Last summer, I visited a gathering in my neighborhood for some outdoor fellowship on a neatly manicured lawn. There were picnic tables, singing, and steaks in steam trays to feed perhaps 40 people. The group had grown in size over decades, meeting regularly and serving one another, watching each other’s children, fixing roofs, shoveling driveways in winter—including mine.
It was not a church. This reunion of brothers, aunts, children, and grandparents was for an aging Mexican man’s birthday party. It offered the clearest picture I’ve seen of the outcome of so-called “chain migration.”
Political debates about America’s immigration system have increasingly focused on family reunification, the cornerstone of US immigration policy for the last 50 years. The opportunity for lawful residents and citizens to sponsor certain relatives and bring them to America accounts for a majority of immigrants admitted in recent years.
The doctrine was not particularly controversial for the first few decades of its existence. But in the 1990s, academics innocuously minted the term “chain migration” to refer to the idea that people, naturally, like to live near family. It was quickly applied to family-based immigration, however, and weaponized by some who feared an imminent tsunami of low-skilled, cultural “others” would follow their relatives to the United States and wreak havoc on our society and economy.
That our immigration system is bafflingly complex and ineffective is a point of agreement on all sides of the issue, and there is much room for debate about how America should balance its dual ideals of security and hospitality. But Christians should be wary of efforts to do so that undermine families.
Much of the recent opposition to “chain migration” is fueled by misinformation, like the false notion that an immigrant could sponsor cousins or uncles to come to the United States. Opponents also miss that family immigration is restrained naturally by economic forces, personal preference (not everyone related to an immigrant wants to come to America), and visa wait times that can approach 20 years. Studies suggest that, on average, immigrants only sponsor 1.77 family members.
In any conversation about immigration, evangelical Christians often express, rightfully, concerns about eroding the rule of law. But such concerns need not apply in family-based immigration conversations; only lawful immigrants can sponsor family members, and any evidence that a sponsored relative has been in the country illegally can severely hamper the effort.
Other objections are economic, that admitting immigrants based on relationships rather than job-market needs has opened the floodgates to foreigners taking American jobs and sating themselves on our safety net. But polls consistently show that economists of all political stripes largely believe immigration, even with its flaws and despite its costs, is a net gain for the US economy.
What we’re left with, then, are moral and cultural questions. What kind of country do we want to be? Evangelicals stubbornly believe that families are the bedrock of society, the God-given institution in which individuals are best positioned to thrive and experience God’s love. We have traditionally fought for an America where families are protected and strengthened—in marriages, in adoptions, in congregations. It should be no different in immigration.
The history of our faith traces through a constellation of families that were united across national boundaries: Rebekah emigrated to marry Isaac, Ruth emigrated to Bethlehem to follow and support her mother-in-law, and all of Israel’s history pivoted on Pharaoh’s consent to allow Joseph to bring his sprawling clan to Egypt.
Most Christians instinctively feel the wrongness of any immigration policy that forcibly separates children and parents. But immigration approaches that reduce God’s image-bearers to mere economic units should also concern us. Valuing individuals on their marketplace potential alone is a fundamentally unbiblical idea, and it discounts the vital non-employment contributions of volunteers, childcare providers, and homemakers—immigrant or otherwise.
As citizens of God’s kingdom, we of all people know that a country is not just an economy. Rather it is a community—one that, by God’s great design, thrives when strong families are serving one another in love. Let us never advocate for immigration policies that welcome others to that community on the condition that they abandon those whom God has placed closest to them.
Andy Olsen is managing editor at Christianity Today. Follow him on Twitter @AndyROlsen.