Acton Commentary

Illegal Immigration and the Church: Philanthropic Lawlessness


Christians are dividing over the issue of immigration – along lines not necessarily predictable by creed, denomination, or even political bent. The emotionally charged immigration issue is forcing Christians to consider not only the institutionalized response of churches, but also the individual requirements of faith.

Recently, large-scale deportation raids on companies known to hire illegal workers have prompted church leaders in about 50 cities to begin sheltering other immigrants who face deportation. Several churches have joined what is called the New Sanctuary Movement, a national organization pledging, among other things, to “protect immigrants against unjust deportation.” The protection often involves sheltering immigrants in church buildings, where government officials are reluctant to make arrests.

Many Christians – lay and clergy – assert that they have moral license to break the law in order to hide illegal immigrants, especially those whose deportation would separate them from children who are U.S. citizens. “We don't accept a broken law that causes separation of families,” says Richard Estrada, an associate pastor at Our Lady Queen of Angels Catholic Church in Los Angeles. Other churches, however, have expressed sympathy for those seeking shelter but have chosen not to provide sanctuary – some citing a lack of resources or fear of legal liability, others expressing concern that the rule of law be upheld.

It would be easy to believe that this divide is only a difference of emphasis, illustrating the classic tension between the demands of Christian charity and a proper respect for governmental authority. Obviously, Christians in the debate should care about both. But a closer examination shows that competing values are not at stake, with no painful choice to be made between them. Quite simply, the New Sanctuary Movement's lawbreaking solution is neither a prudent civic response nor a necessary act of compassion.

Instead, illegal immigration raises two separate matters of conscience, which pro-sanctuary Christians blur and equate. The first is the question of immediate need and the Christian duty to extend compassion. The second is the long-term issue of how best to preserve the common good.

To deal with the first: Scripturally speaking, it seems clear that giving immediate, material assistance to anyone in need is always right, whether to an enemy soldier bleeding alone in a ditch or to the child of an illegal immigrant family in one’s church with an urgent medical need. If an individual feels compelled to assist an illegal immigrant in some tangible way, his conscience should be free to do so. Political circumstances should not condition acts of mercy or evangelization for us any more than they did for Christ, who associated with Samaritans, tax collectors, and the so-called dregs of society. It is part of Christian duty to minister to others, no matter what they have done or how they arrived on one’s doorstep.

With that said, it seems inadvisable to the church, as a societal institution, to disobey the law to protect illegal immigrants from deportation. Christ expected his followers to treat criminals in prison the way they would treat him, but he said nothing about busting them out of prison. The church has a tremendous interest, morally and practically, in preserving the rule of law. From a moral perspective, Scripture teaches that we are to submit to the governing authorities appointed by God. Churches especially ought to honor conscientious immigrants who follow the laws of the land and not undermine their difficult and virtuous choices by systematically condoning illegal behavior. And practically, American churches ought to venerate and cherish the law because it is the guarantor of their religious freedom.

There is a time and place for Christians to resist manmade laws in extreme circumstances – when laws contradict the express commands of Scripture or, in the words of Thomas Aquinas, when they violate the “law of charity.” An example that comes readily to mind is the Holocaust, when Christians were justified in breaking the law to hide Jews from the Gestapo. A more clear-cut case of man’s law versus God’s law is difficult to imagine.

But the Holocaust example differs in several ways from the New Sanctuary Movement's stance. First of all, Jews faced life-and-death stakes, while the right to migrate is much lower on the scale than the right to life. Second, European Christians during World War II in many places lived under a murderous dictatorship; we can amend our laws by democratic means if we think they undercut human flourishing (which is happening in Congress right now). Third, it was far outside the bounds of natural law – or broadly-accepted rational morality – for the Nazi regime to commit genocide. Conversely, it is well within states’ rights to maintain their borders, and strong national sovereignty itself is arguably a bulwark of human flourishing.

While there is room to debate how well the U.S. has protected its borders, we should acknowledge both its right to do so and the complexity of our national security situation. We need to have patience with the present laws even as we seek to improve them through due process. It is also important to remember that law is not meant to abolish suffering, but only to prevent injustice.

C.S. Lewis wrote in The Abolition of Man that “a hard heart is no infallible protection against a soft head,” but a soft heart does not guarantee right thinking, either. Disregarding the rule of law to “help” illegal immigrants is a paradoxical way of hurting them. The rule of law is the sustainer of the free and prosperous society that draws immigrants to the States. It is something immigrants’ own countries often cannot guarantee them, and it is what makes ours look so appealing. And if we shirk the rule of law – if laws of entry can be applied to some immigrants but not to others – we are cheating all immigrants out of the kind of society they are seeking in the first place.