illegal immigrants“Jesus was an illegal immigrant.” So goes what has become an oft cited refrain among those advocating amnesty for thousands of illegal immigrants in the United States. “No,” comes the retort, “The state is called by God to enforce the rule of law.”

When it comes to the question of illegal immigration, Christians in the United States are deeply divided. A recent Pew survey discovered that fifty-one percent of Evangelicals and forty-seven percent of Catholics agreed that the increased number of deportations of illegal immigrants has been a good thing. On the other side, the Evangelical Immigration Table, a coalition of Southern Baptist leaders, the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, and the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, was formed a couple of years ago to lobby Congress for pro-amnesty immigration law. The current border crisis, where an estimated 57,000 Central American minors have crossed into south Texas illegally this year alone, has served only to intensify this polarized Christian reaction.

If Christians are to overcome this polarization, we are going to have to understand how attitudes toward illegal immigration in our modern context are indicative of two clashing civilizational processes: what have been called “globalization” on the one hand and “tribalization” on the other. By understanding these dialectic social dynamics, we can see how the Christian church is in a unique position to mediate a solution to this crisis for the benefit of all.

A number of scholars have observed a correlation between illegal immigration and globalization. Considered the defining trait of modernity, globalization involves what is in effect a worldwide social system constituted by the interaction between a capitalist economy, telecommunications, technology, and mass urbanization.[1] Because the constituents of globalization, such as transnational corporations and electronic money, transcend national borders, many scholars believe that globalization is bringing an end to the whole concept of distinct nations. And as Paul Harris has observed, these porous borders which serve to expedite flows of goods within a globalized economy entail a significant increase in levels of immigration, both legal and illegal.[2] This immigration flow trends along the direction of economic activity: Turks flow into Germany, Albanians ebb into Greece, North Africans into France, Pakistanis into England, and Mexicans into the U.S.[3]

And yet, globalization elicits reflexive responses at the local and national sectors. This is because built into globalization processes is what Anthony Giddens terms “detraditionalization,” or various mechanisms by which local customs and traditions are relativized to wider economic, scientific, and technocratic forces.[4] Once social life is caught up in a global industrialized economic system, it is propelled away from traditional, national, and local practices and beliefs. And so globalization involves a predictable counter reaction at the local and national level termed “tribalization;” in the face of threats to localized identity markers, people assert their religiosity, kinship, and national symbols as mechanisms of resistance against globalizing dynamics. Thus, it seems everywhere a mall is put up, a farmers market is not far away; fast food chains are countered with slogans encouraging us to “buy local”; and in the midst of the city lights of cosmopolitanism are clusters of intentional communities.

It should therefore be no surprise that immigration, both legal and illegal, brings to the fore this globalist/ tribalist conflict. As evident in the latest round of elections in Europe that put UKIP and the French National Front on the political map, immigration is interpreted increasingly as an indicator of globalist tendencies that threaten kinship identities based on a common language, culture, custom, and tradition. The important point here is that as long as globalization processes are in effect, there will be reciprocal localized nationalist rejoinders, with illegal immigrants caught in the middle.

Now, what is the Christian’s response to this? Well, given the global/ traditional dialectic, it appears that neither a pro-amnesty appeal nor a build-a-wall-and-deport approach will suffice. This is because either perspective focuses on only one side of the reciprocal social dynamics. Neither do I see much hope for the rather common sense solution of border enforcement combined with high standards for amnesty applicants. As long as there is globalization, there will be globalists, those who believe that national borders are constituents of larger “unjust” social boundaries that once marked traditional society and from which we are to be emancipated.

Instead, I believe that the church itself has the resources to deal uniquely with the current border crisis, for it is the church alone that is both a global and traditional institution. As a catholic social order transcending time and space yet rooted in the tradition of the apostles, the church is in the unique position to be able to mediate between otherwise incompatible yet reciprocal social dynamics that characterize the modern world.

There are several ways in which the church can mediate effectually between these two social forces. First, the church is already supplying comfort and compassion to the situation at hand as only the church can do. Just last month alone, ministries such as Catholic Charities distributed food, clothing, meals, showers, and laundry facilities to more than 6,000 immigrants from Central America. In this way, the church maintains the personhood, the innate dignity, of each immigrant, avoiding the depersonalized tendencies of those who advocate absorbing immigrants into a dehumanizing secular welfare state on the one hand or merely deporting them on the other.

Secondly, Old Testament scholar James K. Hoffmeier has made a suggestion based on his study of the immigration crisis from a biblical perspective. Hoffmeier argues that the Old Testament passages appealed to by some Christians as justification for amnesty actually speak to the treatment of immigrants who have been granted permission to stay in the land of Israel (cf. Deut. 10:18-19).[5] Well-meaning Christians are therefore committing the informal fallacy of equivocation by mistakenly applying these biblical passages to illegal immigration. Instead, Hoffmeier suggests that local churches can in effect adopt illegal immigrants and their families, help pay for lawyer’s fees to make sure they get a fair hearing in the courts, and then provide the resources needed to help them fulfill the court’s decisions. This is a very positive way in which the church can mediate a solution to this horrific problem by practicing compassion and mercy while affirming the rule of law.

Thirdly, churches in the U.S. could network with affiliated churches in Latin and South America in order to foster economic development in those regions and thus reach towards a more long-term solution. As such, the church would be part of a trend among economists, anthropologists, and policy planners who are becoming increasingly aware of the role religion plays at every level of economic development.[6] A number of studies confirm that faith-based institutions are effective in revitalizing communities through sustainable economic development initiatives which can attract investments, build wealth, and encourage entrepreneurship.[7] For example, in 1969, several churches in Goshen, Indiana came together in order to minister to the needs of Hispanic migrant workers in the Goshen area. For the past thirty-five years, La Casa of Goshen has provided affordable housing and services for disadvantaged Hispanic families. And the resources are there for work on a global scale. Amy Sherman’s study found that nearly seventy percent of Hispanic Protestant churches in the U.S. collaborate with other churches to organize community services such as housing programs, health care ministries, schools, and day care facilities.[8] And by building up a community’s social infrastructure, churches contribute to increased property values which attract new residents and job-creating businesses, thus filling the various lacunae left by local and national economic and political instabilities in Central and South American regions.

I agree with many others that the current border crisis is a time for Christians to show the world what the church really is. But I do not believe that the fidelity to such witness involves simply being a cheerleader for the beneficiaries of a secular welfare state or a guardian of the borders of a secular nation-state. Instead, I believe it is time to witness to the world that the church is a distinctive sacred social order, a global yet traditional shared life-world that alone shapes communities into economies of grace through the resources of the Christian gospel. For in doing so, I believe that we will be faithful to that biblical vision in which all nations stream into the mountain of the house of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, to that place all Christians call our eternal home.

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1. See, for example, Anthony Giddens, Runaway World: How Globalization is Reshaping our Lives (New York: Routledge, 2000).

2. Paul A. Harris, “Immigration, Globalization and National Security: An Emerging Challenge to the Modern Administrative State”.

3. Victor Davis Hanson, “The Global Immigration Problem”.

4. Giddens, Runaway World, 61-65, 91.

5. James K. Hoffmeier, The Immigration Crisis: Immigrants, Aliens, and the Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2009).

6. Jill De Temple, “Imagining Development: Religious Studies in the Context of International Economic Development,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 81 no. 1 (March, 2013): 107-29, 110.

7. See, for example, Maria Torres, “Faith-Based Participation in Housing: A Literature Review”.

8. Amy L. Sherman, “The Community Serving Activities of Hispanic Protestant Churches”.

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