Guest Post on Immigration: A Christian Case for Restrictionism

Editor’s note: Noah Winograd has been a good friend of mine for several years. I first met him about six years ago in Augusta, Georgia, where we both came to a saving faith in Christ through the preaching ministry of Dr. George Robertson at First Presbyterian Church. We share an interest in the intersection of Christianity and politics, although we often arrive at very different conclusions. I have recently been researching the topic of the immigration problem in America, on which I have blogged here and here. Although my own position is more progressive than Noah’s, I am nevertheless very impressed by his thoughtfulness and clarity on this issue, and so I asked him to give a summary of his position, which he has kindly provided here:


Thanks to Kyle for his magnanimity in soliciting a differing point of view on an important and contentious matter for his blog. With Kyle, one always knows that whatever the question before him, he will approach it with due diligence, charity towards all sides, and confidence to defend his beliefs linked with humility to admit error or a changed mind.

Immigration has been a central concern of Americans since colonial times, with the current debate over immigration policy exhibiting a salience not seen in years if not decades. As with many such debates, Christians have divided over the interpretation of Scriptures which might speak to this matter, and the public policy conclusions, if any, to be drawn from these interpretations. Many evangelical Protestant spokesmen and organizations in particular, purporting to speak on behalf of the laity in the pews, have argued a Scripturally-grounded case for legal status for illegal immigrants[i] in the US, often along with advocacy for maintaining America’s current, historically high levels of legal immigration. As a Christian and concerned citizen, I find this case to be deeply flawed in a multitude of respects.

In discussing this debate, I shall define the broadly opposing factions as I see them[ii]. One side, whom I will call here the liberal immigrationists, is just described above. Opposing are the restrictionists, who at a minimum reject legal status for illegal aliens and often (as I do) favor reductions in legal immigration.

Before diving in to my own views, I want to first commend to all readers this fine essay from the Center for Immigration Studies, a leading restrictionist research organization. The author, writing from a Christian perspective and making copious Scripture reference, touches on many points central to this debate better than I would[iii]. I cannot urge more strongly readers interested in encountering lucid, Biblically literate defenses of all positions in this debate to read this document[iv]. To avoid repetition, I will approach immigration from angles left out of the CIS essay.

Evangelical liberal immigrationists employ the Scriptures in support of their views in a manner that I submit is often overly simplistic and inconsiderate of alternative interpretations. Most often cited are the several Torah commands to “love the stranger” and similar verses concerning treatment of foreigners. Something the liberal immigrationists do not take fully into account is the justification usually offered by God following these commands: “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” While the Hebrews’ Egyptian experience is one of the most familiar narratives in all Scripture, such familiarity may make any of us blind to fresh perspectives and forgetful of key details.

Consider Joseph, an immigrant to Egypt and an imprisoned criminal (unjustly, though few Egyptians knew that). By currying favor with Pharaoh, Joseph was awarded the second-highest position in government, with dictatorial authority over the native Egyptians (Genesis 41:40-44). During the years of famine, Joseph charged the Egyptians for food (41:56) taxed from their own fields during the years of plenty, while giving it for free to his sojourning relatives (42:25, 43:31-34, 47:12); his extended kin were then, at Pharaoh’s whim, granted long-term residence and choice Egyptian real estate (45:18-20). As the famine grew in severity, Joseph’s rule over the Egyptian masses became exploitative and tyrannical, driving them to destitution, monopolizing their property under the state, rendering them debt slaves in perpetuity to the monarchy, and eliciting from them humiliating supplication (47:13-26). Meanwhile the swelling Hebrew population prospered in the famine’s aftermath (47:27, Exodus 1:7). A later pharaoh, fearing the political repercussions (including, if I may speculate, rebellion from his resentful subjects) of such a large, unassimilated, and presumably unassimilable (due to religion and other factors) foreign element, brought the Hebrews under bondage (Exodus 1:8-14). This history of explosive ethnic conflict would have been seared into the collective memories of Hebrews and Egyptians for generations to come[v].

The saga of the Hebrews in Egypt illustrates vividly that mishandled immigration, like a love of money, is a root of all kinds of evil. In another, striking passage, Deuteronomy 28:43-44, God includes among a litany of potential curses to the Israelites for disobedience (again making references to the Egyptian era) this explicit warning — which would have made perfect sense to an Egyptian! — about resident foreigners:

The sojourner who is among you shall rise higher and higher above you, and you shall come down lower and lower. He shall lend to you, and you shall not lend to him. He shall be the head, and you shall be the tail.

The Old and New Testament passages referenced (inappropriately, in my view) by liberal immigrationists as proof-texts for their politics are legion.[vi] A story from the Gospels I would offer in counter is the healing of the demon-possessed man calling himself “Legion” (Luke 8:26-39). Legion, a mentally ill, violent vagabond, hailed from a region east of Galilee and was probably a Greek-speaking gentile, and certainly an outsider to Galilean Jews. Christ, upon a visit to Legion’s territory, took the time to heal the fellow of his afflictions where he was, and insisted, against Legion’s pleading, that Legion remain in his own land to proclaim God’s grace among his own people (vv. 38-39). Quite a contrast to the modern politics of immigration! Note what Christ did not do: sponsor Legion’s immigration to Galilee or Judea; release Legion, without treatment for his afflictions, into an unsuspecting (and likely non-affluent, politically weak) neighborhood where Legion would have inevitably run amok; curse Legion’s new neighbors for their alleged racism when they dared to complain about Legion’s presence; and move on to his next project, congratulating himself on his good works and noble intentions.

The fundamental weakness in the liberal immigrationist use of Scripture is its reliance on a strained analogy. Scripture passages speaking of God’s mercy and salvation offered to all people irrespective of ethnicity, nationality, or violation of earthly laws are warped into the foundation for a specific political agenda which the US government is ostensibly morally obliged to enact. Unwittingly perhaps, in this scheme the US government takes the role of God, legal residence and US citizenship fill in for salvation, and immigrants legal and illegal – who may or may not accept Christ as Lord, and whose earthly interests are not necessarily worthier of governmental favor than American citizens’ – fill in for God’s elect. Once this implicit analogy is exposed, the liberal immigrationist case diminishes into merely an expression of personal political preference rather than an articulation of divine command.

Beyond disagreements over Scripture, there are more worldly considerations buttressing the restrictionist argument.  These are so numerous and complex that space allows only surface descriptions rather than analysis in depth:

the size, duration, and sources of America’s historically unprecedented half-century immigration tsunami;

the brain drain on underdeveloped countries, and the soul drain on countries where evangelical witness is scanty;

the depression on American wages, especially in lower-skill occupations but also in some high-skill, such as in the IT industry;

an increase in housing costs in many metropolitan areas, thus discouraging marriage and family formation among young Americans;

the stress on public goods and services, from roads to schools to hospitals to courts to prisons to social service agencies;

the damage to the environment (mass immigration increases demand for resources and stress on ecosystems);

the decline, what with modern travel and communications, coupled with a destructive multiculturalist ideology, of the old ethic of assimilation;

changes in the American economy obviating much of the previous need for unskilled manual labor;

racial and ethnic division, which uncontrolled immigration exacerbates;

crime – not merely the illegals’ criminal residence in the US but the commission, by legal and illegal immigrants, of identity theft, drug and human trafficking, all manner of violent and property crime, and terrorism;

the undermining of moral traditionalism[vii];

the distortion of our political system by ethnic activists seeking to manipulate US foreign policy or gain special privileges (affirmative action) for their constituents;

the re-introduction of long-dormant epidemic diseases within America’s borders;

and on ad infinitum.

The summary of the above list is that America’s de facto current policy of barely-restrained immigration has caused enormous pain for innumerable Americans, Americans who are often inarticulate, not wealthy, and not politically savvy. This pain should be given its due consideration whenever liberal immigrationists use terms such as “compassion” and “justice”. Liberal immigrationists should also ponder how the occupations which they frequently hold – attorney, journalist, academic, social worker, business executive, and, yes, clergyman – profit from mass immigration, while enjoying insulation from competition with immigrants to a greater degree than most others – and thus how this self-interest might cloud their moral and political judgments. Christians, particularly those in positions of prominence and influence, must avoid the road to perdition of the pharaoh who appointed Joseph prime minister: he who mixed and conflated noble intentions (compassion for the starving Hebrews) with perhaps unspoken ulterior objectives (employing the Hebrews in the subjugation of his own people) and a confused implementation (unsure if the Hebrews were temporary guests or permanent citizens, and heedless of Egyptian reaction to the Hebrews).

There is another political consideration with which the liberal immigrationists ought to wrestle. A debate over legalizing illegals – restrictionists call this amnesty – is not new in American history. In 1986, Congress enacted, at President Reagan’s urging, the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which granted amnesty[viii] to 3 million illegals (after advocates promised a figure in the low hundreds of thousands) coupled with stiff (on paper) penalties for employers who hired new illegals and increased (on paper) border security. The amnesty was immediate and encouraged a surge of illegal immigration that did not significantly abate until at least the early 2000’s and perhaps not until the economic crash of 2008. The promised enforcement provisions were stymied or repealed by an unholy alliance of business groups wanting cheap labor, leftist ethnic activists, sympathetic judges, and venal politicians. In my observation, liberal immigrationists are often ignorant of the 1986 law, or dismiss its implications for their political stance. If liberal immigrationists want their political argument to be taken seriously by skeptical Christian citizens, the former owe the latter a reckoning with the lessons of 1986, with an explanation of why today’s paper promises of “earned legalization” and increased border security (but without a physical barrier!) will be kept when yesteryear’s were not – with the same political forces waiting in the wings eager to repeat the 1986 experience.

Finally, a word about the politicization of the gospel. Evangelical liberal immigrationists believe that their agenda will redound to the church universal’s long-term benefit, and that history will extol them as it does the past political-religious movements of abolitionism and civil rights. I submit that they should bear in mind that the line between virtue and vice can blur quite easily: fervor becomes zealotry; righteousness becomes sanctimony; certitude becomes arrogance; grasping for Caesar’s sword becomes serving as his lackey – or seeing that sword turned against the church. Attaching the gospel to political agendas, even ones as seemingly above reproach and necessary as abolitionism and civil rights, never comes without moral compromise, and often ends in catastrophe (civil war for abolitionism[ix]; urban riots, and dubious policies such as forced bussing and affirmative action, for civil rights). Employing Christ’s cross in the service of liberal immigrationism, apart from the merits of that agenda, will needlessly divide and discredit the church, and place a stumbling block in the way of some souls in accepting the gospel.

Noah Winograd is a lay member of a PCA congregation in Augusta, Georgia, where he lives with his wife and child. He works in defense contracting, and before that served in the military. He discovered the PCA, and thereby rediscovered Christ, through a kind invitation from Kyle Dillon.


[i] In this essay I will use the descriptive terms “illegal immigrants” and “illegal aliens” to refer to persons present in a foreign land in violation of its laws. I do not use the term “undocumented”, popular among legalization advocates. “Undocumented” is inaccurate: illegal aliens usually have documents, whether forgeries of the receiving country’s identifications or valid ones issued by the aliens’ home governments, sometimes with the very purpose of facilitating the illegal residence abroad. (Mexico’s matricula consular, an ID issued to Mexican citizens residing illegally in the US, is a prime example.) Also, “undocumented” is a euphemism with the effect, if not always the intent, of minimizing the harm of illegal immigration.

[ii] Of course the parties to this debate, as in almost all others, are more nuanced than I am about to present. For brevity’s and simplicity’s sake, I write only of two great camps.

[iii] From a Christian understanding of government, to the political disconnect between religious leaders and their flocks, to the important differences among Scriptural stories of immigration, to God’s redemptive purpose for national citizenship, to the ancient Israelite promotion of assimilation, to the Scriptural view of even sympathetic lawbreakers, and more.

[iv] Kyle critiques the CIS essay here.

[v] To be clear, nothing in the Scriptural account suggests that God instructed Joseph to govern the Egyptians so unjustly. Neither is this description of Joseph’s rule meant to excuse the wickedness of the Egyptians’ long enslavement of the Hebrews in revenge.

[vi] Hagar, Ruth, the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt, and the Good Samaritan are among these.

[vii] Contrary to stereotype, many immigrants, and more especially their US-born children and grandchildren, are not Christian and/or not religious at all and/or not terribly conservative in their moral views, to say nothing of their politics. For instance, polling data from the Pew organization show that: Buddhists and Hindus in the US – groups heavily composed of immigrants or their children — are overwhelmingly supportive of legal abortion, and that even Muslims, also a heavily immigrant or first-generation US-born group, are evenly divided on that question. More disturbingly, data from Planned Parenthood’s research group, the Alan Guttmacher Institute, on women who have actually obtained abortions show that the rate of abortion among Hispanic women of child-bearing age – again, a group that is disproportionately immigrant or first-generation US-born — has been well more than double the rate for white women in the same age bracket for at least two decades, approaching three times the white rate in recent years.

[viii] Back then, advocates, including Reagan, as well as opponents called it an amnesty. The fact that legalization advocates have run away from the word “amnesty” shows that they implicitly acknowledge the failure and unpopularity of the 1986 law.

[ix] It should also be noted that the pro-slavery faction in antebellum America had its fair share of political-religious fanaticism as well.

About Kyle Dillon

A teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), assistant pastor of theological instruction at Riveroaks Reformed Presbyterian Church, and theology/languages teacher at Westminster Academy in Memphis, Tennessee.

2 Responses to “Guest Post on Immigration: A Christian Case for Restrictionism”

  1. Noah, thank you for writing this. With the start of my new job as a high school theology teacher, I’ve been delayed in responding. I’d like to offer my thoughts specifically on the exegetical arguments that you put forward.

    First, in the example of Joseph, you import value judgments that are not derived from the text itself. Nowhere does Genesis say that Joseph exercised his executive powers in a “dictatorial” or “tyrannical” manner. Rather, it says that “the Lord was with him” (Gen. 39:2, 21), that God’s “steadfast love” and “favor” was with him, and that through Joseph God accomplished the saving of many lives (Gen. 50:20). Genesis consistently portrays Joseph in a positive light, and nowhere evinces criticism of his actions as Pharaoh’s second-in-command. And in the particular incident of Gen. 47, it should be noted that the people of Egypt actually consented to the arrangement, and thanked Joseph for saving their lives (Gen. 47:25). This arrangement did indeed lead to resentment in later generations, but that does nothing to undermine the God-given wisdom of Joseph’s actions at the time.

    Second, in your New Testament example of the demoniac Legion, we need to keep in mind the main point of the text—Jesus’ authority over spiritual powers and his care for the socially marginalized. Immigration is simply not an issue here, and so it would be unwarranted to draw conclusions from what the text doesn’t say.

    Lastly, in your observation about liberal (I’d prefer the term “progressive”; liberalism carries too much baggage) immigrationists trying to put the US government in the place of God, it should be noted that ancient Israel in the OT—as well as NT believers today—are indeed called to imitate God’s justice and compassion. This isn’t taking the place of God; it’s reflecting his character. And no one is saying that hospitality to strangers is a substitute for personal salvation; rather, we are saying that because we are saved, we should show God’s justice and compassion to our neighbors, including foreign nationals.

    Your list of the potential consequences of expanded immigration is quite exhaustive, and I do see some merit in some of them. At the same time, we need to remember that many of these same consequences would have existed among immigrants in ancient Israel, and yet God still commanded Israel to show generosity toward them nonetheless. A consequentialist ethic carries little weight if it is divorced from a normative biblical ethic.

    • Kyle,

      Thanks for the reply. A few rejoinders:

      Re: Joseph, yes, I was doing a bit of pot-stirring with my non-standard interpretation of his story. I was trying to look at Joseph from an Egyptian perspective, one that is never (to my knowledge) considered in discussions of these Scripture passages, or at least never in a way sympathetic to the Egyptians. As I wrote, Christians can become so complacent in their understanding of familiar Scripture passages (especially ones turned into popular films and television programs), that we can fail to grapple with what the details of the text (which we may neglect to reread because we think we “know” it already).

      As for the Egyptians’ expression of gratitude for Joseph’s actions, this is what I meant by writing “humiliating supplication”. People in unfree societies often must feign gratitude for their rulers, because to refuse would mean punishment or death. The Egyptians faced a choice: flatter Joseph, or starve. I do not see Genesis 47:25 as *necessarily* a sincere expression of appreciation on the part of desperate people (although I admit that is speculation on my part).

      Re: “liberal”. I really did not intend that to be a pejorative. Indeed, I think that word is used excessively in a perjorative manner (though I am not a liberal). I used it because you yourself have written that you favor “liberality” in immigration. I also am wary of “progressive” because I don’t see the “progressive” position on this issue as promoting much progress — a great deal of regression, in fact, as I listed in my post.

      Thank you again for your “liberality” 😉 in welcoming differing opinions.

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