I wrote this paper in a class I took in the Fall of 2021 called Migration and Human Rights. If you feel so compelled, please donate to the International Rescue Committee.
At the age of 19, I paused my university experience and went on a two-year, full-time volunteer mission for my church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Members of my church are often referred to by the unofficial nickname of “Mormons''. Missions for young people are a customary aspect of my religion and at any given time there are more than 50,000 (1) men and women serving as missionaries around the globe. You do not get to pick where you are assigned for your missionary service or the language you might have to learn. I was assigned to serve my mission in Orange County California attached to Spanish speaking congregations.
Most people I met and interacted with during my time as a missionary were immigrants from Mexico and Central America, most of them came into the US illegally. Prior to being a missionary, my views on immigration were generally a reflection growing up in Republican dominated Texas and being the son of a Cuban refugee. My father came to the US with his siblings and parents at the age of six in the 1960’s. Cubans have enjoyed preferred immigration status in the US and tend to be less aligned with other Spanish speaking immigrants based in the US in terms of their views on immigration. (2) Simply put, they are often not as pro-immigration politically as you might expect from an immigrant community in the US. I don’t remember giving a lot of thought to immigration as a teenager, but likely would have disapproved of people crossing the border illegally.
Spending two years inside the homes of these immigrants, developing friendships with them and hearing about their hopes and dreams significantly changed how I viewed immigration in the US. I found that most of the time these immigrants were seeking safety, freedom and economic opportunity. Some of the strongest motivations they expressed for coming to the US focused on the quality of life for their children or future children. Overtime I came to realize that I would have potentially made similar decisions as they did if I had been in similar circumstances. I also realized how their stories were not that different to the story of my own family. As the second generation of an immigrant family, I’m seeing all those hopes, and dreams of my Cuban grandparents play out as they imagined. Their grandkids are living productive, free, and safe lives in the United States. Most of the difference in experience between my family's experience and those of the Mexican and Central American immigrants today are because of differences in the US immigration policies.
Religious study was daily and significant part of my experience as a missionary. As I studied my church’s doctrine and reflected on the people and experiences, I was having every day, I personally and naturally saw clear alignment between the principles Christianity and a pro-immigration political view. The principles that were most impactful in driving my change of view were not unique to my religion but were basic and widely accepted principles of Christianity
For me, it was not just my experience getting to know so many immigrants, but a deeper understanding of the tenants of my faith and Christianity overall that drove me to have a more compassionate view of immigration politically.
In the many years since being a missionary, it has been clear that there are many who do not see the same alignment between tenets of Christianity and pro-immigration political views. This contrast became even more clear during the 2016 Trump presidential campaign and subsequent presidency. Though this paper focuses on Christianity, Harvard Professor Jacqueline Bhabha pointed out in her book “Can We Solve the Migration Crisis?” that “all the major religions also evidence a dramatic disjunction between scriptural text and quotidian practice”(3) when it comes to immigration.
Republicans tend to be much more religious than Democrats in the US(4). The Republican party is dominated by Christian denominations with about 82% of Republicans identifying as Christian(5). Mormons, Evangelical Protestants, Mainline Protestants are the most Republican dominated Christian denominations(6). This religious (mostly Christian) base helped Trump get elected and on the platform of instituting some of the harshest immigration policies in recent years.
As the 2016 election unfolded in the United States, I could not help but be surprised by the level of anti-immigration rhetoric from Trump and his campaign, especially knowing how many of his supporters were of the Christian faith. The way he discussed and framed immigrants was shocking. The most memorable was in his formal announcement of running for president, he referred to those coming from Mexico into the US as “not their best” and went so far to generalize many of them as “rapists”(7). It was extremely unsettling for me personally to see so many Christians align with Trump’s policies and rhetoric, especially when my faith pushed me in the opposite direction in terms of my views on immigration.
Shortly after being elected, he started to make good on his campaign promises and began to roll out his immigration agenda, which included ending The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program(8) and eventually led to 400 executive(9) orders on immigration. The most visible of these policies was separating children at the border(10), which received a lot a massive amount of criticism and was eventually reversed to some degree. While President Trump took a much harder stance on immigration, tougher immigration has been a part of the Republican platform for a while. There is no doubt that after four years of the Trump presidency legal and illegal immigration is much more restrictive than it has been in a long time.
I do not expect the members of any faith to be completely aligned to a political party or any specific policy among the many a political party will push forward. How different Christian groups prioritize and view immigration as an issue varies widely. In a 2019 PRRI survey(11), immigration was a top issue in the 9 different religious groups surveyed, but it was not the number one issue for any of the groups. It did not even make the top 3 for more than half of the groups. This leads me to believe that while immigration is an important issue for many Christian faiths, it seems unlikely to be the most critical issue driving voter behavior.
Who you vote for is very complex and few candidates perfectly reflect the views of the individuals they represent. Individuals must make tradeoffs and prioritize the different policies to be able to support specific candidates. The number of Christian voters was clearly influential in getting Trump elected but I think it would be short sighted to blame a religion for specific policies of a political party. Though, the commonality of faith creates opportunities for faith-based influence to impact policy. A closer look at some well-known biblical examples of immigration can serve to help those who look to the Bible as a source of faith to be motivated to support not just a more empathetic view of immigration, but candidates and policies that will reflect that view. My goal in writing this paper is that an understanding of Biblical and modern-day migration within existing frameworks of how to approach immigration challenges could be a cause for reflection among Christian readers of this paper. The biblical examples throughout this paper could be used in many religious settings to teach, inspire, and advocate for immigrants. It is also my goal that these parallels could be used by advocates, refugee supporting NGOs, experts, and policy makers to more effectively appeal to people of the Christian faith to drive more support and an empathetic view for migrants of all kinds. The high percentage of Christians in the Republican party creates a group of voters that believe many of the same things, speak a common language, have often heard the same scriptural stories, and potentially have some of the same faith-based motivations. In this paper I’m primarily focused on the US, but it’s worth noting that Christians are the largest religious group in the world. Christians make up 31.2% of the world’s population at around 2.3B people(12). Christians are an influential group in many democracies around the world, just as they are in the US. The arguments in this paper could be extrapolated to Christians in other nations as well.
In the book, Refuge: Transforming a Broken Refugee System by Alexander Betts and Paul Collier, leading thinkers in the study of migrants, highlight two core guiding principles in the world’s response to immigration. The principles are rescue and autonomy, which are also core principles of Christianity. The book goes on to say that “The duty of rescue entails ensuring that people in distress have rapid access to their most fundamental needs.”(13)
Few biblical verses capture the Christian principles of rescue as clearly as the book of Matthew in the New Testament. In the book of Matthew, the Apostle Matthew is recounting the parables Jesus taught and captured the following words of Jesus in Chapter 25:35-40 of the King James Version of the Bible.
35 For I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: 36 Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. 37 Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungered, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? 38 When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? 39 Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? 40 And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.
These verses make clear what is the duty of a follower of Christ, which is aligned with the immigration principle of rescue “ensuring that people in distress have rapid access to their fundamental needs.”13 It is worth noting that there are no “qualifications” in these verses on who should be helped or deserves it, but rather focuses on if there is a need, the Christian duty is to act. One might argue that your duty to help others is more focused on those around you in your immediate sphere of influence, but this scripture explicitly mentions “strangers”. “Strangers” comes from the world “extraneous” which means “exterior” or “from the outside.”(14) This could mean Jesus was referring to someone that was an outsider in several ways. Just as modern-day immigrants can have different countries of origin, religion, and culture.
Later in the New Testament the Apostle John in the book of 1 John was addressing a fragile new church trying to stay aligned with the teachings of Jesus.(15) In that environment, you can imagine how important it would have been for him to focus the attention of his readers on the most basic and fundamental aspects of Christ’s teachings. He was more explicit and direct about the responsibility of Christians to help those in need, even going so far as to say that if you don’t, the love of God is not within you. 1 John Chapter 3:17, “But whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?”
The Bible extols true believers to rescue those in need and is full of examples of the principle of rescue in action. One of the most important was Jesus himself as a refugee in need of rescue. In the Book of Matthew in Chapter 2 we learn that King Herod, feeling threatened by the birth of Jesus, intended to kill the Child. Shortly after the birth, Jesus’s father Joseph was warned in a dream by God and was commanded to “and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word” (verse 13). Jesus’s father took drastic action to protect the physical safety of his child, which involved fleeing to another country. The same rationale for fleeing to another country, often illegally, is used by many modern-day migrants with children.
The story of Exodus is one of the most well-known stories in the Bible. The dramatic story of the Israelites fleeing persecution in Egypt is repeated often in the Christian and the Jewish traditions. In this story we have a group of people being oppressed that flee looking for freedom and better opportunities. One aspect of the story that is often overlooked is why the Israelites were in Egypt. Earlier in the Bible in Genesis Chapter 47, we find out that Joseph and his family were driven by famine to settle in Egypt.(16) The parallels to modern day reasons driving immigration are clear. Searching for economic opportunities and escaping conflicts are still major drivers of immigration today.(17)
In these well-known Biblical stories, you explicitly see the principles of rescue, but throughout the Bible you also see autonomy. On the topic of autonomy Alexander Betts and Paul Collier go on to say “But as soon as this is achieved - the child is pulled out of the pond - our purpose becomes to restore autonomy. A satisfactory refugee regime should enable people to help themselves and their communities, particularly through jobs and education.”13
Returning to the story of Jesus fleeing to Egypt, eventually after the danger had passed, they returned. Not much is said about Jesus’s formative years in Nazareth, but in Luke 2:40 it says “And the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, filled with wisdom: and the grace of God was upon him.” Many Christian faiths assume he became a carpenter like his father. The story shows the need for rescue, but also implies a return to autonomy once the danger has passed.
In the New Testament you see the virtues of autonomy espoused in the epistle that the Apostle Paul wrote to Timothy(18), who at the time was a young church leader in Ephesus. Paul wrote in 1Timothy 5:8 “But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel.” The Apostle Paul also wrote to the Thessalonians espousing the importance of work and providing for yourself in 1 Thessalonians 4:11–12 “And that ye study to be quiet, and to do your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you; That ye may walk honestly toward them that are without, and that ye may have lack of nothing.” He did again in 2 Thessalonians Chapter 3:12 “Now them that are such we command and exhort by our Lord Jesus Christ, that with quietness they work, and eat their own bread.”
The message is clear, working and providing for yourself is a good thing and a virtue of Christianity. Enabling others to obtain those virtues, such as immigrants who are unable during a time of difficulty, would be an honorable thing to do as a Christian.
Two of the most important guiding principles for addressing the challenges of migration are clearly supported throughout the Bible with many powerful stories of those principles in action.
In Joseph Carens, book The Ethics of Immigration. He drew a powerful framing for how we should think about immigration ethically. He wrote “Whatever principles or approaches we propose, we should always ask ourselves at some point, "What would this have meant if we had applied it to Jews fleeing Hitler?" And no answer will be acceptable if, when applied to the past, it would lead to the conclusion that it was justifiable to deny safe haven to Jews trying to escape the Nazis. This approach will not settle every question about refugees that we have to consider, but it will give us a minimum standard, one fixed point on our moral compass.”(19)
The same comparison can be made to some of the most famous refugees in Christianity, Jesus himself and the Israelites fleeing Egypt. While I personally believe Joseph Carens’ analogy to be sufficiently persuasive as is, his framework could also be used to focus specifically on Christianity. As modern-day Christians, we should also ask ourselves when looking at immigration policies “What would this have meant if we had applied it to Christ fleeing Herod, or Moses fleeing Egypt?" The current plight of immigrants today is no less dramatic than those faced in the time of the Bible. In our modern day we have more than one million(20) Rohingya people that are stateless, abused and persecuted looking to flee their situation, not unlike Moses and the Israelites. In Venezuela we have parents that fear for the physical safety of their children because of not only an oppressive government but a dangerous lack of food, medicine and other necessities needed to sustain life. The dire situation has led to over four million Venezuelans leaving which is an 8,000% increase since 2014.(21)
Harvard Professor Jacqueline Bhabha was right when she wrote “despite the prominence of hospitality toward strangers as a core obligation in all major schools of religious thought, clear religious edicts collide with the practical operations of state sovereignty and personal and national self-interest.”3. I’m not naive enough to think that a simple understanding of Christian principles related to rescue would be enough to convince voters, but I do fundamentally believe that the Christian experience can be a greater force for good in supporting the 84 million people forcibly displaced throughout the world.(22)
The reality is that the Christian faith already drives many people to participate in helping immigrants around the world. There are many faith-based organizations that embody the principles of rescue and autonomy towards migrants like the Church World Service, Episcopal Migration Ministries, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services (LIRS), the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and many others.
There are bright spots out there that many Christians are even willing to break away from their political party for this issue, driven by religious beliefs. When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the reduction of the maximum number of refugees to 30,000, many religious organizations came out in opposition, including the Evangelical Immigration Table (EIT).(23) I saw this in my own faith, which is headquartered in Utah and the state that has the highest concentration of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. In December of 2019 President Trump gave states the authority to veto refugee settlements.(24) Gov. Gary R. Herbert of Utah, a deeply conservative and religious state, wrote an open letter to President Trump asking for more refugees based on the religious history of the state. He said “Our state was founded by religious refugees fleeing persecution in the Eastern United States. Those experiences and hardships of our pioneer ancestors 170 years ago are still fresh in the minds of many Utahns. As a result, we empathize deeply with individuals and groups who have been forced from their homes and we love giving them a new home and a new life.”(25) In coverage from The Washington Post of the unusual announcement from a conservative state in the height of Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, they speculated the reasons Utah was taking such a dramatically different stance than other red states. One of the journalist's conclusions was that “The high percentage of young Mormons who perform missionary work abroad plays a role, as well. Utah may be landlocked, far from any international border. But its population has a comfort and familiarity with foreign cultures.”(24)
It seems as if my experience as a missionary and how it has shaped my views of immigration might not be unique, which leads me to believe that experiences, education, and messages rooted in Christian principles can convert more of the believers to believe in a United States that is more welcoming to immigrants.
- “Latter-Day Saint Missionary Program - Missionaries Serve Two Year Missions.” newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org, August 24, 2021. https://newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org/topic/missionary-program.
- “Cubans in the United States.” Pew Research Center's Hispanic Trends Project. Pew Research Center, May 30, 2020. https://www.pewresearch.org/hispanic/2006/08/25/cubans-in-the-united-states/.
- Bhabha, Jacqueline. “Chapter 2.” Essay. In Can We Solve the Migration Crisis?, 7. Newark, NJ: Polity Press, 2018.
- “Religion in America: U.S. Religious Data, Demographics and Statistics.” Pew Research Center's Religion & Public Life Project, September 9, 2020. https://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/compare/belief-in-god/by/party-affiliation/.
- “Religion in America: U.S. Religious Data, Demographics and Statistics.” Pew Research Center's Religion & Public Life Project, September 9, 2020. https://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/party-affiliation/republican-lean-rep/.
- “Religion in America: U.S. Religious Data, Demographics and Statistics.” Pew Research Center's Religion & Public Life Project, September 9, 2020. https://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/compare/belief-in-god/by/party-affiliation/.
- Collins , Michael, and Christal Hayes. “Timeline: 10 Controversial Things Trump Has Said about the Border, Immigrants.” El Paso Times, January 1, 2019. https://www.elpasotimes.com/storytelling/timeline/donald-trump-racist-tweet-things-said/
- Soto, Isabel, and Whitney Appel. “Comparing Trump and Biden on Immigration.” AAF, September 9, 2020. https://www.americanactionforum.org/insight/comparing-trump-and-biden-on-immigration/.
- Pierce, Sarah and Jessica Bolter. 2020. Dismantling and Reconstructing the U.S. Immigration System: A Catalog of Changes under the Trump Presidency. Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute
- “Family Separation under the Trump Administration – a Timeline.” Southern Poverty Law Center, June 17, 2020. https://www.splcenter.org/news/2020/06/17/family-separation-under-trump-administration-timeline.
- PRRI Staff. “Fractured Nation: Widening Partisan Polarization and Key Issues in 2020 Presidential Elections.” PRRI, November 10, 2020. https://www.prri.org/research/fractured-nation-widening-partisan-polarization-and-key-issues-in-2020-presidential-elections/.
- Hackett, Conrad, and David McClendon. “World's Largest Religion by Population Is Still Christianity.” Pew Research Center. Pew Research Center, May 31, 2020. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/04/05/christians-remain-worlds-largest-religious-group-but-they-are-declining-in-europe/.
- Betts, Alexander, and Paul Collier. “Ch. 8.” Essay. In Refuge: Transforming a Broken Refugee System. PENGUIN Books, 2018.
- Caussé, Gérald. “Ye Are No More Strangers.” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Accessed October 21, 2021. https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2013/10/ye-are-no-more-strangers?lang=eng.
- Introduction to 1 John. Accessed October 21, 2021. https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/new-testament-study-guide-for-home-study-seminary-students/introduction-to-1-john?lang=eng.
- Knohl, Israel. “Pinpointing the Exodus from Egypt.” Harvard Divinity Bulletin, 2018. https://bulletin.hds.harvard.edu/pinpointing-the-exodus-from-egypt/.
- Francesco Castelli, Drivers of migration: why do people move?, Journal of Travel Medicine, Volume 25, Issue 1, 2018, tay040, https://doi.org/10.1093/jtm/tay040
- Introduction to 1 Timothy. Accessed October 21, 2021. https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/new-testament-study-guide-for-home-study-seminary-students/introduction-to-1-timothy?lang=eng.
- Carens, Joseph H. “10.” Essay. In The Ethics of Immigration. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2015.
- Chickera, Amal de. “Stateless and Persecuted: What next for the Rohingya?” migrationpolicy.org, March 18, 2021. https://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/stateless-persecuted-rohingya.
- United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. “Venezuela Situation.” UNHCR. Accessed October 21, 2021. https://www.unhcr.org/en-us/venezuela-emergency.html.
- Fleming, Sean. “This Is the Global Refugee Situation, in Numbers.” World Economic Forum, June 18, 2021. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2021/06/unhcr-how-many-refugees/.
- Jackson, Griffin Paul. “Evangelicals Argue against US Reducing Refugees to 30,000.” News & Reporting. Christianity Today, September 20, 2018. https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2018/september/refugee-resettlement-trump-pompeo-asylum-immigration.html.
- Witte, Griff. “Trump Gave States the Power to Ban Refugees. Conservative Utah Wants More of Them.” The Washington Post. WP Company, December 4, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/trump-gave-states-the-power-to-ban-refugees-conservative-utah-wants-more-of-them/2019/12/02/d8de7b00-1085-11ea-a533-90a7becf7713_story.html?request-id=66d323ad-61e9-42c9-81fb-5651894301ba&pml=1.
- Arent, Patrice. “Thank You @Govherbert Pic.twitter.com/sb6yi0tZJq.” Twitter. Twitter, October 31, 2019. https://twitter.com/PatriceArent/status/1190041160183619584.
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