Just Immigration, Mark R. Amstutz. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2017.
Summary: A carefully researched work on American immigration policy, various Christian responses and why they generally fall short and the necessity of nuanced advocacy that recognizes the competing values of compassion, the rule of law, and the requirements of justice.
Immigration is perhaps one of the most contentious public policy issues facing the United States (and other nations today). While some want to “build the wall” others are announcing that they are “sanctuary cities” or at least “sanctuary churches.” Immigration policy is incredibly complicated as the competing demands of immigration for business, for study, for reuniting families, for representing diverse populations, for providing asylum and accommodating refugees, and dealing with the unauthorized entry of people, some for nefarious reasons, and others simply to work.
The popular perception is that our immigration system is “broken” and needs radical attention. Yet in terms of sheer numbers, the United States in recent years has admitted more immigrants than any other country (although some other countries have higher per capita immigration rates). Because of our oceans, we have been less involved in recent refugee resettlements than many European countries. All of this moves many Christians to insist we need a more just and compassionate immigration policy, one that is much more consistent with a biblical commitment to “welcome the stranger.”
Mark R. Amstutz takes a much more careful look at American immigration than most have, and challenges American Christians in this work that they need to do likewise. He begins by a careful and extensive description of how the American immigration system works and the various agencies involved with immigration. From this, Amstutz summarizes the strengths and shortfalls of the current system. For strengths, he sees a system that is relatively generous in admissions, that prioritizes family ties, that seeks to be inclusive in its use of diversity visas, is committed to due process protections, and shows special concerns for the persecuted and abused. At the same time, we provide inadequate numbers of work visas for our work force requirements, chain migration concentrates immigration numbers on family-based visas, while at the same times delaying family reunifications, sometimes up to twenty years, we have inadequate employment verification processes, inadequate tracking procedures for nonimmigrant visitors, weak border security and problems in our judicial processes. The biggest challenge is how we deal with unauthorized (or illegal) immigration, which is where concerns for compassion bump up with real questions about the undermining of the rule of law when laws are not enforced, while many unauthorized immigrants (11 million or so) “live in the shadows.”
Amstutz sees two competing theories concerning immigration that undergird the differences people have. One is a cosmopolitan approach that sees us all as one people sharing the planet and minimizes the nation-state. The other is the communitarian that recognizes the world as a series of nation-states with the right to regulate borders. This ultimately leads to conflicting priorities that acknowledge that any person should have the right to emigrate at will, but that no one has a right to be admitted to another country.
After overviewing the theoretical constructs brought to this discussion outside the church, he turns to the thinking of Christians in the Roman Catholic Church, with evangelical, and mainline Protestant bodies. In general, what Amstutz found was some biblical theology around immigration, and then public policy advocacy that did not particularly connect to their biblical convictions. In general, very few statements provided any extended moral analysis of American immigration policy, and that while most came down heavily to advocate compassion for immigrants and refugees, and amnesty for unauthorized immigrants and their children. Few dealt with the issues around law enforcement and the rule of law in anything more than passing references. Furthermore, most were directed to the political process, and in many cases little attention was given to congregational education. Amstutz acknowledges that there is often a wide divide between leaders and their congregational base.
Amstutz holds up as a model of the kind of statement that can be effective, he points to the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops statement on nuclear arms during the 1980’s. This statement took several years to draft, involved careful biblical and theological work, and careful moral analysis based on extensive research on the nuclear arms and strategy. An eye was given both to catechesis in the church and public advocacy and because of this careful work, the document did shape public discourse on nuclear arms and may have contributed to nuclear disarmament.
This is the best book I’ve found on this topic for several reasons. One is that it provides good, detailed information on how our immigration system works, in its strengths and weaknesses. Also, this is a good book for those who want to take a hard look at what the Bible says about this issue who have concerns both about compassion and about justice, including the rule of law. It is valuable in assessing the various statements that have been made by church bodies about immigration. Amstutz is thoughtful about what can realistically be accomplished, in talking about “proximate justice.” It is a book that can equally challenge those on the compassion side and those on the law and order side of the discussion, and may provide a meeting place for those who want to work toward proximate solutions that recognize both concerns.
Perhaps the most challenging message of this book is that we often have responded in public discussions on this issue out of poorly formed biblical frameworks and moral sentiments–that we have not done the hard intellectual work to make a constructive contribution at a policy level, or to provide teaching that doesn’t simply feel like the propaganda of the left or the right. We often simply have wanted to do something, to advocate for something, to resist something. Might it be that our “ready, fire, aim” approach to these things accounts for the counterproductive character of the conversation? Could it be that the careful work of study, moral analysis, and then thoughtful advocacy and service is what’s called for?
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.