Immigration: What's a Christian to Think?


Nearly everyone seems to agree that we have an immigration problem in the United States. The exact nature of the problem, though, is heatedly disputed.


From one perspective, our nation is facing an unprecedented invasion of  “illegal aliens,” who violate our laws upon entry and then become a drain on social services and public education systems, depress wages and displace native-born American workers, and then contribute to increases in poverty, crime rates, and even terrorism.

A campaign flier for candidates for the Carpentersville, Illinois, city council some years ago expresses the frustrations of many Americans:

  • Are you tired of waiting to pay for your groceries while Illegal Aliens pay with food stamps and then go outside and get in a $40,000 car?
  • Are you tired of paying taxes when Illegal Aliens pay NONE!
  • Are you tired of reading that another Illegal Alien was arrested for drug dealing?
  • Are you tired of having to punch 1 for English?
  • Are you tired of seeing multiple families in our homes?
  • Are you tired of not being able to use Carpenter Park on the weekend, because it is overrun by Illegal Aliens?
  • Are you tired of seeing the Mexican Flag flown above our Flag?

Others see the current state of immigration as a problem for very different reasons. They see millions of people who have, usually for economic reasons, accepted displacement from their home countries to pursue a better life for themselves and their families in the United States, just as generations of immigrants have done before them.

Tragically, from this perspective, these people are not welcomed into our society but are scapegoated and forced into a shadowy existence by broken immigration laws, even though they contribute to our nation’s economy by performing a host of jobs, most of which few native-born Americans would be willing to do. Undocumented immigrant Elvira Arellano spent a year living inside a Methodist church in Chicago in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to avoid deportation that would separate her from her eight-year-old, US-citizen son. She became something of a spokesperson for this perspective:

Out of fear and hatred of an enemy you cannot find you have set out to destroy our lives and our families. As you knocked on my door, you are knocking on thousands of doors, ripping mothers and fathers away from their terrified children. You have a list of . . . Social Security no-match numbers, and you are following that list as if we were terrorists and criminals instead of workers with families. You are denying us work and the seniority and benefits we have earned, and you are taking the property we have saved for and bought.

From either of these perspectives, the immigration dilemma seems frustratingly simple. As both sides rail against the other, and against the government, where Congress has proposed competing bills but has yet to pass into law any substantial changes in immigration policy, we are left with the status quo—essentially the same status quo we faced a decade ago when we wrote the first edition of this book: an estimated eleven million people with no valid immigration status living and, usually, working in the United States. After the presidential campaign of 2016, in which immigration became a central issue, the debate over how to respond to immigrants in the country illegally seems more polarized than ever.


Since the first edition of Welcoming the Stranger, another category of “stranger” has become particularly controversial: refugees, who have long come to the United States with legal status at the invitation of our federal government, have joined immigrants without legal status as a uniquely suspect category of “foreigner” in the minds of many Americans.

As with the debate over illegal immigration, the refugee debate seems frustratingly simple to those on either side: to some, it is foolhardy to admit anyone into our country from nations plagued by terrorism, lest we welcome terrorists themselves. To others, welcoming the persecuted and oppressed is an unqualified good, integral to our national character. The two sides have a hard time understanding the other, as evidenced by harsh words shared over social media and even over family dinners and church potlucks.

Less vocal in these immigration debates are the many who suspect that immigration is actually a complicated, nuanced issue. Partisans of a particular policy position are apt to view the issue as very simple—right versus wrong, us versus them.

Yet, as political scientist Amy Black notes, it is these “easy” issues that often prove the most complex and the hardest to resolve since our presumptions keep us from hearing the other side. Within this debate, a growing middle recognizes this is not a simple issue. They want a more thoughtful, informed understanding of the issues than offered by the two-minute screaming matches by advocates of differing perspectives on cable news channels and talk radio.


Those of us who seek to follow Christ, in particular, face a challenge in sorting through the rhetoric to understand how we can reflect God’s justice as well as his love and compassion in designing a national immigration policy, and in the ways we relate individually to the immigrants in our communities. On first glance at the issue, we recognize that immigrants are people made in God’s image who should be treated with respect; at the same time, we believe God has instituted the government and the laws that it puts into place for a reason, and that as Christians we are generally bound to submit to the rule of law. Many are left conflicted, unsure of what our faith requires of us on this pressing issue.

Through the work of World Relief, the Christian ministry where we both work that serves refugees and other immigrants throughout the United States, we might find ourselves on a regular basis in a church, speaking with people about issues of immigration and citizenship, or in a congressperson’s office, talking with staffers about the need to fix the immigration system. Sometimes we speak in Spanish or with translation in Lithuanian, Arabic, or Cantonese to an audience of immigrants eager to naturalize or fearful of what a newly announced immigration-enforcement policy will mean for them and their families. Other times we are speaking in front of a predominantly nonimmigrant church group, answering questions about immigration policy. When we are in front of an audience of nonimmigrant evangelicals or before congressional staffers who are helping our political leaders form immigration policy, we find that many are asking the same questions we have often asked ourselves. This book seeks to address some of the most common questions and misconceptions that we and other Christians have wrestled with as we consider the immigration “problem.”

This book is written out of our own personal experiences with this dilemma, tracing through much of the investigation our own questions have led us to in seeking to understand immigration policy—and, more important, immigrants themselves—through the lens of our faith. While it would be disingenuous to pretend that we do not have strong opinions about how we (as individuals, as the church, and as a society) should approach this issue, our foremost interest is not to convince you of the virtue of any particular piece of legislation. Rather, we hope this book will encourage our sisters and brothers to take a step back from the rhetoric and combine a basic understanding of how immigration works, and has worked in the United States, we do not believe there is one Christian prescription to solve the immigration issue (though there may be decidedly un-Christian ways to view the issue), and there is plenty of space within the church for charitable disagreement on issues such as this.

Taken from Welcoming the Stranger by Matthew Soerens, Jenny Yang, and Leith Anderson. Copyright (c) 2018 by Matthew Soerens, Jenny Yang, and Leith Anderson. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL.

Matthew Soerens serves as the US church training specialist for World Relief, the humanitarian arm of the National Association of Evangelicals. In that role, he helps local churches and denominations to address issues of immigration from a distinctly biblical perspective.

Jenny Yang is vice president of advocacy and policy for the refugee and immigration program of World Relief in Baltimore, Maryland.