Honoring the Law, Extending Mercy

A few months ago, The New York Times ran a front-page story about the strong support coming from evangelical leaders like Richard LandBill HybelsMat Staver, and Samuel Rodriguez for a comprehensive reform of our nation’s immigration laws. While I appreciated the article as a whole, I thought one particular paragraph was misleading: the article implied that the majority of evangelical leaders, who support immigration reform, do so because of Scripture’s command to love and ensure equal treatment for the immigrant (Lev. 19:33-34 and elsewhere), while those evangelicals who oppose reform heed Romans 13, where Paul instructs the Church to be subject to the governing authorities.

A lot of Christians wrestle with the issue of immigration in a way that pits love and mercy on one side with law and justice on the other—and then feel conflicted. In a theological context, we’re promised that “mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13), and a few Christians do advocate amnesty for undocumented immigrants precisely because we who could not be saved by fulfilling God’s law are saved by God’s grace (just a synonym for amnesty) rather than through any of our own merit (Eph. 2:8-9). Advocates of amnesty for undocumented immigrants say that, as recipients of grace, they do not want to be stingy in extending it to others and risk the judgment that Jesus told of in his parable of the unmerciful servant (Matt. 18:21-35).

While I respect that view—and agree that there ought to be a place for mercy in our policies—I don’t share it entirely. Having interacted with many of the evangelical leaders who have advocated reform, I am confident that they do not affirm this view, either.  The role of the state, they would note (and I would agree), is different than that of the church. While they would likely agree that grace is central to our theology and affirm the importance of forgiveness in interpersonal relationships, they do not endorse amnesty as the best public policy. None of them has come to their position by elevating Leviticus 19 over Romans 13.

To the contrary, most evangelical leaders (including each of those mentioned above) have stressed the importance of both showing kindness to undocumented immigrants while also respecting the ideal of the rule of law that we find in Romans 13. Evangelical support for Comprehensive Immigration Reform is built around the idea of restoring the rule of law to a system where, after decades of selectively ignoring the law, it has begun to lose its meaning.

You see, our current system is set up in a way that would be destructive to the American economy if fully enforced. Our employment-based immigration system—the basic structure of which has not been altered in decades—provides just 5,000 permanent resident visas per year for low-skilled workers, meeting just a tiny fraction of the demand for employees created by our market economy. Because of political pressure from groups whose stated mission is to limit population growth in the U.S.—who have successfully convinced many Americans that, contrary to established economic theory, immigrants are harmful, rather than beneficial, to the American economy—our Congress has not seen fit to adapt the legal immigration system to provide the additional labor flow necessary for sustained economic growth.

But the alternative—strict enforcement of these outmoded laws—has never been a reasonable option either: no politician wants to preside over an era of skyrocketing prices for the basic goods and services that immigrant laborers make possible. So, for decades now—under the leadership of both major political parties—we simply do not fully enforce the law, either against immigrants or against the employers who hire them unlawfully. The law says that the estimated 11 million immigrants currently present unlawfully should be deported, but almost no one in Washington is really serious about that possibility, because they know that the economic consequences would be disastrous ($2.6 trillion in lost Gross Domestic Product over a decade, according to one economist).

Instead, as a society, we have looked the other way as desperate migrants—many of them fleeing conditions of poverty beyond what most Americans can fathom—violate the law by entering or overstaying a visa and then accepting employment without authorization. It is illegal under the law—no doubt—but just as many of us presume that a 55 mile-per-hour speed limit doesn’t really mean it is wrong to go 58 or 59 (or, in some parts of the country, much faster), immigrants have understood the consistent lack of enforcement as a winking signal that our society did not really mean those laws.

There is nothing inherently unjust about having borders and controlling the number of immigrants who are allowed to enter: that is a legitimate function of the state. This becomes an issue of injustice when we avert our eyes as the law is violated, then subsequently deny those who have broken the law any rights, refusing any responsibility to treat them as we would want to be treated (Luke 6:31). We require them to pay Social Security taxes—$12 billion, cumulatively, in 2007—but deny them any benefits. If they are a victim of crime, in some parts of the country they could be asked about their legal status, detained, and deported if they notify the police, making them open targets for criminals. So long as they work quietly and for low wages, sometimes in conditions that fail to meet minimum safety requirements, they will probably be okay, but if they raise their voice against these abuses they risk arrest, detention, and deportation. After all, the common sentiment goes, they broke the law.

Evangelical leaders realize that this status quo is a broken mess; they are not advocating that mercy for immigrants should trump the law, but that we must restore the rule of law, prescribing a punishment for unlawful entry and unauthorized work that fits the crime (think: the equivalent of a fine for speeding down the highway, rather than having your driver’s license revoked). The Comprehensive Immigration Reform that evangelical leaders have advocated would require those here unlawfully to pay a monetary penalty and earn the right to become lawful permanent residents, but it would also insist that in the future we put into place a reasonable number of visas, tied to the priorities of economic growth and family unity, and that from here on out we strictly enforce the law, both against immigrants and employers who break the law.

That sort of a plan brings together the biblical mandates to be subject to the governing authorities (Romans 13) and to show love and kindness to the immigrant (Leviticus 19), rather than pitting two biblical commands against one another.  As pastor and theologian John Piper has said, “it gives honor to the law and it gives mercy to the immigrants.”

This blog originally appeared on UnDocumented.tv on February 28, 2011