by Kevin DeYoung

I don’t know how to fix the United States’ broken immigration system, and I don’t know how many Syrian or Turkish refugees should be admitted into this country. This is not to suggest that Christians shouldn’t care deeply about both of these issues. It is to admit, however, that the issues are of such a complexity that they cannot be solved by good intentions and broad appeals to Christian compassion.

Since the horrible events in France have focused the world’s attention on immediate immigration policy, let’s set aside the question of what to do with those who have entered this country illegally and think about how to handle the growing number of refugees and asylum seekers who are waiting permission to enter prosperous, Western nations like the United States.


When Christians write about welcoming more refugees, there is usually some aside about the importance of taking every necessary security measure. True enough, but isn’t part of the problem that the bad guys and good guys aren’t always easy to distinguish? There is no way to do background checks on every Syrian refugee. I don’t doubt that the vast majority of displaced persons are simply looking for peace and a new chance at life. But does anyone doubt there may also be a small number of extremists waiting in the same line? Is it unChristian to not want radical jihadists shooting people in our communities? That’s hardly a far-fetched scenario. So how do we balance competing goods—the good of welcoming in suffering people and the good of keeping out those who want to inflict suffering on others? And how do we pursue these ends when it may be impossible to know if we are helping the right people? The answer is not as easy as fear versus compassion. Christian charity means loving the safety of the neighbor next door at least as much as loving the safe passage of the neighbor far away. It’s not unreasonable or unfeeling to think that in some cases supplying refugee camps with humanitarian aid or protecting safe havens elsewhere could be a responsible approach that avoids the risks of immediate resettlement in the United States.

In a timely essay entitled “Two Theories of Immigration” (First Things, December 2015), Mark Amstutz, a political science professor at Wheaton College, argues that a communitarian approach must take priority over a cosmopolitan approach. According to Amstutz, the communitarian embraces the moral duty to care for refugees, but also accepts “a concurrent obligation to maintain our own societies as stable and well-governed.” The cosmopolitan approaches international affairs from a different perspective, viewing the world as a “coherent global society united by the simple fact of our common humanity, and often regard[ing] the nation-state as an impediment to international justice.” While the universal ambitions of the cosmopolitan approach resonate with Christians, Amstutz maintains that good immigration policy needs to be balanced with communitarian insights about the positive goods that come from a strong sense of national unity, the realism which underscores the need for competing (and cooperating) powers, and the important role nation-states play in advancing human rights. In other words, while the cosmopolitan approach is admirable in its emphasis on inclusion and welcoming the stranger, it often fails to consider the social, economic, and security challenges which tear at the cultural cohesion necessary for human flourishing.

The issue of immigration—both for those inside the country already and for those wanting to get in—is bound to be a pressing political, international, and humanitarian concern for many years. We need Christian writers, thinkers, pastors, scholars, and activists to be a part of the conversation. My plea is that the conversation reflect the complexity of the situation and goes beyond the familiar dichotomies of love versus hate, inclusion versus exclusion, and fear versus compassion. There are too many important things, and too many human lives, at stake to move quite so quickly from solid Christian principles to simple policy prescriptions.


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