family relationships should be lower.
  2. Cross-border migration for a better job or to better one's financial position is not a recognized international right. If the objective is to relieve global poverty, the better solution in most cases is to bring economic development to the countries of origin.
  3. Weighing the costs and benefits of immigration is complex. Immigrants often have valuable skills. Their cultures enrich our national life. The Christians among them can renew our churches with their fervent faith. At the same time, large-scale immigration imposes burdens. Taxpayers bear new expenses for education, social services, health care, and law enforcement. Low-skill American workers find their wages depressed to some extent because of competition from immigrant labor.
  4. We must consider the unintended "moral hazard." 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—as happened after the 1986 immigration reform.

Taking into account such complexities, some Christians are persuaded to argue for strengthened immigration enforcement first, rather than liberalizing immigration laws.

Tightened border security would slow new illegal entries. More systematic enforcement of employment laws would diminish the job prospects of illegal immigrants, prompting many to return voluntarily to their countries of origin. Under such conditions, amnesty for more deeply rooted immigrants might be more palatable.

If illegal immigration were to go down, it might be possible to raise legal immigration quotas for persons who were matched to U.S. labor needs and committed to becoming U.S. citizens.

Everyone agrees that immigrations laws need reform, but many Christians believe that no significant reform can take place until this step is taken first.

Granted, we will not solve the immigration problem by deporting ten million people or severely limiting immigration quotas. But neither will we solve it by handing out ten million green cards or first liberalizing procedures for legalization or citizenship.

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The priority of immigration enforcement is not emphasized by many Christian leaders today, but the concern is shared by millions of Christian citizens. This concern is also a Christian point of view, which deserves to be heard and respected.

Alan F. H. Wisdom is vice president of the Institute on Religion & Democracy in Washington.

"Speaking Out" is Christianity Today's guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the publication.

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Previous Christianity Today articles on immigration include:

Arizona's Border Crisis | Why Christians should oppose the state's new immigration law. (May 12, 2010)
Migrating Focus | After Congress's health care vote, activists see a revival of interest in immigration reform. (March 22, 2010)
Evangelicals Endorse Immigration Reform | The National Association of Evangelicals' board overwhelmingly approved a resolution to seek 'faith and equal treatment' of immigrants. (October 9, 2009)

CT follows immigration and other political developments on the site and on the politics blog.