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.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore


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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11 replies to this post
  1. It is difficult to agree that the role of the Church is anything other than its insistence on the restoration of Christ at the center of every nation. Immigration is a problem all over the world, not just to us here in the US in this particular moment, but everywhere in the world, not only to the ‘receiving’ nations but to those ‘sending’ countries being gutted of their youth, their skilled workers, their future. And why this universal shift of peoples away from their own nations? Economic predation, population collapse, social collapse, all the symptoms thereof, the gangs, the increased murders, rapes, and general unrest. They are fleeing the world the Church relinquished responsibility for at Vatican II, to escape the burden of them by generously donating it to all the other churches equally, to step back from the central role the Church played, and Christ at the center of that role. The Church did not want a showdown with capitalism–not when the western nations were poised to reap the spoils of two world wars. The Church wanted to retire, and it did, it has, iot is nothing more now than a knowledgeable and entertaining curator of museums.

    Well, see how the world has done without the Church! The only possible healing for El Salvador, for Honduras, for Mexico, where our current batch of troubles originate in the form of manipulated children, is a full scale conversion to Catholic morality and economics, by which I mean a systematic transformation of secularism and capitalism in each country to a more broadly distributed economy and a more widely practiced virtue–of ownership, not only or merely of income. I am speaking of distributism, often pronounced in these circles with faint amusement. But those smirking never have an alternative.

  2. “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.”

    Good grief. No affirmation of the rule of law here, just its subversion.

    I am sorry, but this is where I am distinctly in favor of the separation of Church and State. The “compassion” in this instance is only going to make the problem far worse.

    • How is this suggestion a “subversion” of the rule of law? Simply stating it does not make it so, and invoking separation, a non sequitur here, does not advance the argument. I’d like to see you flesh out your objection to see if it’s valid. After all, even the laws I don’t agree with are laws of the land. And obeying them does not mean I and my church cannot continue to advocate more just laws and better enforcement of existing laws.

      In the (inevitable?) march toward some kind of mass amnesty, what Turley/Hoffmeier suggest seems to be a way for the church to help deal with the situation positively and constructively, ameliorating some of the strain on both the enforcement and adjudication overload caused by illegal immigration.

      The separation you embrace would only marginalize the church as an institution and as individuals, who both may (and should) act for the good of their communities.

      • Mr. Cain,

        Illegal immigration is a subversion of the rule of law. Mr. Thurley suggests that families adopt and pay for (!) illegal immigrants in the country–thereby abetting if not advocating the subversion of the law.

        A separation of Church and State because this (insulting) religious propaganda (“Jesus was an Illegal“) has now entered the political arena, with Pelosi exploiting what she can out of this, calling the illegal-immigrant children “Baby Jesus“ and so on.

        Christ, of course, was not an “illegal immigrant” but a political refugee, and one a mere 2000 years difference in context from the situation today, but what does she care–whatever works.

        If the situation weren’t so offensive I might find it funny.

        I am quite tired of representatives of the Church invoking “compassion” and “love” as if those of us opposed to this politically manipulated and abused situation lack either. The degree of this problem will not be solved by more welfare, church-based or otherwise, and will only worsen the problem to a far more ghastly degree than it already it.

        If the illegal immigrants (they are not “undocumented”–that is when I forget my passport at the airport) truly loved the USA, they would voluntarily go through the process to spare the country this much anguish and difficulty.

        • The Roman Empire had porous borders between its own provinces. Nowhere in the New Testament do we see people having problems going from country to country within the empire itself. Look at Paul’s journeys! I get sick of people calling Jesus an illegal immigrant.

  3. This is not a bad post for it attempts to see the complexity of the issue rather than oversimplifying the border crisis and it is well titled. However, some additions are warranted.

    We’ve had globalization for a while, especially since WWII. But what makes today’s globalization different than that of the past is the wider acceptance of neoliberal capitalism, a capitalism that attempts to reduce a government’s control over the economy of the nation it either rules or serves. With the lessening of this control comes the free flow of capital which allows outside investors to have a significant voice in the internal affairs of almost any country. Thus most governments are not only answerable the their own people, but to investors many of whom are from other countries.

    Two other issues regarding the border crisis is that we should note the history of the nations from where many immigrants are coming. That is because the US has a significant history with at least two if not all of these countries. NAFTA had several effects relating to the financial need for many to emigrate while Guatemala never recovered from the coup the US orchestrated in 1954. This coup replaced a democratically elected government with a violent dictator. That violence never subsided. And it is suspected that the US had a hand in the Honduras coup.

    The point being that foreign policies must be revised as part of any comprehensive immigration reform and the churches should be pushing for just foreign policies. In addition, perhaps the Church should also look at the form of Capitalism and globalization du jour to see if they contribute to injustice.

  4. I understand the intention of the author to be finding a way out of the current immigration impass. Newt Gingrich’s proposal during the 2012 primaries was similarly aimed at compromise. I share Miss Christoff-Kurapovna’s emotions on this issue, particularly since, if the GOP and USA had listened to Pat Buchanan in the 90s, there would be no immigration crisis now. On the other hand, I think the real value of this article is that it is another attempt at thinking out a practical solution to the problem. Sadly, without securing the border, it might not work. I did enjoy reading it though, because in politics, there’s only so much that can be achieved by shouting ourselves hoarse “we were right!”

    Buchanan conservatives lost the debate when there was still time to fix the problem and contain the damage. Tough. We need to find a new idea- to find it, we need to encourage thinking of one. Dr. Turley’s attempt deserves encouragement.

  5. Giving fair consideration to the good Doctor’s missives are always to the gray matter the equivalent of straining against the addition of 20 pounds to my personal best bench press. Three readings later (hat tip to M. Adler’s 1940 ‘How to Read a Book’), I think I’ve managed the lift. Maybe (!).

    Should Steve decide to add a paragraph or two, I would recommend that he weave in some background for the uninitiated about the reversal of historical hierarchical roles of the church and state. Having heard him present both a longer and shorter version of this fascinating and little known phenomenon, I believe it applies to the treatise at hand. One wonders if the situations under discussion (the situation of the illegals flowing into the US, that of the state’s response, and that of the church’s response, to name but three) would exist at all had the church not become submissive to the state instead of conditions having remained the other way round.

    Having said that, I struggle to find other than encouragement to those yet to strike out for the US border in the first two proposals. Oops, did I just betray my belief, however unenlightened, that such is the last thing “we” should be doing? It appears that the state is doing exactly that, based on reports concerning the 2008 law considered to be at the bottom of today’s morass, as well as this year’s government preparations alleged to have been made, such as federal contracting for transportation and housing services in advance of the present “surge.” Should the church be doing likewise? Would the church be doing likewise were it still the topmost guiding agency of civilization? Perhaps in need of a fourth reading, I also fail to discern what is to become of the recipients of the largesse (still unenlightened, three sentences later) described in these two proposals …

    The third proposal really speaks to the (or perhaps, “my”) current confusion as to secular/church roles. Economic development of a foreign church’s locality by a local-to-another-nation’s church? Really? Don’t get me wrong, I don’t doubt for a moment the cited accomplishments, but if ever there was a role that has been usurped by the state! Here in Delaware, I’m trying to imagine Fisker being directed to the abandoned GM plant by, oh, say, the Presbyterians of Newport, let alone of Canada! I should love to hear Dr. Turley hold forth on the historical perspective of this question!

    With apologies for any unintended misunderstanding of your thoughtful presentation, I say thank you for making it. My mental bench press is now reset to a new personal best!

  6. In reality there is a simple solution to this. Repeal most of our immigration laws on the books and restore the spirit of our traditional, original immigration system. Return to the system of almost no regulations from the 1790s to the 1920s. All these micromanaging attempts by “top men” to “guide” the nation are purely statist fantasies of being able to “steer” the market and engineer society. All of which fail, which is why illegal immigration occurs.

    Restore free market, traditional immigration and let society form itself, not Top-Down statist attempts to make society in their image. The basic principles of tradition, localism, family unity and the right of property fly on the face of the US federal government’s system of byzantine, unjust and complex quotas and laws which are entirely designed to exclude people.

    Contrary to Janet, immigration is not a “problem” and in particular is not a problem in the US. It is a net win-win, both economically and socially. For natives, it adds value to the economy and increased prosperity and for immigrants it is seen in an immediate usually sevenfold wage increase. Shared and increasing prosperity is a good thing. Socially it reverses our demographic and religious decline.

  7. Can somebody tell me how in the world “Jesus was an illegal immigrant?” I’ve heard that before. I didn’t realize that the Egyptians had a law against Jewish people immigrating, especially since Alexandria had more Jews than probably any other city in the ancient world. It’s one thing to argue without a full deck of cards. It’s another when the cards are simply made up.

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