A Biblical Frame for Immigration Liberalization

This is a repost from Paul’s blog Quitting Providence. The original post is here.

I was reading this Atlantic write-up of the excellent website Open Borders: The Case and I was surprised when the article concluded that what was really needed was Mark Zuckerberg to ride in to the rescue. Zuckerberg has started deploying resources to make it easier for skilled workers to immigrate to America, but this is small potatoes compared to what he could be doing:

Lobbying his unparalleled audience, the largest online community the world has ever known, to create an army of open borders supporters–that is the kind of connect-the-world change that Zuckerberg has already created with Facebook. Perhaps not this year, or even five years down the line, but Zuckerberg might eventually use his clout to start a global debate about the borders that keep Marvin from the marketplace. The lure of trillions of dollars for all, the potential elimination of world poverty, and a solid moral footing preached by Naik and Clemens probably won’t convince a majority without backing from major business leaders.

Don’t get me wrong. I am in favor of fabulously rich individuals devoting their wealth to advance worthy causes, but my awake-at-4AM mind jumped to “Why doesn’t the Catholic Church devote (a lot) more energy to pushing for liberal migration policies around the world?”
The Catholic Church, as a large, well-funded, and international institution with a vested interest in removing barriers to movement seems particularly well placed to press for open borders in an effective way. Unlike most things I would like the Catholic Church to do (like accept women’s reproductive rights, contraception, and some facts of human sexual diversity), this would not require the Church to radically rethink any theology or rewrite any catechisms. The Church already acknowledges the human right of migration and has some powerful rhetoric it can deploy in its favor. The following was taken from the website of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (it was one of the first pages to come up when I asked the Internet what Catholics think of immigration):

Both the Old and New Testaments tell compelling stories of refugees forced to flee because of oppression. Exodus tells the story of the Chosen People, Israel, who were victims of bitter slavery in Egypt. They were utterly helpless by themselves, but with God’s powerful intervention they were able to escape and take refuge in the desert. For forty years they lived as wanderers with no homeland of their own. Finally, God fulfilled his ancient promise and settled them on the land that they could finally call home.

The Israelites’ experience of living as homeless aliens was so painful and frightening that God ordered his people for all time to have special care for the alien: “You shall treat the alien who resides with you no differently than the natives born among you; have the same love for him as for yourself; for you too were once aliens in the land of Egypt” (Lv 19:33-34).

The New Testament begins with Matthew’s story of Joseph and Mary’s escape to Egypt with their newborn son, Jesus, because the paranoid and jealous King Herod wanted to kill the infant. Our Savior himself lived as a refugee because his own land was not safe.

Jesus reiterates the Old Testament command to love and care for the stranger, a criterion by which we shall be judged: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me” (Mt 25:35).

The Apostle Paul asserts the absolute equality of all people before God: “There is neither Jew nor Greek . . . for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). In Christ, the human race is one before God, equal in dignity and rights.

This is powerful stuff, and it made me think how different this language is from the usual rhetorical framework for the immigration debate. In the US at least, the focus is always on economics, with the burden of proof lying on the immigration advocates to show that there are huge economic gains to be had and high school drop-outs won’t be hurt too badly, and of course that migrants aren’t terrorists by nature. These are all silly arguments, and Catholic thinkers somehow manage to cut to the moral heart of the matter, powerfully asserting what most of us seem too embarrassed to declare outright: All human beings are morally equal. We are all worthy of the same ethical consideration. And if we can do something to help a fellow human being in need, that is, all else equal, a fine thing. We shouldwant to help even if we decide for some practical reasons that we can’t. Wanting to help is the starting point.Getting bogged down in technical debates about whether and exactly how much immigration benefits natives risks an ethical blunder, ceding the terms of the debate to restrictionists who will focus on economic minutiae that would be absurd in other contexts. (If a new invention were predicted to perhaps cause a 1% decrease in the wages of 6% of the population while everyone else benefited from the productivity gains, no one would blink). Of course we all want pareto-optimal policy changes, where absolutely everyone benefits by the departure from the status quo. Yet this happy congruence is clearly not always either possible or even relevant.The granddaddy example of this is slavery. In the early nineteenth century, the debate over abolition was colored by the fact that entire economies were built on the peculiar institution. If slaves were freed, a lot of plantation owners would suffer severe economic setbacks. Abolition of slavery, possibly the greatest moral victory the world has ever seen, did not happen because slave owners were persuaded they would be made better off by the deal. Abolition was achieved because the abolitionists persuaded enough free people of the moral truth that slaves are human beings and are therefore should be accorded basic human rights.

The civil rights victories over the Jim Crow regime were likewise not achieved by sophisticated economic arguments about how integration and human capital development among blacks would ultimately benefit even white supremacists. No, it was Martin Luther King Jr and other Civil Rights leaders appealing to the sense of fairness among the empowered.

Women did not win their suffrage and the rights to work and own property by convincing the contemporary enfranchized that men would stand to gain materially from women’s empowerment. No, feminists persuaded enough men in power that the radical notion that women are people was simply true. The injustice of enforcing power structures based on amoral accidents of birth was laid bare.

Expanding empathy played a role in each case above, getting the privileged parts of society to see that, but for a roll of the dice, they could have been born with a different color of skin, or a different gender, or in chains, or on the wrong side of a border. Even a morally perfect being or a divinely chosen people could find themselves with the short ends of these sorts of sticks.

At its most basic articulation, the policy of open borders asserts the individual’s presumptive human right to move freely about the world, and live where she wishes to live. The status quo global policy of constraining an individual to live where she was born, for the morally arbitrary fact that she just happened to be born there, is a transparently unjust institution. The only relevant economics is that this injustice is magnified by the poverty it inflicts on hundreds of millions of people.

9 thoughts on “A Biblical Frame for Immigration Liberalization”

  1. Some would dispute the point, but my reading of history is that the abolition of slavery was overwhelmingly the achievement of the Christian churches. First, the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages pioneered a model of society in which slavery was absent. Serfdom was a kind of midway point between slavery and freedom, but serfs definitely had rights, and their obligations were limited. Slavery was never reintroduced on a large scale in Europe, but Europeans did begin to practice it again on a large scale overseas during the Age of Exploration. This can probably be blamed in large part on the decline in the power of the papacy, which issued some furious bulls against the enslavement of people in the Canary Islands and elsewhere, but at this point the popes didn’t have the power to enforce their will. Later, evangelical Protestants like William Wilberforce and Charles Finney were the leading lights of the antislavery movement.

    Having said that, the Church was rather SLOW in its embrace of the antislavery cause. Despite the popes’ resistance to slavery at first, and their later opposition to it in the 19th century, there were centuries in which both Catholic and Protestant churches coexisted with slavery, giving communion to unrepentant slaveowners. The Catholic Church tended to try to ameliorate slavery, but didn’t try too hard to abolish it. This may seem indefensible, but I think one has to appreciate that (a) the church aims to draw in the broad masses of the people, (b) it knows the road to moral perfection is a long one, and (c) while politics is not morally neutral, it may also not be morally crucial in the grand scheme of things. Is it OK to have slaves if you treat them nicely? Well, no, not really, though of course it’s much better than having slaves and treating them cruelly. But we probably all do a lot of things that are morally indefensible from a sufficiently lofty moral perspective, and the Church chooses its battles. When it comes to politics, the Church tends to lead from behind.

    It seems to me that the Christian churches aren’t doing too badly on immigration. If we define open borders as “left” and restrictionism as “right” (though of course opinion on immigration is only loosely correlated with opinion on other issues), then the churches seem to position themselves a little to the left of their congregations or to the political center, softly ostracizing some of the harshest restrictionist memes, and sowing certain generous principles that point the way towards amnesty, freer migration, and eventually open borders. But they don’t want to tear apart congregations or alienate someone, based on one narrow political issue, from the church as a source of good moral influences on many fronts and ultimately (in their view) as a path to salvation.

    It’s up to people like us to blaze the trail on an issue like this. The church leadership will probably be tolerant and sympathetic at every stage, and if we could start moving public opinion, I expect we’d get more and more active support from the churches. But I’d expect them to continue taking a fairly slow, cautious approach.

  2. The Catholic Church would risk losing its tax-exempt status, in the USA and maybe elsewhere, by taking any kind of political stand. The IRS has revoked that status for some churches in the past. It has given warnings to others for even seemingly minor acts; see for example:
    I suspect that this is one reason the Church does not seem to be involved in politics. So I doubt they will do the advocacy suggested in this blog entry.

    The Church could do a lot to reduce the extreme poverty that is a major motivator for the open borders movement. Its opposition to birth control, and encouragement of large families, results in poor people having children they cannot care for. I’m not sure whether the Church does enough charity work in poor nations to compensate for the poverty it creates.

    But I strongly doubt the Church will change its opposition to birth control and its encouragement of large families.

    The writer wants to “cut to the moral heart of the matter, powerfully asserting what most of us seem too embarrassed to declare outright: All human beings are morally equal. We are all worthy of the same ethical consideration.” I’m not sure what these statements actually mean, but I suspect they cannot be proven. Also, different people have different moral standards. So I doubt these kinds of assertions will work well.

    1. Yes, statements like “All human beings are morally equal” cannot be proven. What would it even mean to prove them? But one of the points of the post was many (most?) people don’t actually respond to rigorous empirical proof anyway, so folks sympathetic to the open borders position shouldn’t be shy with these kinds of assertions, which may indeed work at some margin.

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