Just Immigration

American Policy in Christian Perspective

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Mark R. Amstutz
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
    , May
     240 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Mark Amstutz’s book, Just Immigration, offers an Evangelical Christian perspective on the complexities of American law and policy related to immigration both historically and in the present day. The first chapter highlights Samuel Huntington’s distinction between the early settlers, who set out to a new place to bring a new community into existence, and subsequent immigrants to the nation that resulted from those early settlers’ efforts. The contrast seems overly facile, since the founders of the Plymouth colony first emigrated to the Netherlands from England before choosing to settle land already claimed by Britain, where they hoped to be able to preserve their English identity as well as find greater religious freedom. The term colonist might be even more apt, but the book does little to reflect on the colonial project of which settlement of the Americas by Europeans was a part. The chapter also highlights the way American immigration law often focused on excluding people from specific regions. Ironically, such efforts to restrict immigration led to labor shortages that increased immigration—both legal and illegal—across the southern border of the United States. Before concluding, the introductory chapter clarifies the aim of the book, which is not to tackle immigration justice in an abstract manner, but to focus specifically on how Christians should respond to actual issues that arise in the framework of immigration laws and practices in the real world.

Chapter 2 is called “The Rules of the Game,” and it focuses initially on how modern nation states approach entry to their territories, before moving on to focus on US immigration law since the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952. Statistics about a variety of categories of immigrants are provided, as are numbers about related groups such as refugees and asylum-seekers, followed by an introduction to the various government agencies (Citizenship and Immigration Services, Customs and Border Protection, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement) that oversee the often difficult implementation and enforcement of laws and policies. Treatment of the challenges of immigration law continue into chapter 3, while chapter 4 carries the exploration further still, grouping schools of thought about nations, borders, and migration into two main categories, cosmopolitanism and communitarianism, arguing that “a Christian approach to migration should be rooted in both the idealism of cosmopolitanism and the realism of communitarianism” (103).

Chapter 5 marks a shift towards a more substantial engagement with the sources of Christian approaches to migration, with an unfortunate penchant for dichotomies and pigeonholes. However, once Amstutz turns to the relevance of the Bible to immigration justice, there is a greater attempt to recognize the distinctive traditions of interpretation in various denominations, and the challenges facing Evangelicals, who emphasize the authority of the Bible, and yet “acknowledge that the Bible is not a manual on public affairs” (127). Amstutz seeks to identify key biblical principles, such as welcoming strangers and justice, while also explaining the challenges that different views of and approaches to justice present. Chapters 6 to 8 go into further detail about Catholic, Evangelical, and other Protestant approaches to and views of immigration respectively, providing additional detail as well as evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of each.

In his final chapter, Amstutz revisits the separation of the role of the church and the state, with the former proclaiming the gospel and the latter maintaining social order and advancing public justice (215). In his view, “denominations should focus on moral teaching rather than policy advocacy” (217), although “churches need to be reminded that moral ideals, separated from political power, are insufficient to overcome evil and advance justice” (218). While Amstutz’s point that “not all immigration issues involve basic moral values” (219) has a certain validity, it is not at all clear that legalities such as the total number of visas issued are devoid of substantial moral aspect and implications. Whatever one’s view on that matter, the list of questions that follows (219-20) is helpful in bringing what clearly are moral issues to the fore. However, those who closely examine the summary points that bring the chapter to a close will find that some obvious objections and counterpoints immediately spring to mind. For instance, in the section on “citizens and migrants,” there is a tension between the first point, emphasizing the universality of human worth, and the second, which says that “the chief task of government is to protect and advance the worth and dignity of its people” (231, emphasis added). Even apart from the possibility that Christians might object to the nationalistic ethos that so divides human beings, the government role described would apply equally to city, state, and national governments—and yet we would most likely not view it as appropriate for one of the states that makes up the United States to restrict entry from others. A close examination might find that those who are categorized as legitimate refugees vs. illegal immigrants are similarly motivated by concerns for the wellbeing of their families, a concern that reflects an aspect of our shared humanity transcending national borders.

Nonetheless, I think that most readers, irrespective of their specific viewpoints, will appreciate Amstutz’s call for churches to prioritize their role as moral teachers. Some of the deadlock that hinders immigration reform results from public contentment with superficial appeals to justice, insufficient engagement with different ideas of justice, and their varying prioritization by different individuals and communities in our society. Readers of Amstutz’s book who take his challenge seriously may be among the first to turn their critical gaze onto his points and to see weak points in them. But I suspect that if large numbers of Christians do precisely that, Amstutz himself would be pleased, precisely because his aim in this book is not to advocate for specific policies, but to advocate for improved moral reasoning and substantive engagement on the part of individual Christians, churches, and denominations.

About the Reviewer(s): 

James McGrath is Clarence L. Goodwin chair in New Testament Language and Literacy at Butler University.

Date of Review: 
November 16, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mark R. Amstutz is professor of political science at Wheaton College. His previous books include Evangelicals and American Foreign Policy and International Ethics: Concepts, Theories, and Cases in Global Politics.



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