It’s not always the case that the gospel is at stake in a Senate debate. But this week it is. Starting yesterday, on Ash Wednesday, the United States Senate engaged in a debate with enormous moral stakes for who we are as a nation, and it is the moral obligation of Christians in this country to get involved.
As I wrote recently, the cause of protecting Dreamers from deportation and ensuring they have the opportunity for a path to citizenship is something Christians need to fight hard for, and we need to continue fighting for their parents and the many other undocumented people living among us. Jesus literally commands us to treat “the stranger” among us as we would treat him — how we treat Christ himself.
For many years, the main parameters of the debate around a path to citizenship for Dreamers specifically, and undocumented immigrants in general, has been that it should be possible to hammer out a political compromise where some amount of undocumented immigrants, who have lived in America for decades, are granted legal status and a path to citizenship in exchange for additional funding and other measures that would focus on border security. This type of deal would in theory achieve a compassionate solution that removes the threat of deportation from currently undocumented immigrants, who have actually become Americans, and allows them to come out of the shadows and participate fully in society. In exchange, those whose main concern is preventing future illegal immigration could point to improvements in border security as the concession they won in exchange for compassion for undocumented people who are already here. The focus has been on the “Dreamers,” who came to America with their parents when they were only children and who already have made enormous contributions to the only country they have ever known. Their dream to join this nation is now up for a vote in the Senate.
When President Trump ended DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) in September, setting up a deadline that is now only a couple of weeks away, many in Congress and the public felt that the move set the stage for this type of “DACA for border security” compromise legislation, which would have comfortable bipartisan majorities in both chambers. But every time such a deal has seemed close (which has happened multiple times in recent months), the most hardline immigration opponents, who also want to sharply limit future legal immigration, have flexed their political muscle, causing Trump to side with them and the xenophobic, and indeed racist, elements of his base over the overwhelming opinion of the majority of the American people.
In his first State of the Union address, Trump made his support for DACA legislation officially contingent on not just funding for his border wall, but also on making deep cuts to legal immigration based on a rationale of putting “America First” and keeping Americans safe from terrorism and other crime, which this president falsely attributes to immigrants who are actually more safe and law-abiding than average American citizens. A closer look at the actual effect of Trump’s proposed policies, however, reveals that the changes he wants to make to legal immigration have nothing to do with keeping Americans safe, and instead aim to slash legal immigration levels by 30 to 50 percent. Such a cut would prolong a white demographic majority in the United States by up to 5 years compared to changing demographic trends under current law. That is not a coincidence; it is direct and deliberate racism turned into public policy, which is a core commitment of Trump’s administration. That is a fact that must be named and held accountable to Christian faith.
A closer look at what the actual policy changes are that Trump is proposing reveals them to be profoundly at odds with American ideals, family values, and most importantly, our convictions as Christians. First, let’s look at the issue of family reunification, which Trump and his allies derisively call “chain migration.” The language Trump used in the State of the Union was positively Orwellian:
The fourth and final pillar protects the nuclear family by ending chain migration. Under the current broken system, a single immigrant can bring in virtually unlimited numbers of distant relatives. Under our plan, we focus on the immediate family by limiting sponsorships to spouses and minor children. This vital reform is necessary, not just for our economy, but for our security, and our future.
To understand the context, current law allows U.S. citizens (including newly naturalized citizens) to petition to obtain green cards for their spouses, children, siblings, and parents — that’s immediate family. There is a quota for how many family reunification green cards can be issued in any given year, and as a result the wait under current law can already be quite long. Trump’s absurd attempt to redefine the nuclear family by calling parents, siblings, and adult children “distant relatives” is a direct attack to the institution of family. The American story is one of immigrants arriving to the United States, establishing themselves, and later bringing their families to join them. This story is true for many of the politicians debating this issue in Congress this week. It’s also the primary mechanism of current legal immigration.
The other “pillar” of Trump’s assault on legal immigration is ending the diversity visa lottery, which provides 50,000 green cards annually to people of countries that have been underrepresented in immigration to the U.S. in previous years. About 14.5 million people apply for these 50,000 visas each year, so the odds of selection are poor to begin with. In addition, in stark contrast to Trump’s rhetoric, which implies that these immigrants are admitted without regard to security or skill requirements, those who “win” the lottery must still meet various educational and skilled work experience criteria, as well as undergo a rigorous vetting process that typically takes months to complete. Giving a chance for a select few immigrants to come to America from areas of the world that are poorly represented in the United States today makes our country a more diverse place, which we should see as a source of strength and a gift from God, not a danger to be eliminated.
Trump’s moves in recent months to end the Temporary Protected Status of people from nations like El Salvador, Haiti, and Nicaragua means these people, who we admitted due to humanitarian disasters in their nations, will be forced to leave the United States in the coming months — again, many who have lived in and made enormous contributions to the U.S. with their families for many years. A bipartisan compromise that would have reallocated the diversity lottery visas to people who were formerly protected by the TPS program is what sparked Trump’s infamous, racist, and vulgar comments about people from “S-hole countries.” Instead, Trump said, he would prefer immigrant from “Norway” making his racial bias completely clear. The moral travesty of Trump’s words was not just their profanity, but their clear commitment for white preference in America.
It’s undeniably true that our immigration system is broken, and both parties bear responsibility for that. That broken system is very complex, and making changes to the legal system would necessarily involve various trade-offs. Yet exploiting the urgency of the need for a permanent solution for the 800,000 Dreamers by using them as a bargaining chip to fulfill a Trump campaign promise and commitment to a white nationalist agenda is an insult to our Christian values and reverence for the family as an institution. Trump’s immigration policies are anti-family, anti-American, and anti-Christ. And it is time for all of us Christians so say so.