U.S. Immigration Policy and Christian Social Witness

( [email protected] ) May 13, 2006 11:35 AM EDT

"You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were

aliens in the land of Egypt." Exodus 22:21 (NRSV)

It was predicted in the 1990s. The recent U.S. Census data have proven these predictions to be correct. America's racial diversity is now much more complex than Black and White. Fueled by immigration, the Latino population has caught up to African Americans. Asian Pacific Islanders now number over 10 million. Will these results, accompanied by a possible downturn in the U.S. economy, trigger an anti-immigration backlash much like the one in the early 1990s? If history can be relied upon as a guide, it is very likely that America will see a resurgence of nativism. How should socially conscious Christians respond to future debates about immigration? Specifically, how should Chinese American Christians - whose presence here is so closely linked to a liberal immigration policy - respond? This article will attempt to address this question by first surveying the history of U.S. immigration policy and then discussing some of the central issues that are debated.

U.S. Immigration Policy in American History

Most Chinese who came to the United States before World War II were very well acquainted with America's openly discriminatory immigration policy. Between 1882 and 1943, Chinese were not permitted to immigrate to the United States or to naturalize. The only exceptions were religious workers, diplomats, and persons born in the United States. But even these had difficulty entering the Golden Mountains. Many were detained for months at Angel Island in the San Francisco Bay as U.S. immigration officials attempted to weed out and deport "paper sons." The latter were Chinese who attempted to secure entry into the United States by posing as American-born citizens. Even if a person was a legitimate migrant, she or he faced the prospects of elaborate and intense interrogations.

Even though 105 Chinese were permitted to enter each year after 1943, the anti-Asian features of American immigration policy were not removed until the Immigration Act of 1965. Indeed, during the 1950s anti-Communist hysteria, many Chinese Americans were suspected of being spies for China or the Soviet Union. During World War II and the Cold War, the United States was hard-pressed to practice its democratic ideas with regards to non-white people. Thus, the Civil Rights movement and policies received greater acceptance by most Americans. Beginning with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission under Harry S. Truman's administration and the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, liberal Civil Rights policies eventually found their way into immigration policy. Behind the drive to make immigration law less discriminatory were Eastern and Southern European immigrants who resented the 1924 National Origins Act that favored Anglo-Nordic immigration, the Roman Catholic Church, the members of the National Council of Churches in Christ, and Civil Rights activists. Consequently, in the 1970s and 1980s, immigrants from Asian and Latin American countries found the doors to America open to them. The debt that many Chinese Americans today owe to the Civil Rights movement and liberal policy should not be forgotten. Indeed, when one studies the history of American public policy, it is clear that the liberal and democratic vision of America has benefited the neediest and the discriminated.

The history of immigration policy, however, is not as clear-cut. Often people from very different perspectives have cooperated on a common immigration policy. So while it is true that Chinese Exclusion and immigration restriction coincided with the rise of "Jim Crow" in the South (1880s-1950s), one unexpectedly finds labor unions allied with white supremacists to stop immigration while business corporations worked with missionaries to keep the doors open. Regardless of its complexity, U.S. immigration policy can be fairly accurately divided into three periods: Open immigration (1792-1875); Restricted immigration (1875-1965); Liberal immigration (1965-present). During the "open immigration" period, the American nation was young and needed the cheap labor that immigrants could provide to populate and build up its industrial infrastructure. Chinese laborers and merchants were critical for the development of the British colonial enterprise in Asia and the Americas - especially since African slavery had been outlawed (thus, the quote that "the sons of Han have replaced the sons of Ham"). Though Chinese faced much discrimination in the United States, the conditions were far better here than in the Caribbean or other Latin American countries. The era of open immigration ended with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882.

Agitation to exclude the Chinese started much earlier than 1882. In the mid-1850s, a Miners' Tax was imposed upon Chinese in California during the Gold Rush. After the Civil War, the 14th Amendment gave Black men the right to vote, but specifically prohibited Chinese from citizenship. Then during the economic depressions of the 1870s, which effectively created the American working class, violence broke out against Chinese laborers who were blamed for driving wages down. Southern white supremacists and white labor formed a powerful alliance that effectively shut the doors to Chinese immigration. Opposing this trend were internationalists who viewed open immigration as free trade. Among this group were business corporations with international interests, abolitionists, and missionaries. But the late 19th century was also a time of anxiety over the closing of the American frontier, urban and industrial dislocation, growing nationalism, and rising Anglo-Saxonism. Thus, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 marked the beginning of Federal intervention into immigration policy. As the power of the new Federal Immigration Bureau increased during the years of "Restricted Immigration," economic arguments for curtailing immigration merged with racist fear that Asian immigrants would pollute white America.

Our parents and grandparents lived through the struggle to overturn this legacy of racism that ushered in the current period of "liberal immigration" policy. But recently there have been efforts to shut the doors again, especially during times of economic decline. Furthermore, with the collapse of international Communism, the United States no longer feels pressured to be the vanguard of democracy. This may be one explanation for the recent attacks on "liberal" social policy such as welfare, affirmative action, and generous immigration. While most of the anti-immigration sentiment has been directed at Hispanic immigrants, Asians have also felt the backlash against liberal immigration policy. In 1982, Vincent Chin was brutally beaten to death by recently unemployed autoworkers in Detroit because he looked Japanese. The tragedy of the Golden Venture, a failed attempt to smuggle over 300 Chinese immigrants to New York City in 1993, triggered both an outcry of sympathy and alarm at the perceived flood of undocumented immigrants entering the country. The English-only movement in Monterey Park in the early 1990s epitomized anti-Asian sentiments that lay just beneath the surface. But it was the passage of California's Proposition 187 in 1994 and the subsequent efforts to make it a model for national policy in the mid-1990s that triggered a national debate. The issues from that debate frame the questions for Christians to consider today.

Nation-state, citizenship, and environmental and social impact: a Christian point of view

Not everyone who sought to limit immigration could be labeled a racist. In fact, the first group to press for controls on recent immigration feared overpopulation and had environmental concerns in mind. Others argued that the immigration system had fallen apart, making a laughing stock of the notion of U.S. national sovereignty over its borders. Still others worried that immigrants took away jobs from America's poor. Finally, some feared the dissolution of a common American culture and wanted to slow the immigration rate to permit greater assimilation (Reimers, 1998).

At the heart of most of these concerns is the assumption that the nation-state is a God-ordained or natural phenomenon. A nation-state has the right to regulate its borders and determine who its citizens are. Thus, refugees and immigrants are accorded fewer civil rights than U.S. citizens. What should be the Christian's response to the claims of nation-state sovereignty?

Rodney Clapp argues that one way to avoid absolutizing the nation-state is to recognize the Church's social reality as a counter-culture. "Why should 'nation' be considered more 'real' than the Church of Jesus Christ?" he asks. "Isn't God's reign more real than national sovereignty? (Clapp, 1996). Ethicist Dana Wilbanks agrees, but recognizes the need for Christians to negotiate the claims of the nation-state. While he believes that the most consistent Christian approach towards immigration may be an "open borders" policy, he does not consider this a realistic way to work towards a more generous and inclusive immigration policy. He notes that recent U.S. refugee and immigration policy rested more on Cold War tactics than a respect for universal human rights. For instance, in the 1970s and 80s, the U.S. placed few obstacles for refugees fleeing Communist countries like the Soviet Union, Vietnam, and Cuba. But when people fled persecution from countries whose oppressive governments were supported by the United States (such as El Salvador in the 1980s) or countries of little political significance to the United States (such as Haiti in the early 1990s), the borders were completely closed. Many Protestant and Catholic congregations, in response to this inconsistent application of refugee policy, formed a sanctuary movement to protect such refugees. Thus, Wilbanks argues, one reliable standard that the U.S. can use is the United Nations refugee and immigration policy statements that are grounded in its Declaration of Universal Human Rights. By appealing to the United Nations standards, one might curtail the excessive and sometimes, abusive, claims of U.S. nation-state sovereignty (Wilbanks, 1996).

Having established this premise, anti-immigration arguments based upon environmental considerations and fear of cultural fragmentation appear overly nationalistic and self-centered. The main cause of immigration is due to the negative impact that American, European, and Japanese capitalism has had on "developing" countries. For instance, the decline in Japanese immigration since the 1920s is related to Japanese prosperity. Though much of Chinese immigration is fueled by political instability in China and the Chinese Diaspora, the recent "Little Dragon" prosperity has created an interesting "astronaut" phenomenon (i.e. many Chinese families now have homes in Asia and North America - and they fly back and forth between them in order to safeguard their political and economic well-being). Nevertheless, greater investment of American resources to a more humane and just international order may help to ease the pressure of immigration. Such an investment would also move Americans away from a mono-cultural understanding of their culture.

Nevertheless, this approach is still theoretical and long-term. What about the negative impact of low-wage immigrants upon America's poor today? Won't these immigrants take away jobs that might have gone to those "left behind" in the recent technological revolution? Wilbanks addresses this more seriously, though he believes that focusing on the immigrant shifts the focus of the discussion away from the root causes of American poverty. But his immediate response is to assert that it is not clear that the new immigrants have flooded the ranks of the poor. In fact, most of the newer immigrants are not uneducated or poor. They have contributed to American prosperity (conversely, their presence here has had a "brain drain" effect on developing countries). It is at this point that Wilbanks creates criteria to rank the order of openness to immigration. He advocates for a consistent refugee and a generous immigration policy that favors those who come from countries closest to the United States. He also wants America's poor to be included in the equation in developing a humane and generous policy. One might quibble with Wilbanks' ranking of priorities, but he is one of only a handful of Christian theologians who pay attention to the ethics of immigration policy.


The immigration policy debates of the mid-1990s appeared to have vanished in the midst of the past few years of economic boom. Anti-immigration activists appeared to have overplayed their hand as speeches by Pat Buchanan and books by Peter Brimelow revealed some of the racist undertones of many within these groups. Furthermore, the odd alliance of the pro-immigration activists, Mainline Protestants, the Christian Coalition, the National Rifle Association, the ACLU, and other libertarian groups ensured that something like Proposition 187 would never reach the Federal level.

Nevertheless, Chinese Christians should remain alert. American nativism remains a strong part of U.S. culture. But we have the confidence of knowing that the overarching biblical trajectory is to "welcome the stranger." Abraham and Sarah were promised descendents who would bless all the nations of the earth. Israel was not to oppress the alien and stranger but to be a "light to the nations." Jesus' ministry reached outward beyond the Jewish nation. And the New Testament Church learned to overcome its ethno-centrism by welcoming the Gentiles into fellowship. Evangelism, world missions, and social justice ministries are all predicated upon crossing "man-made" divides so that Christ's liberating, healing, redemptive Gospel can reach the unreachable. So when the next wave of anti-immigration sentiment sweeps across this nation, I trust that we will be prepared to give a Christian response to those who would elevate the nation-state above the Kingdom of God.


  • Rodney Clapp, A Peculiar People: The Church as Culture in a Post-Christian Society. InterVarsity Press, 1996.

  • Bill Ong Hing. Making and Remaking Asian American Through Immigration Policy, 1850-1990. Stanford, CA.: Stanford University Press, 1993.

  • David M. Reimers. Unwelcome Strangers: American Identity and the Turn Against Immigrants. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.

  • Dana W. Wilbanks. Re-Creating America: The Ethics of U.S. Immigration and Refugee Policy in a Christian Perspective. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996.

  • A good internet resource is the Migration News Home Page (http://migration.ucdavis.edu)

[Editor's Note: This article was originally published in Chinese Christians For Justice (Fall 2002). For more information about Chinese Christians for Justice, contact Dr. Chit-Sang Tsang [email protected] or visit their website at: http://members.aol.com/pfccj/ccjhome.htm]

Director of the Asian American Center at American Baptist Seminary of the West (ABSW)