kevinglenn.net

website and blog of Dr. Kevin D Glenn

Of Walls and Bridges: Christian Perspectives on Immigration

April 13, 2016
kevindglenn

Although I now live in New Mexico, I’m a native of Florida. Florida natives are an interesting and rare breed. Florida natives possess a certain pride and frustration revealed reflected in a popular bumper sticker message directed at the many seasonal residents of the sunshine state. The message is simple and straight-forward, “Welcome to Florida, now go home.” Another is equally popular, “We don’t care how you do it up north.” Still another is functional in its tone, “When I get old, I’m moving north and driving slow.”

While these messages are sent in good fun, they convey several misconceptions. First, is the misconception that seasonal residents are bad for the economy. In reality, much was gained when the snowbirds came to town. Church attendance increased, businesses enjoyed the additional activity, and the increase in population allowed for greater real-estate revenue. While these half-year residents may not have paid as much in taxes as natives, they certainly contributed to the welfare of the community. Yes, they drove slowly, but they came as most of us came; from somewhere else. The second misconception is perhaps the most important. While my great-great grandmother was Seminole, my self-identity as a “native Floridian” is arguable.

Members of the Seminole tribe could point to the invasion of their land by my Scottish-born ancestors with much more disdain and reason for lament than my shallow rejection of snowbirds. The Seminoles are the true Native Floridians, I am the immigrant. In fact, we are a nation of immigrants, making the issue of immigration one that requires a wise, careful, and thoroughly biblical response.

While the messages sent from my bumper sticker to snowbirds generated friendly jibing, Immigrants in the United States have often encountered serious intolerance along with negative, if not inaccurate stereotypes.  While it is accurate to point to historical and political realities for their impact on one’s attitude toward immigrants, a fair question can be raised; where do those attitudes come from? Are there underlying factors connected to the formation of society’s perspective toward immigrants on an individual level?

To this question, several proposals have been offered. These include how one’s attitudes are influenced by the condition of the economy, how perspectives are shaped by concerns over safety and security, and how one’s affinity for their own culture impacts their capacity to accept the cultural particularities of another. There are many studies that provide helpful information regarding general attitudes toward immigration policy. [1]

People of faith, Christian faith in particular also form their perspectives on immigration through the lenses of economy, security, and culture. Religion, however, has been mentioned as an almost incidental element in the formulation of one’s attitude toward immigration. Until recently, the role of religious thought and practice as a key element in the formulation of such attitudes has been overlooked as an area of serious study. While researching this series, it was interesting to note the appeal that more attention be given to religion’s role in this area by researchers themselves. Sociologist Steven Warner called the absence of material a “huge scholarly blind spot”.  [2]

Of course, just as there are widely diverse perspectives in each of the three conditions mentioned above, adding religious affiliation to the interpretive mix in no way yields a unified religious response. This is illustrated through my affiliation with a ministry to border residents and its director. The research reveals a primary concern often expressed by potential visiting church groups is whether or not the immigrants they would serve are “legal or illegal”. In more than a few cases, church groups elect to avoid ministry efforts toward undocumented immigrants. It was believed by these groups that to do so would serve to enable illegal activity [3]  While it has been no surprise for Christian groups to state their convictions on moral issues such as abortion and gay marriage, my source with the border ministry has been surprised to see more and more groups view immigration as a moral issue, and therefore decline opportunities to minister to what they call “illegal aliens”. The news, however, is not all negative. My source reports that other groups increasingly seek out his ministry in order to seize opportunities to minster specifically to immigrants they know to be undocumented.  [4]

Why would some groups decline to engage in ministry to undocumented immigrants based on Christian conviction, while others cite Christian conviction as a reason to seek such an opportunity?

The information above illustrates a significant divide among Christians in their attitudes toward immigration. While the reason for the differing responses above are cited as Christian conviction, this series of posts will observe the way in which one’s Christian beliefs are constantly at odds with one’s sense of economic, security, and cultural self-preservation, and how this struggle impacts one’s understanding of the information available on immigration issues. This leads members of the Body of Christ to very different mechanisms by which they process and interpret the economic, security, and cultural factors of the current immigration conversation. The goal of this series is to heighten one’s awareness to the diversity of perspective within the Body, and to provide a synopsis of the differing views of Christians in a way that promotes greater understanding and education. My hope is that even with differing perspectives on immigration policy issues, Christians will see immigrants as people in need of compassionate ministry, love, and respect. They are what all of us were at one time; strangers in need of a place and people.

Economic Concerns

Christian perspective on the economic impact of immigration can be summarized through two different questions. One, can our nation afford the number of immigrants crossing our borders? Two, can our nation afford not to have the number of immigrants crossing our borders? To be sure, one could speculate that both sides would agree  such questions on their own are temptations to see immigrants as fiscal units rather than as individuals made in God’s image. This, however, must be held I tension with the reality of the concerns raised by immigration’s economic impact.

  1. The influx of immigrants takes jobs from native workers.

Citing studies by Harvard economist George Borjas, immigration specialist and devout Christian, James R. Edwards, observes that the large number of low-skilled immigrants puts “downward pressure on low-end wages”, making it difficult for low-skilled citizens to compete for the same jobs, since the immigrant will usually do the job for much less money. This, according to Edwards, “is not a good thing for America’s low-skilled workers, leaving them vulnerable to…direct job competition, wage depression, and flooded labor markets.” [5] This claim assumes an influx of immigrants sufficient to create such an environment of job competition. However, other factors are present to temper this claim.

The condition of America’s current and future labor force must be taken into account. It is projected that from 2006 to 2016, the U.S. economy will grow at an average rate of 2.8%, a modest projection to be sure, but one that will generate an increased need for workers in the labor force. Among citizens, no increase in the labor force is expected between now and 2020, leading to an aging native labor force. [6]  In addition, Jenny Hwang, devout Christian and director if the Refugee and Immigration Program of World Relief, notes that “low U.S. fertility rates will not only slow labor force growth, but increase the ratio of retired people to working people.” [7] In short, there are simply not enough native–born workers to replenish the low-skilled labor force as its needs grow with the economy, unless those gaps are filled by immigrants.

The citizenry that makes up the current labor force is also becoming more educated. In 1960, 50% of American men dropped out of high school to work a trade or join the military (my father being among them). Presently, less than 10% do so. However, of the 50.7 million jobs projected to be created between now and 2016, half will require no more than high school diploma. [8]

The suggested solution to this situation is to tighten and limit the extent to which immigrants can fill the gaps mentioned above. Such attempts, however, have been problematic and have produced shortages. Hugh Morton of the National Association of Home Builders points out that “contractors struggling to find quality roofers, concrete finishers, etc…found immigrant trade contractors a godsend.” [9]  In 2011, crackdowns on immigrant workers  in Georgia led to an astonishing 50% of its agricultural produce being left to rot in the fields – at a cost to the state of more than $400 million, with total losses prompted by the act topping $1billion. In Alabama, immigration limitations have cost the state $11 billion since June of 2011. [10] New York City Mayor, Michael Bloomberg said of immigrants, “New York City alone is home to more than three million immigrants, who make up 40% of our population…our City’s economy would collapse if they were deported. The same holds true for the nation.” [11] The entrepreneurial spirit of many immigrants accounts for a number of business and services that would otherwise not exist due to the culturally distinct manner by which some immigrants perform their service. [12]

Low-skilled jobs are not the only areas of employment where Christians raise economic concern. Highly skilled positions are also addressed, although concern does not appear to be as intense in this area. Edwards confirms that among the gains and benefits brought to the nation through immigration, those related to work done by “highly educated and entrepreneurially talented immigrants” is seen as a valuable contribution to the economic picture. Notable examples are, Sergey Brin, Russian immigrant who founded Google, Inc., John and David Tu, Taiwanese immigrants and founders of the multi-billion dollar Kingston Technology, Dr. Alfred Quinones-Hinojosa, neuro-surgeon at Johns Hopkins University, who picked tomatoes in the fields of California as an undocumented immigrant before working his way through school, eventually attending Harvard Medical School. It is clear from these examples that the contribution of immigrants to the fields of science and technology in the U.S. are unmistakable. Another Taiwanese immigrant, Jerry Yang, founder of Yahoo, explains,

“Yahoo would not be an American company today if the United States had not welcomed my family and me almost 30 years ago. We must do all we can to insure that the door is open for the next generation of top entrepreneurs, engineers, scientists from around the world to come to the U.S. and thrive.” [13]

It would seem that while concerns are valid regarding the number of immigrants entering the U.S., there appears to be sufficient room for both citizens and immigrants in both high-skill and low-skill jobs. However, more research is needed, including an answer for why contractors would have trouble finding roofers, masons, and concrete finishers at a time during which so many are out of work, and why American students continue to score low in math and science, while the best educational institutions and the most state-of-the-art research facilities in the world reside in the United States. It appears the world makes the U.S. its destination of choice while its own citizenry struggles to seize the opportunities in its own back-yard.

Next Post: Are immigrants are a fiscal drain on public resources?

[1]Tanya Maria. Golash-Boza, Due Process Denied: Detentions and Deportations in the United States (New York: Routledge, 2012), 47.

[2] Warner Steven, “Religion, Boundaries, and Bridges.,” Sociology of Religion 58, no. 3 (1997): 217.

[3] Border ministry source, interview by author, August 26, 2012.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Carol M. Swain, Debating Immigration (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 60.

[6] Betty W. Su, “The U.S. Economy to 2016: Slower Growth as Boomers Begin to Retire,” Monthly Labor Review 130, no. 11 (2007): 13, accessed December 2, 2012, http://www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/2007/11/contents.htm.

[7] Matthew Soerens and Jenny Hwang, Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2009), 118.

[8] Arlene Dohm and Lynn Schniper, “Occupational Employment Projections to 2016,”Monthly Labor Review 103, no. 11 (2007): 33, accessed 2012.

[9] Sorens and Hwang, Welcoming the Stranger, 119

[10] Ed Pilkington, “Kansas Prepares for Clash of Wills over Future of Unauthorised Immigrants,” The Guardian, February 2, 2012, section goes here, accessed December 3, 2012, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/feb/02/kansas-prepares-clash-unauthorised-migrants.

[11] Testimony the Committee on Judiciary, United States Senate (2006) (testimony of Michael Bloomberg, Mayor, City of New York).

[12] My research revealed numerous branches of business supporting this claim. In the interest of space, a brief list would include; food services, tailoring, art, alternative medicine, exercise, and non-traditional education, just to name a few.

[13] “US Venture Capitalists Investing in Immigrant Businesses,” US Venture Capitalists Investing in Immigrant Businesses, 2006, accessed December 05, 2012, http://www.workpermit.com/news/2006_11_27/us/immigrant_business_venture_capital.htm

7 Comments

  1. Whether you were aware or not, I am an immigrant to the U.S.. My family move from Canada in the 50’s so my dad could get a better job. We came the legal way, we applied for permission to enter the U.S. Dad had to prove that he had gainful employment and our family would not be a burden to the government. Once here, we applied for citizenship and after the required waiting period, five and a half years, all members of the family had to take a citizenship test and wait to be informed as to when we could go to federal court in Danville, Illinois to be sworn in with other legal immigrants.
    My concerns aren’t economic, political, racial, or religious, they are legal. If you want to gain what this country has to offer, enter legally or get deported.

    • Thanks, David! I remember you telling me about … or should I say “aboat” your journey. I have legal concerns as well and agree that a legal path to citizenship is vital for the security of the nation as well as those seeking to become citizens. However, my research revealed a current path to legal citizenship that is incredibly confusing and complicated. So while I’m not advocating for open borders or blanket amnesty, I will suggest reforming the current system so that the path to citizenship is less bureaucratic and complicated. It will be another week or so before the series gets to that.

      The challenge for Christians is in the need to think through how we are responsible for ministering to the many undocumented immigrants in our cities and churches. How do we walk in grace and truth with these individuals? While deportation may be appropriate in many cases, is it necessary or even ethical in all cases? To what extent does our mandate from God to treat the alien as a resident inform our response to those limited in their ability to understand or access the current problematic path to citizenship that exists? I hope the series can aid in that conversation.

      • I agree that to someone that does not speak English the system can be daunting. Yes, making the system more “user friendly ” is needed, but it shouldn’t lower our security concerns or “throw open” our borders.
        As a Christian, I am worried about the health and welfare of those who are already here. I don’t believe in blanket amnesty is the answer. We, myself included, need to look for ways to help those who are struggling and be more compassionate towards their struggles. However, I also believe strongly that if people want to come here do it legally, learn English, accept the Constitution as the law of the land, and no one religion gets preferential treatment over others (religious “freedom”).
        I guess my attitude is largely shaped by my own experiences and I haven’t gone through what these immigrants are going through. I guess I expect people to live according to the norms of the land in which they reside whether that be the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Germany, Panama, or even Russia. I believe it is called being responsible.

      • I appreciate your honesty, David. I hope to address those issues in upcoming posts.

      • “To what extent does our mandate from God to treat the alien as a resident inform our response to those limited in their ability to understand or access the current problematic path to citizenship that exists? I hope the series can aid in that conversation.” I really am looking forward to the rest of your blog in this series. 🙂

        “Mandate” is the correct word, Kevin. But, your statement is prefaced with,”To what extent”?… That’s where it gets messy, imo, Kevin. In that statement, it seems to need to be “nuanced” to make it work in today’s church/environment/country/etc.

        So, then as a follower or non-follower of Christ, “To what extent” should we give Jesus’ words credence? How much weight should we give Jesus’ words and life in light of what’s going on around us in this modern day? It’s a real question American Christians need to ask themselves. Not being contrary or a fly in the ointment but I’m sincerely asking the question.

        Major Kudos for you taking this subject on in a public forum! It’s hot topic these days and one of the issues that really needs to be addressed right now in the US. In particular, with Evangelicals/Christians in the US. I’m really looking forward to your thoughts on this. It’s a tough subject but i think if we approach it with authentic, honest discussion..then, yeah, maybe, we can discover some truth. And we all love truth. 🙂

      • Thanks, David! I think the nuance is in the range of how Christians apply the mandate. The series will explore that … I hope!

  2. As a Christian, the texts tell me/us that “Love casts out All Fear”. The flip-side of that text or paradoxically then, is that “Fear casts out All Love.” Fear is the underlying theme of the issue being discussed. As a follower of Jesus I have to ask myself, “Do I Fear or do I Love”?

    Paz,
    D

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