My colleague Bert Wheeler wrote a recent piece on Bereans addressing more than one issue related to President Trump. The one that caught my attention was immigration policy. Bert expressed his concern (rightly) about Trump’s policies on that front. I assume from his use of the word “concerns” meant that he might or did have disagreements with Trump’s immigration policies. And he followed that with this sentence: “But the root of the concerns are based in the shift away from a properly understood liberal individualism that respects individual people as being created in the image of God.” That is where we will start.
I agree with Dr. Wheeler’s essential sentiment in that sentence. But I may disagree with his definition and application of some terms. Yes, we do want to “respect individual people as being created in the image of God.” The implied but not stated question is then: Do we disrespect individuals when we restrict immigration? Apparently Dr. Wheeler is answering that with a “yes,” though I do not know how far he would go with an open borders policy. Perhaps he could clarify that.
But let’s go a little deeper. Do we disrespect people by preventing their immigration into this country? Are we being unjust to them? If we take Adam Smith as an example, in his Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), he distinguished between a moral wrong and an injustice. The former can be very bad and worthy of censure by others, but it is not solved by coercing different action, since the perpetrator is merely NOT giving you what you didn’t have and wanted, but did you no “positive harm.” On the other hand “positive harm” is unjust and deserves to be righted by coercion—the state. Let’s take immigration now. In certain cases, it might be morally wrong to deny entry (a la Dr. Wheeler’s statement above) but this does not mean the Federal government must allow them in since it is not unjust not to allow them in. We have done potential immigrants no positive harm, but have only NOT given them something they wanted.
Now let’s address the moral claims that would dictate an open borders policy, but not require it. Remember, these are only possible moral claims and do not require “justice to be done” by the state. The main moral claim from Bert is his statement linking the freedom of individuals to the image of God in Genesis 1: 26-31. It is correct I think to argue that one element of the imago Dei is basic freedom to be creative, innovative, generous, compassionate, etc. That is “freedom for” a purpose. But immigration, while not a bad in itself, is only “freedom to” do something specific, in this case, to go to another nation. That’s fine too. But then are there limits to that freedom? Yes, of course. If we analogize it to “rights talk” we see that rights are not absolute, but end where harm to others begins. Immigration is good, but is there possible harm in some cases? Yes, and Bert would agree here.
He wouldn’t allow criminals and terrorists in. That means pretty severe screening and some strict rules. But they are necessary to prevent harm to others. I suppose those are relatively easy cases. Now what about restrictions for “civilizational” preservation? I am not sure Dr. Wheeler would be quite as agreeable here. I have done this before and do it again. I make a distinction between culture and civilization. Culture is about customs, language, national dress, foods, drink, styles of architecture, music, etc. Let’s have as much diversity here as anyone wishes. Civilization however is more basic: law and legal systems, economic systems, political structures, etc. If those are undermined by immigration, we have a very basic problem—the potential disappearance of the United States as a constitutional republic of limited government, a rule of law, and essentially free markets, not to mention some of the core values we have embodied in our Constitution (free speech, freedom of religion, etc.). Do we want Sharia Law? Do we want social democracy like Europe? Do we want restrictions on free speech, as some nations habitually enforce? I think not.
The bottom line is that I would restrict immigration based on those concerns above, including the civilizational issue. I am not worried about jobs—this argument is not economic, as I believe immigrants would only improve our economy, as they always have. But that assumes we still have a free economy. So how do you assure that will continue? Immigration policy is of course not the only way and I am not proposing any specific policy here. I am merely raising an important issue that has to be addressed, even for Christians who do want freedom, but who also have a legitimate stake in issues that affect us all.
Let’s take Genesis 1 seriously, as Dr. Wheeler has. But let’s also be careful to consider all implications.