IMMIGRATION REDUX: A REPLY TO PETER J. LEITHART
“The fact that immigrants aren’t white or American doesn’t matter; questions about American citizenship are secondary. Christian immigrants—and there are many—are brothers and sisters; non-Christians are a mission field, conveniently dropped on our doorstep. What’s not to like? If America is ethnically diverse, so much the better, because so much the more does it resemble that final kingdom assembled from all tribes, tongues, nations, and peoples.”~~Peter Leithart
Dr. Peter Leithart recently posted an essay on immigration at his often entertaining and frequently updated First Things blog. In the following, I will briefly respond to various shortcomings in his argument favoring open borders. In the past, I penned a number of essays covering similar ground while responding to Dr. Russell Moore. But as Solomon said there is nothing new under the sun and the immigration issue continues to be raised among not merely prominent Christian intellectuals and ethicists, but in local churches and Christian media. Thus it is time for another treatment with substantial revisions to data and an expansion of other arguments. Be advised that this is not a full treatment of the immigration question. I largely ignore discussion of downstream political consequences, immigrant crime, and other cultural manifestations of large scale immigration.
It is difficult to criticize godly, faithful, and thoughtful men like Dr. Leithart, Dr. Russell Moore, or Dr. Albert Mohler . I seek to reply without animus or rancor, sticking directly to the issues at hand. Having said that, I remain convinced that they are mistaken in their interpretation and application of scripture as it pertains to immigration. Moreover, they broadly misread the times in which we live and that misunderstanding skews the manner in which they confront socio-political issues.
A number of years ago as I was preparing to preach a sermon, my first and hopefully last, my then pastor, for whom I was pinch hitting, explained the importance of “exegeting an audience” when attempting to apply scripture. The point was simple: know your audience and let that play a part in the application of the biblical text. In a similar vein, I have found that many theologians speaking to issues in the public square engage culture in a way that is unhelpful because they fundamentally misunderstand the nature of the attack on the faith and the methods of the assailants.
To this point, the assault on the church has not necessarily been frontal. That will likely change as the enemies of our Lord become more brazen and direct. The attacks of the last century were subtle and deceptive. Spawned by Gramsci as he rotted in an Italian Fascist prison, cultivated by the Frankfurt School, and applied by the likes of Saul Alinsky and other purveyors of propaganda, Cultural Marxism attempts to subvert the faith of our fathers covertly. Traditional Marxists believed that the oppressed worker class (the Proletariat) would ultimately become alienated from the Capitalist class and overthrow it through the process of revolution. But in World War I, working class Doughboys, Tommys and Frenchmen waged war against working class Krauts in trenches lining the Western Front.
With the evident failure of traditional Marxist theory, Marxism was reinterpreted through a cultural lens, positing that violent revolution should be eschewed in favor of a “march through the institutions.” By capturing the organs of cultural dissemination—media, government, colleges, arts, educational and academic institutions, etc.—Cultural Marxists could effectively rearrange the cultural landscape and shape the preferences of the populace via systematic propaganda. They could also get to the heart of a people by being the authors of its stories.
Fundamentally, Cultural Marxism is an attack on the Christian church and Christian peoples, but the battle is covert rather than direct. By subverting other forms of attachment and various institutions that make legitimate claims on our devotion and wield countervailing cultural power, Cultural Marxists attack Christianity sideways. Attachments—familial, ethnic, racial, national, denominational, etc.–have been systematically undermined in our age. These radicals have been given aid and comfort by the church, particularly liberal denominations in the 20th Century, but increasingly in recent decades by “conservatives” as well. Part of this subterfuge involves the destruction of Euro-Christian culture via the propagation of multiculturalism and public secularism, which rapidly descends into polytheism. An important prong of multiculturalism is the ethnic, racial, and religious transformation of historically European and Christian peoples via mass immigration and coercive secularism, often aided and abetted by Christian pluralists, particularly those in Baptist and broadly evangelical circles along with traditional liberal denominations. It is with the tapestry of multiculturalism in the background that Christians must thoughtfully apply immigration policy.
THE NATURE OF SPECIFIC DUTIES
Dr. Leithart largely ignores the economic consequences of his proposal for open borders. Economics is often considered a technical discipline or even a “science” but properly falls within the sphere of moral philosophy and is thus an adjunct of the queen of sciences, theology. It must therefore start with a right view of anthropology.
Leithart begins by quoting Kevin Johnson, an immigration advisor to Barack Obama, to the effect that the nation will benefit from freer and more mobile labor. Ironically, Leithart has gotten a good deal of mileage from critiquing the ideology of individualism. But throughout his esssay he unwittingly accepts the premises of classical liberalism and assumes an individualism that makes no distinctions in terms of human duties. Though Christianity has universal, catholic tendencies, natural attachments and duties are not to be eschewed. Even Jesus does not preach the abolition of ethnic, religious, and social distinctions. When asked by a Phoenician woman to heal her child, He responds, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel…It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs” (Matt. 15:24-26). Though he relents, an obvious anticipation of His ministry to the Gentiles, He displays His feelings as a Jew. Jesus has no intention of overturning the Law (Matt. 5:17-19), which is a transcript of God’s holiness and a pattern for ethical conduct. It is the law-word of God that also governs our social and interpersonal interactions.
Men have concentric circles of responsibility. For example, I have obligations to my widowed mother that others (including the church) do not (I Timothy 5:8). Similarly, I have duties to my wife and children that do not extend to my neighbor’s wife or, for that matter, my Christian brother. I am liable to care for my neighbor in ways that exceed my responsibilities to complete strangers. Likewise, I have obligations to my countrymen that are greater than my duties to the other six billion people inhabiting Earth. This should be clear unless we define “neighbor” in a universal way that drains the term of any practical meaning.
Leithart says that race, ethnicity, religious affiliation and citizenship status are tertiary concerns. But according to scripture, while we render honor and justice to all men, we have a particular responsibility to care for our own, whether in the natural family or the family of God (Gal. 6:10). Our duties begin with our family but emanate outward in concentric circles regulated by scripture. Many Christian commentators connect the New Testament commands to honor civil authorities (Rom. 13:1; I Peter 2:17) as extensions of the 5th Commandment. But racial, ethnic, and national groups are likewise mere extensions of family and thus the honor due to our parents flows outward to these broader extensions of family and they are to be given preference over and against foreigners. When natural relationships are subverted by forms of universal ethics the end result is not merely ethical confusion but welfare economics and socialism.
FISCAL COSTS OF IMMIGRATION
Leithart fails to account for, though he must understand, the distortive impact of the welfare state. Immigration policy as currently constituted is immoral as it privatizes benefits for the wealthy and socializes cost. As such, I hope to show that it is a massive form of theft.
Consider first some of the costs of immigration. There are numerous economic costs connected to immigration, both legal and illegal, that Dr. Leithart simply ignores in his essay.
According to Census Bureau figures poverty rates continue to increase and the number of Americans without health insurance has reached all-time highs. Mass immigration is a significant source of these problems and data shows a growing chasm between natives and the foreign-born. For example, consider median household income between 2011 and 2012, ostensibly a period of economic recovery. While the income of Whites increased modestly, that of Hispanic households decreased 1.1% while non-citizen household income fell by 2.5%. Meanwhile, the poverty rate for U.S.-born Whites was 9.7%, but 25.6% among Hispanics (which is higher that the poverty rate of non-citizens, indicative of the fact that Hispanic immigrants are not climbing out of poverty). .
Because immigrants typically have limited job skills and are very poor they frequently become a burden on the American welfare state. PerRobert Rector of the Heritage Foundation, in 2010, the average unlawful immigrant household received around $24,721 in government benefits and services while paying some $10,334 in taxes, generating an average annual fiscal deficit (benefits received minus taxes paid) of around $14,387 per household. Moreover, Steve Camarota finds that welfare use among immigrants remains high over time; immigrants in the country for more than 20 years still use the welfare system at significantly higher rates than natives.
Data pertaining to health insurance is likewise shocking. In 2012, 13.0% of natives lacked insurance coverage, while 32.0% of all (legal and illegal) immigrants, and 43.4% of non-citizens do not have health coverage. Immigrants account for 27.1% all Americans without health insurance.
In 2012 there were approximately 12.9 million immigrants and their U.S.-born children lacking health insurance, 32% of the entire uninsured populace. In 2007, 47.6 percent of immigrants and their U.S.-born children were either uninsured or on Medicaid compared to 25 percent of natives and their children. Lack of health insurance is a significant problem even for long-time foreign born residents. Among immigrants who arrived in the 1980s, 28.7 percent lacked health insurance in 2007. In short, much of the “health insurance crisis” in America is the result of surging immigration. What was the consequence? More statism, in the form of Obamacare.
Finally there is education. According to a report by FAIR, expenditures for illegal immigrants from grades K-12 costs $52 billion annually, largely absorbed by states and localities, often in very disparate ways. School districts are dropping programs and closing schools at least in part because they are paying instead to provide services to the children of non-citizens.
The global median income is $1,225 a year. The “middle classes” of the world are living in destitution compared to the living standards of the West. Dr. Leithart’s proposal for open borders when combined with the magnet of the welfare state would result in a fiscal catastrophe for a nation already $19 trillion dollars in debt. It would also create a coercive and massive transfer of wealth from productive tax payers to the world’s poor. In short, Leithart is endorsing theft on a grand scale in the name of humanitarianism and Christian charity.
IMMIGRATION AND ECONOMIC REDISTRIBUTION
A secondary issue of economic ethics completely ignored by Leithart and most Christian proponents of unchecked immigration is the redistributive impact of mass immigration. Like much public policy the benefits of immigration are largely privatized while costs are socialized. Benefits accrue to the upper-class while costs are borne largely by those on the lower rung of the economic ladder. Indeed, immigration is responsible for half the decrease observed in the wages of high-school dropouts.
Mention this fact to Paul Gigot or Daniel Henninger at the Wall Street Journal and you are likely to receive little more than a shoulder shrug. Some immithusiasts appear to detest their own countrymen and impute to foreigners character traits that natives so obviously lack. But Christians ought to be more discerning and wise in counting the costs and cannot be oblivious to injustices resulting from such a policy.
The insanity of America’s immigration “debate” has been chronicled for a number of years by George Borjas, a Harvard labor economist. Borjas is widely recognized as academia’s leading scholar on the economics of immigration. Moreover, he is an immigrant himself, having arrived here from Cuba penniless in 1962.
One myth Borjas explodes is that immigration adds substantial wealth to the American economy. In fact, Borjas found that the actual net benefit accruing to natives is small, equal to an estimated two-tenths of 1 percent of GDP. “There is little evidence indicating that immigration (legal and/or illegal) creates large net gains for native-born Americans,” writes Borjas.
Even though the overall net impact on natives is small, this does not mean that the wage losses suffered by some natives or the income gains accruing to other natives are insubstantial. Borjas reviewed the wage impact of immigrants who entered the country between 1990 and 2010 and found that this cohort had reduced the annual earnings of American workers by $1,396—a 2.5% reduction.
As low-skill immigrants have flooded the labor market, opportunities for the least skilled workers have markedly decreased and the most vulnerable Americans have seen their wages decline as a result. Borjas estimates that immigration is responsible for half the decrease observed in the wages of high-school dropouts. “The biggest winners from immigration are owners of businesses that employ a lot of immigrant labor and other users of immigrant labor”, writes Borjas. “The other big winners are the immigrants themselves.” The primary losers are native citizens with minimal skills and low levels of education.
Dr. Leithart fails to reckon with an important aspect the fall–the economic fact of scarcity. Resources are not infinite. In a world of scarcity, a result of God’s curse on the earth due to Adam’s sin, human beings necessarily make choices among competing alternatives effecting the distribution of resources. Ethically speaking do six trillion people have a claim on scarce and finite American monetary and economic resources?
In an already overburdened welfare state, do Americans have a moral imperative to import poverty and in so doing divert resources and employment opportunities from our most vulnerable citizens? Libertarians, and quite possibly Dr. Leithart, would argue that we ought to dismantle our unbiblical welfare state. The problem is that immigration buttresses the welfare state. If your bathtub is overflowing, your first act isn’t to head to the basement to secure a bucket and mop. Instead, you turn off the water and then clean up the mess. If only libertarians and Christian immigration enthusiasts would keep that metaphor in mind.
MASS IMMIGRATION UNDERMINES SOCIAL TRUST
Mass immigration also undermines covenantal thinking by exalting the individual at the expense of family, community and nation. Individuals leave behind their communities and desert their homelands rather than laboring for their improvement economically and politically. In her recent book, Adios America, Ann Coulter reported that the average IQ of Indians is 82. Yet Mark Zuckerburg would steal India’s best and brightest, dropping them in Seattle as programmers via the H1B program to pad his already burgeoning net worth. Do such policies create the conditions for ethical economic choices or do they reinforce unbiblical notions of individualism?
Immigration encourages families to move to different locales which are necessarily transformed culturally, economically, and politically by their presence in large numbers. Who benefits? Perhaps the immigrant himself and possibly those individuals acquiring whatever service he may provide. But community and the ties of natural affection that are produced by commonality are systematically undermined.
Research by the influential political scientist and Bowling Aloneauthor Robert Putnam shows that the more diverse a community, the less likely its inhabitants are to trust anyone.
In the face of diversity people tend to “hunker down” and surround themselves entirely with the familiar. “We act like turtles. The effect of diversity is worse than had been imagined. And it’s not just that we don’t trust people who are not like us. In diverse communities, we don’t trust people who do look like us,” Putnam says.
Putnam adjusted his data for distinctions in class, income, and other variables but still reached the “shocking” conclusion that untrammeled ethnic diversity is a breeding ground of distrust that spreads like an aggressive cancer, destroying the body politic. “They don’t trust the local mayor, they don’t trust the local paper, they don’t trust other people and they don’t trust institutions,” said Prof Putnam. “The only thing there’s more of is protest marches and TV watching.”
Putnam found that trust was lowest in Los Angeles, that heaven on earth for mulitcultists, but his findings were also applicable in South Dakota.
Mass immigration also undermines the free market, which necessarily exists as part of social framework. While that framework needs a system of law to protect property rights, enforce contracts, prosecute practitioners of fraud, etc., it is also dependent on a rudimentary level of trust among the populace. If that trust is undermined the foundation supporting the entire edifice crumbles, with the state being the institution forcefully putting the house back together.
A classical liberal like John Stuart Mill knew that free institutions are “next to impossible in a country made up of different nationalities.” But speaking of immigration, Putnam allows ideology rather than fact to cloud his judgment, saying “that immigration materially benefited both the ‘importing’ and ‘exporting’ societies, and that trends have ‘been socially constructed, and can be socially reconstructed.'”
Leithart’s open borders proposal would necessarily demand “social reconstruction” because it would tear asunder what little remains of the social fabric. It would irreversibly destroy the foundations of American social order. “If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” (Ps. 11:3).
WHO OWNS PROPERTY
The most important question when considering the movement of people is a simple one: “Who owns the property?” In an anarcho-capitalist social order, property is owned privately. In this Big Rock Candy Mountain utopia envisioned by libertarian ideologues, immigration and emigration would be free—and there would be precious little of it. Likewise in a traditional monarchy the king, as sovereign and owner of the land, has an interest in maintaining immigration policies that enhance the value of the kingdom. It is the king who thus determines immigration policy (we’ll see scriptural examples of this pattern shortly) and had an incentive to limit immigration to those who materially benefit his kingdom.
But once the government moves from the sphere of private ownership (monarchy) to public ownership, in the guise of democracy, there are different factors at work. Unlike monarchs, democratic rulers are mere caretakers and do not bequeath a kingdom to their progeny. Democracies are also inherently, and unbiblically, egalitarian. Both theoretically and in practice, we see that the migration policies of democratic states tend to be “non-discriminatory”. It matters little whether immigrants are entrepreneurs or vagrants. Indeed, vagrants may be preferable as they create a greater number of social problems and tensions which government must “fix” or “manage”, thereby enhancing the immediate power of its leaders, who are largely oblivious to and unaffected by the long term consequences of their policies. “Thus,” writes Hans Hoppe, “the United States immigration laws of 1965, as the best available example of democracy at work, eliminated all formerly existing ‘quality’ concerns and the explicit preference for European immigrants and replaced it with a policy of almost complete non-discrimination (multi-culturalism).” The migration policy of democracies winds up negating the rights of property owners and imposing a forcible integration with the mass of immigrants being forced upon property owners who, if given the choice, would have “discriminated” in favor of other neighbors. An open borders regime is simply the above scenario on steroids.
Aside from these philosophical consideration, Leithart also completely ignores the biblical evidence that borders are legitimate and enforced, even in the agrarian context of the Old Testament. When Jacob’s family fled famine they traveled to Egypt and asked Pharaoh for permission to enter, “We have come to sojourn in the land … please let your servants dwell in the land of Goshen” (Gen. 47:4). With the appropriate permission secured from Pharaoh’s representative, Jacob’s family, which grew into the people of Israel, became legal aliens in Egypt. In short, they were allowed into the country by the host. This scenario finds its modern equivalent in the immigrant who has legally entered a foreign land with permission and secured proper documentation to that effect.
Later in the book of Numbers, after Moses and the Israelites had fled Egypt they wanted to pass through Edom. Moses dispatched messengers to Edom’s king with the following request to pass through their land:
“And here we are in Kadesh, a city on the edge of your territory. Please let us pass through your land. We will not pass through field or vineyard, or drink water from a well. We will go along the King’s Highway. We will not turn aside to the right hand or to the left until we have passed through your territory.” But Edom said to him, “You shall not pass through, lest I come out with the sword against you.” And the people of Israel said to him, “We will go up by the highway, and if we drink of your water, I and my livestock, then I will pay for it. Let me only pass through on foot, nothing more.” But he said, “You shall not pass through.” And Edom came out against them with a large army and with a strong force. Thus Edom refused to give Israel passage through his territory, so Israel turned away from him. (Num. 20:16-21)
In Judges, Jephthah refers to other denials of passage the Israelites experienced while journeying to the Promised Land:
Israel did not take away the land of Moab or the land of the Ammonites, but when they came up from Egypt, Israel went through the wilderness to the Red Sea and came to Kadesh. Israel then sent messengers to the king of Edom, saying, ‘Please let us pass through your land,’ but the king of Edom would not listen. And they sent also to the king of Moab, but he would not consent. So Israel remained at Kadesh.
“Then they journeyed through the wilderness and went around the land of Edom and the land of Moab and arrived on the east side of the land of Moab and camped on the other side of the Arnon. But they did not enter the territory of Moab, for the Arnon was the boundary of Moab. Israel then sent messengers to Sihon king of the Amorites, king of Heshbon, and Israel said to him, ‘Please let us pass through your land to our country,’ but Sihon did not trust Israel to pass through his territory, so Sihon gathered all his people together and encamped at Jahaz and fought with Israel. And the Lord, the God of Israel, gave Sihon and all his people into the hand of Israel, and they defeated them. So Israel took possession of all the land of the Amorites, who inhabited that country. (Judges 11:15-21)
In his book, “The Immigration Crisis”, Old Testament professor James Hoffmeir also argues that Christ’s family clearly asked for permission to enter Egypt when they fled from Herod.
It is worth noting that even a traveler, a foreigner, had to obtain permission when moving through the territory of another nation, let alone pitching a tent, taking up residence and getting on Medicaid. These episodes clearly demonstrate that nations could and did control their borders and determined who was allowed passage. Open borders have never existed and are certainly not endorsed by scripture.
There are other problems with Dr. Leithart’s essay, but if you have reached this point, you are surely tired of reading. Leithart says that while “hardly a slam-dunk policy” the open borders stance is a “serious position, worthy of better than the wacky-nut treatment it’s usually given.” I hope that I have demonstrated that the open borders position is radical in both its ethical shortcomings and economic consequences.