Immigration Policy & Public Justice, Part I: An Introduction

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June 29, 2012

By Julia Stronks and Aaron Korthuis                  

This is the first in a series of four articles exploring specific aspects of immigration reform.

In a highly anticipated decision, the Supreme Court overturned most of Arizona’s controversial immigration law, ruling that Arizona violated the federal Constitution when it passed its own immigration policy in areas pre-empted by federal policy.  In Arizona v. U.S., the Supreme Court said that because the federal government had passed immigration legislation that was intended to supersede state law, Arizona could not make it a state crime for undocumented immigrants to apply for a job or to fail to carry papers. For the time being, the Court has allowed the Arizona provision requiring law enforcement to determine the residency status of those arrested to stand.  However, the justices warned that implementation of this process will have to comply with constitutional provisions of due process and equal protection for both residents and citizens of Hispanic descent.  We are facing years of legislative policy making on the topic of immigration, and Christians are beginning to enter the conversation with dedication.

Christians on the left, such as those at the organization Sojourners, call Christians to put their faith into action in the “passionate pursuit of social justice.”  For immigration, this means recognizing that all people are made in the image of God. Similarly, the organization Christians for Comprehensive Immigration Reform explains there is an “undeniable biblical responsibility to love and show compassion for the stranger among us.” 

Those on the right have a different emphasis.  According to Alan Wisdom, vice president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, “mainline church agencies and much of the religious left argue that the United States must have virtually unrestricted borders and offer automatic amnesty, with nearly all the benefits of U.S. citizenship, to all illegal immigrants.”  He explains that, from his organization’s perspective, today’s undocumented workers are not similar to the sojourners permitted to pass through Israel.  Though he takes seriously biblical commands to be hospitable to the stranger, Wisdom argues that passages in Peter and Romans also make it clear that the rule of law is a gift from God.  Properly constituted human authorities rule with God’s blessing, and Christians should not support policies that encourage violation of the law.

Though these groups have different perspectives, they do share things in common.  Christians on the left assure us that they believe in the rule of law; Christians on the right affirm their belief in God’s command to show love to the stranger.  With these shared commitments, is it possible for Christians to speak with one voice on immigration reform?

Two years ago, evangelical Christian leaders on the left and right issued a call for bipartisan immigration reform, arguing that all Christians, no matter what their political ideology, could support immigration reform that:

  • Respects the God-given dignity of every person,
  • Protects the unity of the immediate family,
  • Respects the rule of law,
  • Guarantees secure national borders,
  • Ensures fairness to taxpayers, and
  • Establishes a path toward legal status and/or citizenship for those who qualify and who wish to become permanent residents.

As recently as this month these leaders have started an Evangelical Immigration Table to encourage movement on immigration reform. But which policies meet their requirements?  How do we move from general principles to actual policy directives?

We have started a project that examines public policy proposals from the perspective of the principles that Christians on the right and left say they support.  We use the six guidelines from the evangelical leaders, along with direction from the Center for Public Justice’s Guidelines for Government and Citizenship. In subsequent articles, we will address the following and invite further conversation.

First, we look at the issue of undocumented residents brought to the United States as children: What is a just public policy when residents are not here legally but know only the U.S. as their home? Second, we will evaluate proposed expansion of the Mexico-U.S. border fence: Should Christians support completion of the fence, which currently covers 600 miles of the 2000 mile border? Third, we assess Arizona’s system to verify residency status. Arizona v. U.S. held that Arizona must comply with the Constitution when it checks residency status upon arrest; we consider the public justice considerations connected to this and other Arizona residency check processes.

We hope these pieces help Christians on both the right and the left move from a great first step of discussion about principles to the more difficult discussion about policy.

—Julia K. Stronks has a law degree and is a professor of political science at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington.  Aaron Korthuis is beginning work in Honduras for the Association for a More Just Society; he plans to attend law school in a year.

To respond to the author of this Commentary: capcomm@cpjustice.org

Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion.