The Common Good

An Open Letter to Pastors: Our Nation Needs Immigration Reform

Dear Pastors,

This week, a group called NumbersUSA sent out a message to hundreds of thousands of Americans to ask them to please contact their pastor. The e-mail, from the organization's president, Roy Beck, explained that evangelical, Baptist, and Catholic leaders had testified before Congress this week in support of comprehensive immigration reform. NumbersUSA, whose mission is to "stabilize the United States' population numbers" by pressuring legislators to "lower immigration levels," was not pleased with their testimony.

Given the quantity of individuals across the country who received this e-mail, and the fact that these sort of e-mails tend to get forwarded to many others, there's a chance that someone in your church brought you (or will be bringing you) this message. In case they do, I think it's important for you to understand both the full context of the congressional hearings that they are referencing as well as a little bit about NumbersUSA.

On Wednesday, three faith leaders -- Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, Mat Staver of the Liberty University School of Law, and Roman Catholic Bishop Gerald Kicanas -- spoke to members of Congress on why, in their respective views, the federal government has the responsibility to reform immigration laws in such a way as to:

  • secure the border;
  • ensure a viable legal system for future migration based on the needs of the economy and the societal interest of maintaining unified families; and
  • create an orderly process by which immigrants presently here unlawfully could pay a penalty and earn the right to be put on a long-term path toward citizenship and integration.

Their message was consistent with what other evangelical leaders -- including Bill Hybels of Willow Creek Community Church, who introduced President Obama at his speech on immigration a few weeks ago, and leaders of denominations such as the Assemblies of God, the Evangelical Free Church, the Nazarenes, the Wesleyan Church, the Christian Reformed Church, and the Vineyard -- have been saying for months (and what the U.S. Catholic Bishops have been saying for much longer than that).

Christian leaders nearly unanimously have come to the conclusion that our nation needs this sort of comprehensive immigration reform for a few reasons. First and foremost, they believe that it is biblical: Scripture commands us to care for the "alien," who is repeatedly highlighted along with the orphan and the widow as particularly vulnerable and of special concern to God (Psalm 146:9; Ezekiel 22:7; Deuteronomy 10:18; Zechariah 7:10). Leaders also recognize ecclesiological reasons to support reform: As immigrants are a rapidly growing segment of the church in the United States, pastors see the effects of a broken immigration system on families within their own congregation every day, so their advocacy is simply standing with those God has entrusted to their care. Finally, Christian leaders recognize missiological reasons to support reform: Though many immigrants bring a vibrant faith with them to the U.S., others hear the hope of the gospel for the first time in this country, and their response to the message that churches preach is certainly affected by the church's posture, whether that is one of welcome and solidarity or one of fear or apathy.

As Christian leaders from across the spectrum have spoken up for comprehensive immigration reform though, NumbersUSA has gotten nervous. You see, even though their population control agenda is not one with which most conservative evangelicals or Catholics would eagerly ally, many conservatives have been confused by the organization's softened rhetoric in recent years, and there are likely many Christians on NumbersUSA's extensive e-mail list. Defensive, Mr. Beck's e-mail provides an alternative Christian perspective on immigration, citing James Edwards. The theological analysis proffered by Mr. Edwards -- whose doctorate is in mass communication, not biblical studies or theology, and whose career has been in working on Capitol Hill and at think tanks, not in the church -- has already been charitably but conclusively critiqued by distinguished evangelical scholars such as Denver Seminary's Daniel Carroll (whose book, Christians at the Border, has been a helpful tool for many pastors wrestling through this topic).

There's a good reason that restrictionist groups like NumbersUSA need to resort to non-theologians like Mr. Edwards to try to make their case: It's difficult to find a single recognizable Christian leader who is speaking out against comprehensive reform while all the major Christian institutions in the U.S. -- the Catholic Bishops, the National Association of Evangelicals and their many member denominations, the Southern Baptist Convention, and the National Council of Churches -- are all on the same page.

That's not to say that there is no space for disagreement and charitable discussion over the question of immigration; in fact, I think we need much more conversation around the topic within our churches. As we discuss, though, we should make sure that our thinking and analysis are grounded in God's Word, not skewed by secular special interest groups seeking to pull a few verses out of context to suit their purposes. "Test everything," the Apostle Paul writes, "Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil" (1 Thessalonians 5:21-22).

In Christ,

Matthew Soerens

Matthew Soerens is the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009). This and many other resources for church leaders seeking to better understand the immigration issue are online at www.welcomingthestranger.com.

+Ask the U.S. Senate to pass national immigration reform this year.

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