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Of Walls and Borders: Christian Perspectives on Immigration – Pt. 1

May 7, 2018

This past Sunday at Calvary (the church I pastor), we hosted a forum for an immigration attorney to come and share about the nature and challenges of her work, the immigration system itself, and what immigrants experience as they go through the naturalization process, as well as asylum, and deportation. It was insightful, informative, and heart-breaking. It inspired me to share information I compiled in an essay from a few years ago. I’ll share the essay in several parts over the next few posts.


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 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 cause 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 the 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 minister 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

A 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 a 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 of 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. is 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 ensure 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 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,

[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,

[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,

your church, my church-big church small church

December 17, 2015

UPDATE – March 5, 2016: There’s been a recent flurry of activity over comments made by Andy Stanley, pastor of Northpoint Community Church in Alpharetta, GA. You can listen to those comments here. Andy has since apologized in a tweet and is likely to expand that apology along with clarification via his expansive communication resources.

I like Andy. He’s a great communicator and leader. There are aspects of his comments that I understand, but would not have communicated the way he did. Unfortunately, the fallout has brought to the surface a lingering debate about church size. Both sides speaking of the other in caricatures and generalizations. It’s sad, really, since I believe we need churches large and small.

Below is a blog post from December 2015. I think it can offer a better way to frame the conversation…

December 17, 2015: I love the church. Like Bill Hybels, I believe the local church is the hope of the world. The church is the movement, entity, community, outpost, Body, place and people that Jesus called to reach the nations. Since there are so many different people, in so many different nations (including our own), one would think that while there is unity in Christ and his message of grace; a diversity in style, approach, emphasis, and size among churches would be a given.

One might also assume that the greatness of our commission would inspire those who make up the church to embrace such diversity as we labor to reach our world through churches big and small.

But …

When published an article on why large churches continue to grow, the comments thread reminded me that my assumptions about diversity and encouragement might not be “givens” at all.

People in large churches assumed small churches weren’t doing outreach. People in small churches assumed churches only grew large because they watered down preaching and went to a business model … on and on the arguments went. It was sad.

So which church is best-small or large? I’ve served in small churches and mega-churches, and I’ve found they each have the same best and worst parts.

You know what’s right with both? Jesus.

You know what’s wrong with both? People.

There are pros and cons to churches large and small, and problems that are exclusive to churches large and small.

Large churches can lose sight of the importance of community if they neglect to think “small” regarding the development and deepening of community, providing opportunities for ministry, and holding to sound scriptural teaching. It can also be easy for mega-churches to become insensitive if they value efficiency over empathy.

Small churches that fail to think “big” can easily create an isolationist culture if they neglect Christ’s call to share the gospel with others not already like them. Those in small churches can become power-hungry as fewer numbers of people control larger numbers of ministry areas, committees, and boards. This can create a situation where there is an incentive to keep the church small in order to retain power; keeping new folks out of the leadership loop.

As far as preaching is concerned, there’s bad doctrine in mega and mini churches (snake handlers anyone?) It’s simply foolish to suggest that churches become large because the gospel is being watered down.

This is not an either/or issue (either big or small), but a both/and issue. The “Body” needs churches of all sorts and sizes. We do nothing but hurt ourselves and help the enemy when we tear down one another.


Wars and Rumors of Wars…and coffee

November 10, 2015

It’s that time of year when the smell of pumpkin spice is being replaced with peppermint, when the sounds of holiday cheer play in department stores, eggnog coffee creamer appears in my fridge, and when someone starts again with the mythical “war on Christmas.” This year, the opening salvo came as media outlets took a video from a particularly angry individual, made him the face of “Christians,” and proceeded to construct a narrative of offended and outraged caffeine craving crusaders who believe Starbucks scrooges have banished baby Jesus.

On cue, outlets from BuzzFeed to Good Morning America carried the narrative forward. My agnostic / atheist buddies over at the Lost or Profound podcast posted Buzzfeed’s article on their Facebook page, immediately garnering comments of disapproval toward those who would be offended at Starbuck’s decision. I read plenty of posts criticizing those easily offended Christians.

There’s just one problem. With the exception of the viral video guy, and a few folks trolling the comment threads, I have yet to run into, hear from, read about, or see a single Christian who has expressed offense over Starbucks’ cups.

Zero, nil, nada, not even one.

As my doctoral colleague, fellow pastor, and good friend, Dr. David McDonald observed, “To date, I have heard zero Christians complaining about Starbucks cups. I have, however, read ten articles chastising Christians’ complaints.”

What we have here is a classic example of the tail wagging the dog.

These “wars” are primarily media constructs fueled by a few fuming folks on the fringe. The “war” between science and faith, and the “war on Christmas” are two good examples.

I’ll concede that some of the talk comes from segments of the Christian community. Some of these folks are friends and relatives of mine, and I love them very much. However, contrary to the media’s “war” narrative, such a segment does not represent the majority Evangelical voice.

To my Christian friends that do believe there is a “war on Christmas,” I simply ask, do you really think the aggressive, in-your-face, “We say Merry Christmas” approach, usually aimed at a cashier, barista, or server does much to offer a compelling, compassionate, or even reasonable invitation to a productive conversation about faith?

Do you really want to keep Christ in Christmas? Live and love like Jesus 24/7 365.

Besides, do we really need a disposable cup to proclaim the arrival of the Everlasting Father? What if we remember and represent Jesus by no longer treating one another as disposable? Perhaps if we stop trying to make a point, we would end up making a difference.

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