Unless you’ve been living in a cabin in the woods - deep in the woods - you know that discussions over social and political issues have become very polarized. One of the questions that generates a lot of heat and invective is the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) and its role enforcing immigration laws. The Department of Homeland Security website describes the function of ICE this way: “U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) enforces federal laws governing border control, customs, trade and immigration to promote homeland security and public safety.”
The subject of immigration dominates the national news and the 24/7 cable news cycle. The issue seems to be cast in one of two ways. The conservative approach prioritizes our economic stability and safety over the plight of people fleeing persecution and poor living conditions. The liberal approach prioritizes the situation of people wanting into the United States over the safety and concerns of U.S. citizens.
People immigrate to the United States for various reasons. Sometimes they fear violence or persecution in their home country. Sometimes they are looking for more opportunities and a better life. When they present themselves at the authorized portals for entry along the border, there are established procedures for determining who can and cannot enter. While we may disagree about the standards and policies, this is not the situation that causes the real heat in the debate. More and more, immigrants are attempting to enter illegally along the border, outside the authorized points of entry. For a long time arms and drug smugglers have crossed in these areas, but now more people are attempting to cross in these areas, and many of them are coming with children. This is a crime in the United States and triggers different treatment. It’s this treatment that has caused the uproar.
I realize there are ulterior (and ugly) motives involved in this debate, but I’m going to generously assume that this is a difference in how one prioritizes the safety of citizens versus compassion for immigrants. Our public discourse is conducted as extreme point-of-view vs. extreme point-of-view, but in reality, there is a consensus that both safety and compassion matter.
To begin with an obvious but important statement, governments have obligations to their citizens. For any government, the first priority has to be the safety and security, both physical and economic, of its own citizens. This priority is woven into the fabric of what it means to be a just government. Historically, a government that ignores the safety and welfare of its citizens forfeits its legitimacy. Therefore, without some kind of immigration control, the government cannot fulfill one of its most basic functions.
On a practical level, the UN estimated that in 2017, 69 million people were forcibly dislocated by war, famine, or natural disaster. This presents a serious problem, but not one that open borders can fix - even if a government were foolish enough to attempt it. Absorbing 69 million displaced people into surrounding countries is simply not realistic. In Germany, for example, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government is teetering, largely over her past policies that allowed 1 million immigrants into Germany in a short period of time. This policy disrupted the culture, economy, and citizenry. Other countries in Europe have experienced a similar backlash from citizens. Obviously, a country in turmoil isn’t able to do anything productive to help.
On the other hand, in our interconnected global world, no government can afford to ignore events outside its borders. If only from a position of self-interest, a nation must pay some attention to the physical and economic well-being of non-citizens. It’s a secondary concern but a legitimate one. As Christians, we have an additional duty to care beyond our self-interest. But here’s the important point: we are called to participate in healing the world, not to shape government policy to do it for us.
It seems clear to me that our government must exercise control of its borders. We can debate the best way to go about it, but some immigration control is a necessity. What’s just as clear to me is that it’s not an option to ignore those oppressed and dislocated people groups. The critical question is how best to help. Since assimilating 69 million people is impossible, it seems to me that helping to stabilize the countries involved is a more useful endeavor. Let’s attack the problems at their source, not their end. Making it possible for immigrants to remain safely in their homes is not only the preferable option for everyone involved, but it’s also the only realistic option. Harnessing the economic and diplomatic power of the United States and its allies to affect stability in the world’s troubled spots is a legitimate and compassionate government exercise.
What Can We Do?
As Christians, I propose we lead by example. Most churches are aware of organizations that are doing effective work with refugees. Since we can’t all go, let’s support those God has called to go. In particular, can we resource the Christians native to those countries to help transform their culture? What do they need from us? Let’s ask them.
As citizens, let’s help peacefully navigate the competing issues in the debate. Let’s look for common ground instead of all-or-nothing solutions. Let’s be peacemakers, bringing thoughtful, non-partisan ideas to the public square.
Terry Feix is the Executive Pastor at Crossings Community Church in Oklahoma City and a regular writer at So We Speak. Follow him @TerryFeix on Twitter.
Like the content? Support the site and get more at patreon.com/sowespeak!