Beliefs Culture Ethics Institutions Jonathan Merritt: On Faith and Culture Opinion

Four reasons Christians should support a pathway to citizenship

The sticking point for lawmakers on immigration continues to be the "pathway to citizenship." Here four reasons why Christians should support it. - image courtesy of Corazon Girl (
The sticking point for lawmakers on immigration continues to be the "pathway to citizenship." Here are four reasons why Christians should support it. - Image courtesy of Corazon Girl (

The sticking point for lawmakers on immigration continues to be the “pathway to citizenship.” Here are four reasons Christians should support it. – Image courtesy of Corazon Girl (

The summer that once sizzled with expectation over the possible passage of comprehensive immigration reform will now fizzle into a five-week Congressional recess. Insiders say the chances Congress will pass sweeping reform this year is just north of nil. Fifty-three percent of voters prefer Speaker Boehner’s piecemeal approach, which would attempt to chop it up into a series of smaller bills.

The sticking point for lawmakers continues to be the the conditions under which to offer a “pathway to citizenship” to any or all of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants currently residing in the United States. Republicans have balked despite political pressures.

In addition to the popular refrain that the GOP must pass this bill to remain competitive with Latino voters, Christian leaders via the Evangelical Immigration Table (EIT) have added pressure. The EIT has been effective in adding high-powered religious leaders to the pro-reform side of the debate. But, as I stated in an article last week, it has neither tipped the scales among lawmakers in Washington or among the evangelical core in heartland America and the Bible Belt.

Yesterday, many reported on a new CBS poll showing that 75% of evangelical Christians support a pathway to citizenship. Several conveniently left out that they supported it “with conditions.” Many evangelicals believe immigrants should pay steep fines before offering a pathway. Others think the border should be completely secure before a pathway is granted. Digging into the stats reveals an evangelical community that is still deeply divided on this issue.

My own faith and values have led me to support offering undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship. Here are four reasons I think conservative Christians should too:

1. Because it will promote prosperity. Immigrants are natural entrepreneurs, which often leads them to start businesses and create jobs. According to Partnership for a New American Economy, 42% of U.S.-based Fortune 500 companies (that employ more than 10 million people) were started by immigrants or their children. And the impact on American prosperity increases with the second generation. A Pew study shows that children born to immigrants outperform the population as a whole in education and are less likely than the general population to be in poverty.

“In all the ways our country measures how well you’re doing, the second generation is doing very well,” says Paul Taylor, the executive vice president of Pew Research Center.

2. Because it is fiscally responsible. Ever wonder how much it costs for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to arrest, detain, and deport an undocumented worker? The answer is approximately $12,500. Do the math and you’ll discover that deporting 11 million undocumented immigrants would cost taxpayers $137.5 billion. That’s a lot of marbles that Americans simply don’t have.

3. Because it is pro-family. Conservative Christians often talk about their desire to protect the nuclear family, a belief in conflict with many conservatives’ desire for mass deportation. During the Obama administration, 1.7 million undocumented immigrants have been deported and thus separated from their families. A pathway to citizenship will allow these families to remain unified.

4. Because the Bible commands us to “welcome the stranger.” Christians base their faith on the “word of God,” and yet many Christians don’t know how the Bible speaks to this issue. The Old Testament speaks about the “immigrant” or the “stranger” at least 90 times, but few Christians ground themselves in these passages. Instead, they often lead with their politics rather than their theology. But in Exodus, for example, God commands the Israelites not to oppress immigrants. And in Leviticus, God commands the Israelites to treat immigrants no differently than citizens. Though the Bible does not necessitate that Christians support a pathway to citizenship, I think the principles we find throughout the Scriptures lead us to reconcile immigrants with the law in this way.

We must strive to build our country on the rule of law and secure our borders. But we must also address to the millions of undocumented parents, children, brothers, and sisters currently residing in the United States. Future generations will judge us for how we respond to the “strangers” among us.

About the author

Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He has published more than 2500 articles in outlets like USA Today, The Week, Buzzfeed and National Journal. Jonathan is author of "Jesus is Better Than You Imagined" and "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars." He resides in Brooklyn, NY.


Click here to post a comment

  • No one knows what Jesus would say or do on this issue and the Bible can be used anyway anyone wants to use it- done all the time.

    Let’s make this clear, we had a 1986 Amnesty Bill that was supposed to be a one time deal that would secure the borders. It was LIE! I am tired of being lied to! There is no honor or ethics among our politicians and seemingly some of our so-called evangelical leaders.

    This country does not need more perpetual amnesty and de fact open borders.

    And if anyone really believes that having millions of illegal aliens from poverty ridden countries flood into this country is going to help our prosperity they area fool or living in their own little faux morally superior universe.

  • You know you’re discipled unto Jesus when your first response to the issue starts with wild biblical relativism (“No one knows what Jesus would say or do on this issue and the Bible can be used anyway anyone wants to use it”) and ends with you siding with what your political team wanted to do in the first place.

  • Jonathan,

    Your article is timely as it is clear that something must be done concerning immigration in the United States. The thing that is missing from your article is the fact that the very people you discuss are in this country illegally. As in being here at all is against the law. What of rendering unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s? The need for changes in the law are a legitimate point to debate but simply ignoring the fact that the 11 million or so people you mention are already violating the law is part of what rubs many people the wrong way. This pathway to citizenship, in some minds, rewards people who began their time in our country by breaking the law.

    I get why people want to seek a better life and come to the United States. I have stood in the colonias of Cuidad Juárez (once a landfill) looking across the border at Sunland Park in El Paso TX and from that vantage point is looks like a shining city on a hill. Given the poverty many live in south of our border, there is no doubt why so many risk so much to try and come here. Like most evangelicals, I get it.

    However, the report you cite for promoting prosperity is weak at best. Politifact soundly refutes the article you cite. Fiscal responsibility? Really? Suffice to say fiscal responsibility hasn’t lived in the good ole U S of A for a long, long time. Trying to use that as an argument not to spend money on something just doesn’t hold much water (just my opinion).

    As for being pro-family, this is complicated. A large number of the 11 million illegal immigrants in the country today were brought here as small children. Do they deserve to be treated the same as their parents who violated American laws? Many people say no. But what of their families? Allowing the now-grown children to remain with some pathway to citizenship yet requiring their parents to leave or be deported breaks up families too. The only pro-family solution is to allow all of them to remain yet what of our laws? This is why so many insist on such a high burden be met for citizenship. Failing to acknowledge this and responding to these legitimate concerns with ridicule isn’t moving the discussion along at all.

    As for biblical arguments, the same pericope in Exodus 22 states that we are to kill sorceresses, those guilty of bestiality, and those who sacrifice to gods other than the Christian God. I am simply cautioning against taking Scripture out of context. If you are going to consider Scripture (Exodus 22:21 & Leviticus 19:33-34 referenced), also consider Proverbs 8:15, 24:21; Daniel 2:21, 4:17; John 19:11; Acts 2:41; Romans 13:1-7; 1 Timothy 2:1-3; Titus 3:1; and 1 Peter 2:13. Scripture has a great deal to say about submitting to governmental authority which includes obeying the law.

    Keep the discussion going Jonathan! Good people from both perspectives are still thinking through this and a whole host of other social issues. We won’t solve anything in a blog posting but maybe someone will see a dialog is possible.

  • Scripture has far more to say about care for the poor and disenfranchised than it does about submitting to governmental authorities. I would say it is hard to read scripture and not get the point that we are commanded to be care for those that are disenfranchised. Does that mean that in this particular case that scripture requires a path to citizenship? No. But I believe that Jonathan is right that in this case a pathway to citizenship does follow the basic instructions of scripture.

    As to the law breaking part. No one really disputes that. But all of us break laws. And I do mean all of us. There is a difference is scale and scope of the types of laws we break. But the point of these laws is to help people no longer break laws. By keeping them out of the system we are no only requiring people to break laws we are depriving the country of tax payers (the 1980s commission on Social Security reform suggested that making people citizens was a significant way to keep Social Security funded.) And at the time allowed illegal citizens to pay taxes. And they did for years until there was a movement to use tax returns to find illegal citizens (similar issues with drivers’ licenses and car insurance and education funding).

    By the way, my great-grandmother paid a truck driver to say she was his wife and sneak her into the US through Canada in the 1930s. My great-grandfather had abandoned the family in Finland. She came to the US, later my grandmother and her sister came to the US. If the attitude toward immigration that is present now was around then, the US would be much worse off not only because of my grandmother, but because of the millions of US citizens that are descendants of previous generations of illegal immigrants.

  • I’ll add a fifth point, Jonathan, although it’s probably related to ones you’ve already made, and it’s one all people in this country should endorse whether they are Christians or not:

    A large part of our economy runs on immigrant labor. If you like the selection of fruit in the supermarket, thank an immigrant. Same goes for other aspects of our economy, from well-manicured lawns to clean hotel rooms.

    These are people who not only contribute to our economy, but to the ability of us citizens to enjoy our country in so many ways we take for granted. How can we not embrace them as fellow citizens through a lawful process for naturalization? They make our lives better!


  • Thank you for your article, Jonathan. I recently wrote about my own experience as a legal alien trying to find a path to citizenship, and have been overwhelmed by the heartbreaking stories people have written me in response. This issue calls for compassion and mercy as well as wisdom. Knee jerk legalism isn’t doing anyone any favors.

    I would like to add one more thought. In my appeal for “a path to citizenship”, a number of people have pointed out that the government should not just “hand out green cards” to anyone who wants them. Granting a “path to citizenship” is NOT the same thing as granting a green card. Granting a path to citizenship mean creating a category for people to legally apply for green cards. That application would require them to show their contribution to the community and document their character.

    The process of application is designed to filter out freeloaders and felons. At present, there is NO category for “regular hard working people” to legally apply for green cards. My understanding is that the immigration reform in question would create a category. It would then be decided, on a merit-based case-by-case basis, whether individual applications would be successful.