In this Q&A Dr. Michael Pocock addresses the issue of immigration, about which he has much to say, having himself emigrated from the United Kingdom as a young teen with his parents in 1955. He spent sixteen years (1971–1987) as a missionary in Venezuela and later as mobilization director. Since 1987 he has taught at Dallas Seminary. He travels extensively, has written several excellent books, and was a driving force behind the 2005 Ethnic Workers Summit in Dallas.
Q: Many countries face immigration challenges. What are some foundational considerations for considering immigration from a biblical perspective?
A: All people are valuable, made in the image of God. They should be treated with dignity even when out of desperation they attempt to circumvent laws. Therefore, there should be a protective system of advocacy for foreign workers, laws against exploitative use of foreign workers and against violence, domestic and public. Prosecution of abusive employers. Regular and fair payment of workers. Decent and affordable housing (Gen. 1:26–27, 2:3; Matt. 6:25–33; Gal.6:10).
The need to earn a living, have enough food and shelter and safety, and should be respected by everyone in countries with resources and jobs. This means people should be free to cross borders when desperate. This is clearly established in the rules for alien and poor workers in Scripture, and exemplified in the case of Ruth in the Old Testament. Boaz allows a foreign woman, Ruth, to glean in his fields, and offers her protection (from his own male workers), safety, respect, water, and shelter. He is not simply coming on to a nice foreigner, but a vulnerable female worker; he is acting decently and in accord with national laws. (See also Exod.12:49; Lev. 19:9–10; Deut. 24:19–22.)
National governments are basically a unit of governance that are established by God and in a sense serve Him (Matt. 12:17; Rom. 13). They are there for the wellbeing of the people, even though some slip into violent or self-serving ends. In any case their rule must be respected. The United States or any other country has a right and duty to establish policies for the wellbeing of its people. Those policies must be respected by citizens and foreigners alike. A nation has a duty and right to establish a reasonable (manageable) rate of flow of foreigners who immigrate or migrate for economic and other reasons.
Q: What immigration policy would Jesus advocate?
A: It seems the only mandate He gave regarding immigration was that, as His disciples would go into all the world, they would make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:19–20). He sees all Christians on the move as disciple-makers. I’m sure His mother and father told him stories of finding refuge in Egypt as a baby following the cruel edicts of Herod the Great.
He knew what it meant to be a stranger within His own country, gripped by regionalism in which He was disparaged as a Nazarene and Galilean. He said, “The son of man does not even have a place to lay his head” (Matt. 8:20). He was a man of the road, and He knew about marginalization (as Virgilio Elizondo has written in Galilean Journey), and He ministered from the margins.
So Jesus’ policy would reflect solidarity with migrants, understanding, compassion and respect, while He would also urge due respect and honor to governments. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus, although they are different persons of the Trinity. When the Spirit works, it is not different from what Jesus would do. The first thing the Holy Spirit did at Pentecost in Acts 2 was to make the blessings of God clear so that people from fourteen nations present at that moment could understand.
God is interested in all the peoples of the world. He is a global God, and His Spirit is an international Spirit. Christ’s immigration policy would stress ministry to migrants and also the responsibility and privilege of Christian migrants to spread the gospel wherever they find themselves.
Conservative Christians understand that America is a land of immigrants and that their parents at some point probably immigrated to this country. They look favorably on the United States as a land of opportunity and a magnet to the world’s people. Generally they do not seem to realize that we are not the only country to which the world’s 191 million immigrants have gone. Thirty-five percent of immigrants globally go to Europe. About twenty-three percent come to the United States.
Q: What constitutes a real, positive public policy of immigration reform from your perspective?
A: One that recognizes the reality of the long-term residence and positive contribution of nine to twelve million undocumented foreign-born people in this country and seeks to regularize their status and put them on a path toward citizenship, if desired, instead of forcing their return to their countries (which is unrealistic, unworkable, and, in many cases, cruel).
One that makes undocumented but otherwise decent people aware that they have broken the law and must pay some monetary and civic penalty, payable in manageable installments to the government or community in which they live. Possibly include a required community-service penalty such as working on Habitat for Humanity construction.
One that seeks assimilation without cultural suffocation. This would include required English capability.
An expanded guest-worker program that permits workers to serve a variety of employers instead of a single designated employer (H visas). This permit would allow workers to seek work instead of having to be matched with an employer prior to entry. A time limit could be established for finding such work, and possession of an adequate amount of money while looking for work. This approach recognizes the reality that much of the work needed is day labor, but day labor leads to regular employment where workers show their value. Guest worker visas would give the right to return home to family and back for work without the necessity of illegal and very dangerous border crossing. (420 died in border crossings in 2006.) A quota system keyed to the condition of the work market should be established.
- Establishment and staffing of more consular guest-worker permit offices in primary locations in foreign countries.
- Introduction of biometric national identity cards to help eliminate identity theft and fraud.
- Employers required to check certification of workers with national database, possibly one connected to ATMs because of their availability in convenience stores and because ATMs and credit card companies should also move to biometric bank cards. Fine employers who knowingly employ undocumented workers once a more comprehensive system is established.
- Strengthen border controls. I do not like walls but they have been shown to reduce crossings in the San Diego area and Mexicali. Walls at strategic high crossing locations may allow better oversight of unfenced areas.
I could endorse a proposal for immigration reform that incorporates provisions from the SOLVE Act (Safe, Orderly, Legal Visas and Enforcement Acts) introduced by Democratic Reps. Luis Gutierrez, Bob Menendez, and Ted Kennedy because it addresses family unity and other issues. (See discussion by Navarrette and Waslin, July/August 2004 Issue, “Forum” in Hispanic magazine at http://www.hispaniconline.com/.)
Q: What is the true social and economic impact of legal and illegal immigration? Are we being overwhelmed? What are the problems or dangers posed for people of faith if we base our opinions and actions in regard to immigrants on these concerns rather than religiously based ethics?
A: We are at a high point in the rate of immigration worldwide and in the United States. Currently the foreign-born population is thirty-five million, 11.5 percent of the total population. But there have been higher years. In 1880, 13.3 percent; in 1900, 13.6 percent; in 1930, 11.6 percent. We’ve seen a 54 percent increase between 1990 and 2000.
Total remittances worldwide of migrants, legal and undocumented, estimates were $232 billion in 2005. In the United States, buying power of Hispanics alone in 1990 was $222 billion; 2004, $686 billion, est. for 2009, $992 billion. Of all thirty-five million foreign-born persons, 11.5 million were undocumented. So two-thirds of the foreign-born pay income tax and one-third do not. However, all pay sales tax. Lost income tax has been estimated at $15 billion annually.
Parkland Hospital in Dallas delivered 15,590 babies in 2005. Seventy percent were to undocumented Hispanic women. Parkland spent $70.7 million in 2004, with taxpayers covering forty percent of the cost. Nevertheless, Parkland administrators say, “Most immigrant parents do have jobs and pay taxes including property and sales taxes. They have a better record for paying their bills than low-income Americans.”
So yes, legal and illegal immigrants do constitute a burden in many cities, but even those who do not pay income tax are contributing to the system through other taxes. Clearly, bringing undocumented people into the light of legality would also create a stronger tax base among them.
Christian response or attitudes toward legal and illegal immigrants should not be based on pragmatics alone. Whether it is hospitality to strangers (Rom 12:13), or entertaining those who cannot repay us (Luke 14:12–14), doing good to all persons (Gal. 6:10), or considering all people equally no matter their culture or ethnicity (Col. 3:10–11), the Bible speaks to our attitude toward those of other races and cultures. The pastor of the Farmer’s Branch Church of Christ said, “I try to ask myself what God would do.”
We should be very careful not to simply go with the conventional wisdom of people around us, not economic, and certainly not racist thinking. We really should love our neighbor as ourselves, not intellectualizing or spiritualizing, but in concrete expression to whoever is in our community on whatever basis.