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Evangelicals and Immigration: A Conflicted History

In yellow paint, the words "I was a stranger and you welcomed me - Jesus" are written on brown, rusty fence slats.

Image by Adam McLane, licensed under CC BY NC 2.0.

Last June, a national outcry followed the Trump administration’s policy to separate children from their parents at the U.S. border. In response to the public outrage, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions pointed to the Apostle Paul’s “clear and wise command in Romans 13,” recorded in the Bible. In this passage, the Apostle urged Christians to obey the governing authorities, Sessions claimed, and implied that the asylum seekers had violated this biblical mandate. Indeed, obedience to the governing authorities has informed evangelicals’ thinking on immigration for well over a decade. When it comes to immigration, white evangelicals value the unity of families and the rule of law, with a preference for the latter. For many evangelicals, the immigration debate starts and ends with the Apostle Paul’s exhortion to “be subject to the governing authorities.”

White evangelicals, in particular, consistently favor hard-line stances on immigration. As a Public Religion Research Institute survey published last October shows, they are the only religious group which believes that immigrants threaten American society (57 percent) and which supports banning refugees from entering the U.S. (51 percent). And while evangelicals of other ethnicities have somewhat softer attitudes toward immigrants, Latino evangelicals supported President Trump in surprisingly large numbers, despite his extremely anti-immigrant rhetoric and policy proposals (49.4 percent, compared with under a third of all Hispanics), as political scientist Ryan Burge has found.

But as a look at evangelicals’ long history of ministering to immigrants and refugees shows, evangelical skepticism of immigration is a relatively recent development. Before the 1990s, evangelical Christians were busier resettling the newly arrived refugees than banning them from entering the United States. Before they became immigration restrictionists, evangelicals actively endorsed and participated in a large-scale legalization effort for undocumented immigrants (and, indeed, some evangelicals still assist undocumented immigrants in that way). In cooperation with the Justice Department’s Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), evangelical churches across the country helped legalize thousands of undocumented immigrants during the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act’s legalization program.

Signed into law by Ronald Reagan, the reform allowed the opportunity for nearly three million undocumented immigrants to become permanent residents. Among other civil sector organizations, this program enlisted the support of evangelical churches, which provided facilities and volunteers to help interested individuals determine their eligibility and process their applications for citizenship. Nearly all of the major evangelical denominations and organizations were involved – either independently or by participating in the Evangelical Task Force on Legalization run by World Relief, an evangelical relief and resettlement organization.

For the INS and for the evangelical churches, this cooperation was a win-win situation. The INS hoped that church volunteers might act as a “buffer between federal regulations and officials and people who need help.” For evangelical pastors, the legalization program was an opportunity to minister to and serve those marginalized by society, as well as a way to solve problems relating to immigration issues in their own pews. While INS officers provided the training and the forms, evangelicals offered the public space, equipment, and volunteers to process legalization forms and determine applicants’ eligibility. Throughout the duration of the program between May 1987 and May 1988, the Task Force established twenty-eight processing centers as well as eighty-five counseling centers in the churches of its member denominations. At the end of the program, 14,518 applications had been submitted to INS through the task force, and 70,000 individuals had received counseling on their eligibility.[1]

In their efforts to help legalize undocumented immigrants under the Immigration Reform and Control Act, evangelicals drew on many Scriptural commands to show hospitality and “welcome the stranger.” They had previously cited these commands when they helped resettle refugees from Cuba in the 1960s and from Southeast Asia during the 1970s and early 1980s. In their efforts to attract refugee sponsors and volunteers for their ministry to undocumented immigrants, evangelical leaders explained that the Bible was filled with stories of migration and replete with commands to the people of Israel to protect the sojourners in their midst. They stressed that extending a welcoming hand to refugees was not only in line with, but was imperative in light of biblical teaching on the care of foreigners. Helping refugees was a direct response to Christ’s call to help “the least of these my brethren” and to both Old and New Testament commands to practice hospitality toward the sojourner.

Matthew 25, especially, was cited. In this chapter, Jesus told his disciples that by ministering to the sick, the needy, and the foreigners, they had served him, because “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” Evangelicals served refugees and immigrants because they saw Jesus in them, and because they believed that the refugees and immigrants stood in a long tradition of pilgrims, which included the patriarchs of the Old Testament, the people of Israel, and Jesus himself – who began his life as a refugee or an “undocumented immigrant.” The Southern Baptist publication MissionsUSA summarized the denomination’s position in a 1986 article: “people in need should be shown the love of Christ, whatever their ‘legal’ status.”[2]

Romans 13—the proof text of evangelical immigration hardliners—did not enter the debate until the mid-2000s. As evangelicals helped legalize many thousand undocumented immigrants in the 1980s, my research suggests that not a single article in a major evangelical publication alluded to their legal status in a negative way. Even the restrictionist immigration policies of the 1990s drew more apathy than debate among evangelicals, whose attention was absorbed by the “culture wars”. Evangelicals only gradually began viewing immigration through the lens of the rule of law. They adopted this approach along with American society at large as both the Democrats and the Republicans grew increasingly restrictionist on immigration in the 1990s. In 1994, California’s Republican governor Pete Wilson initiated this shift in the GOP with his support for Proposition 187, a ballot initiative which would have restricted undocumented immigrants’ access to certain government services, such as non-emergency health care and public education (it was later found unconstitutional by a federal district court). Rhetoric which emphasized a “get-tough” approach towards immigrants became part of the Republican party’s platform in in 1996. In the same year, Democratic president Bill Clinton signed into law a welfare reform which denied most benefits—including food stamps and supplemental security income—to lawful immigrants. As the restrictionist voices in the Republican Party grew louder, evangelicals learned to apply their theology to their politics. By the mid-2000s, their concern for the rule of law started to permeate the evangelical discussion on immigration. Now firmly entrenched on the Republican side of the political fence, evangelicals left behind their apathy toward immigration policy. Following a pattern established both by the Republican Party and the mass media in the 1990s, evangelicals now incorporated the distinction between “legal” and “illegal” immigrants into their thinking on immigration – and many had little patience with so-called “law-breakers.”

Today, evangelical immigration supporters and refugee activists are campaigning to bring verses like those in Matthew 25 back into the debate. They are fighting an uphill battle.

Ulrike Elisabeth Stockhausen is a post-doctoral researcher in the Department of American History at the University of Münster, Germany. Her dissertation, “‘The Strangers in Our Midst:’ American Evangelicals and Immigration (1960-2014)” examined the practical and theological approaches with which American evangelicals have responded to refugees and immigrants since the 1960s.

For more on religion in American history, click here. For additional perspectives on immigration, click here. 

[1] World Relief, “World Relief USA. Ministries Division and The Evangelical Task Force On Legalization Chicago Local Site Meeting,” February 12, 1987, in Box 132, Folder 12, “Sanctuary 1987-1989,” NAE Records, Wheaton College Archive and Special Collections, Wheaton, IL. “Alien Relief,” Charisma 21, no. 9 (September 1987), 60. World Relief, “Preliminary Program Report,” May 4, 1988, in Box 171, Folder 21, “EHMA Minutes 1987,” NAE Records, Wheaton College Archives and Special Collections, Wheaton, Illinois; “Churches Band Together to Register Undocumented Aliens,” Christianity Today 31, no. 9 (July 10, 1987), 34.

[2] Phyllis Thompson, “The Undocumented: Mostly Questions,” MissionsUSA 57, no. 4 (July/August 1986): 54. Undocumented immigrants were an important mission field, the Southern Baptist Convention’s Language Missions Division director Oscar Romo also reminded Southern Baptists. The Great Commission included “all nations” (Matthew 28:19), and “God’s redeemed” came from “every tribe and language and people and nation,” according to the biblical book of Revelation. Revelation 5:9, quoted in Oscar Romo, “Sojourners of the 80s,” Communiqué 5, no. 1 (January, 1988), in Box 13, Folder 39, “Language Missions Division Communiqué Newsletter,” Home Mission Board Publications/Promotions Collection, Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives, Nashville, Tennessee.

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