Book Review - Christians at the Border

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Few subjects can stir up hot debate like the current immigration crisis in America. Regular readers of (insert name of political blogger here) or watchers of (insert name of fair-and-balanced cable news network here) cannot help but have strong opinions on the subject.

M. Daniel Carroll R., author of (, ) confronts the issue on a very personal level. Born to a Guatemalan mother and American father, he divided his formative years between the two cultures. Currently a professor at Denver Seminary, he continues as adjunct professor at a Guatemalan institution.

With this background and sympathetic point of view, Carroll seeks to “move Christians to reconsider their starting-point in the immigration debate” (p. 19). Elsewhere he states that his intended audience includes believers of both the dominant culture and the immigrant community. The preponderance of the book, however, is clearly aimed at non-immigrant American Christians.

The author’s stance becomes quite clear in the helpful section “Defining Terms” at the end of the introduction:

“I prefer the term undocumented rather than illegal for several reasons. Illegal can carry a pejorative connotation, suggesting by definition that the person is guilty of some act, has few scruples, and is prone to civil disobedience. This is not the case with the overwhelming majority of Hispanic immigrants. Most would gladly regularize their status with the government, but the present system simply does not provide appropriate avenues to do so.”

The Usual Suspects

In his first chapter Carroll presents an overview of the immigration situation. He begins with four accounts which illustrate the crisis faced by America today. He goes on to propose that the immigration situation is a “complicated landscape” with no easy answers. To his credit, Carroll makes a valiant effort at impartiality. In spite of this, however, his sympathy to the plight of Hispanic immigrants is quite evident. On page 27 for example, after an emotional description of the struggles of the “undocumented” (which includes the phrase “wiles of the coyotes“—clever) he sums up the other side of the story this way: “But citizens of this country have also suffered violence in car wrecks, robberies, and other crimes of undocumented immigrants, some of whom have been able to evade apprehension or conviction. These victims cry out for justice too” (emphasis mine). This is followed up immediately by a paragraph which bemoans the “rhetoric” that flows from the media, particularly labels such as “flood,” “tidal wave,” “horde,” or “invasion.” As he states: “Red flag language, such as ‘amnesty’, the ‘war on terror’, or the ‘terrible human cost’ punctuates discussions that can degenerate into unfruitful diatribes.” The previous phrase is the closest Carroll gets to admitting that the uncontrolled southern border presents a real and worrisome national security threat. Also missing is any reference to organizations such as La Raza, while on page 42 he has no compunctions about labeling Tom Tancredo and Pat Buchanan as “shrill in their tone.” In the footnote to this section, he even puts the Minutemen (he calls them “border vigilantes”) and white supremacists in the same extremist boat.

One of the most important and informative sections of this chapter is entitled “The Ignored Dimension: Christian Faith and Hispanics.” In it Carroll gives some important statistics about the nature of the Christianity of Hispanic immigrants and its potential influence on the American evangelical scene. As Carroll’s focus on a Christian response to Hispanic immigration, this section is key. His major conclusion is this: “Many immigrants are brothers and sisters in Christ, with all the respect and attention this fact should engender in those of the majority culture who claim to love and follow Jesus” (p. 59). Later, he goes even farther: “In other words, if Christians of the majority culture take a very different look at Hispanic immigration, they will see that something much bigger than they might have imagined is happening. The church of Jesus Christ is growing and being impacted in unexpected ways. This work of God is part of an enormous movement that spans the globe. “This is the overall theme of the book. Christians should have a different response to the immigration issue—one that transcends the current political debate.

A Biblical Mandate?

The following three chapters delve into the Scriptures in an attempt to extract a coherent and biblical theology of immigration. Two chapters deal with the Old Testament, and one with the New Testament. Carroll begins the first chapter of this section with a treatise on what it means to be created in the image of God. He very carefully puts forth the three main theories as to the meaning of “Image of God” (the inherent-quality, relational and dominion aspects). He then makes the obvious important observation: immigrants are humans (p. 67). The conclusion he extrapolates from this is that treatment of people should be the same “irrespective of whether they are here with or without the documents the government might mandate” (p. 68). Carroll goes on to cite Old Testament examples of immigration: Abraham, Joseph, Ruth, the Exile, etc. From these he draws the conclusion that immigration is not new, it is a fact of life, and—because the people involved are sinners—it is not “tidy” (p. 88). In the following chapter the author deals with the Old Testament law as it relates to the “sojourner.” This section deals with the subject of hospitality in Near Eastern cultures and in Old Testament law. Clearly Carroll, who specializes in Old Testament studies, is in his element here. The studies are detailed, interesting, and informative.

It is at this point that Carroll puts forth what I consider to be his strongest argument. After explaining how the Old Testament law can serve as a paradigm for law in general, he makes a valid argument that Christian culture should be characterized by compassion for the sojourner. As he moves into the New Testament, Carroll focuses on Jesus’ time as a refugee (fleeing with His family from Herod) and on His treatment of outsiders (particularly the Samaritans). He expounds on the compelling concept (from I Peter 1 and Philippians 3) of Christians as sojourners in a foreign land. Our own status as foreigners should give us a new mentality towards others who find themselves in similar situations.

Finally, Carroll takes on Romans 13—the legality issue. His treatment of it follows the line of reasoning used by most immigration activists: “If one believes that [immigration] laws do not fit the teaching of the Bible and the ethical demands of the heart of God, some Christians will not say ‘What is it about illegal’ that you don’t understand?’; instead, they might declare with the apostle Peter and John: ’Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God’ ” (p. 132).

In the next paragraph Carroll is quick to assert that he is not advocating civil disobedience—at least not on a “large scale.”

Borderline Issues

While I applaud Dr. Carroll’s sincere attempt to address this issue and appreciate the fresh approach he brings to the debate, I cannot help but have some serious problems with what he writes. Before I get into these, however, let me provide a little background. I too approach this subject from a very personal point of view. I am married to a beautiful Brazilian woman, and did battle with the tangled web of immigration policy on numerous occasions during the five years we lived in the US. We did everything legally and aboveboard, and were constantly brought face-to-face with the detrimental effect that illegal immigration has on those who are trying desperately to “do it right.”

Now the tables are turned, we live in Brazil, and suddenly I am the immigrant. I know what it is like to be in the minority, to be discriminated against, to be taken advantage of and to be demonized. I have even had to stand in a separate line at an airport “just for Americans.” Every week I confront a bureaucracy designed specifically to make life difficult for me. As if this weren’t enough, for nine years before coming to Brazil I lived in central Florida, home to the citrus industry that brings in thousands of “undocumented workers” every year. I have been in their homes, seen their plight, and observed their effect on society at large. I have even refused employment to otherwise qualified people because of their “documentation issues.” One of our supporting churches is a vibrant, dynamic Hispanic congregation in Florida which carries out aggressive evangelistic campaigns among the Latino citrus workers. Together, these issues influenced my opinion of Christians at the Border.

My first problem with Carroll’s treatment is his obvious bias to one side of the debate. He seeks to marginalize arguments that I see as legitimate and gives no time to important issues—such as the overt actions on the part of certain Latin governments encouraging their citizens to enter the US illegally. I also disagree with his rationalization of the “illegal” status of undocumented workers. I find his arguments—particularly the ones based on “Imago Dei”—to be unsatisfying. Another point of concern for me was his glowing descriptions of Latin Christianity. While there are indeed many vibrant Latino churches which have much to contribute, he fails to mention the huge impact of “prosperity Gospel” preaching—the largest of which being a Brazilian export, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God. This church and others like it entice immigrants with promises of wealth in their new home, and have nothing to offer to the larger evangelical community. Also, I don’t see how we can see the huge influx of devotees to the Virgin of Guadalupe as anything other than a mission field.

My final complaint has to do with his conclusions. The last chapter—entitled “Where Do We Go From Here”—is surprisingly devoid of concrete steps to take. In fact, the author states as much on page 138: “This book does not propose any legislative solutions, economic panaceas, or advice on cultural negotiations.” After all of the biblical research and cultural analysis of the previous chapters, I was expecting a little more. I would be remiss if I did not mention here a very valid point made by Carroll: “…the government turns a blind eye to many employers because the country needs the cheap labor, but then closes the door to social services on these same workers” (p. 134).

This is a great injustice being perpetrated in our country—a modern-day version of slavery. As I mentioned earlier, I have seen this firsthand. If “undocumented workers” are going to face penalties for breaking the law (as I think they should) then the businesses that hire them should also face penalties. Perhaps one thing Christians in the US can do is work for tougher legislation on these companies. While I disagreed with many of his conclusions, M. Daniel Carroll wrote this book with the intention of getting Christians to think about the immigration issue. In this he has been singularly successful.


Andrew Comings is a Baptist Mid-Missions missionary in Ceará, Brazil where he serves as Coordinator for Ministry Internships at the Cariri Baptist Seminary. He and his wife, Itacyara, have two sons: Michael and Nathanael. In his spare time Andrew blogs in English at www.comingstobrazil.com and in Portuguese at cadernoteologico.wordpress.com. Despite his field of service, Andrew does not drink coffee in any of its manifold forms.
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There are 7 Comments

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Good review... and a good book for getting some of the key issues talked about and thought through. I still think "amnesty" is a perfectly good word when used accurately.
I also don't buy the author's suggestion that there is a higher law here than the laws of the land. The Bible doesn't command nations to allow other nations' citizens to move in at will (or at all). But there does need to be some balance between compassion for individuals and the viability of the nation as a whole. It's easy to sentimentalize policy when you look at individual cases. But it's also easy for policy to be foolish and cold when its impact on individual cases isn't taken into account at all.
I'm glad it's a problem I don't have to solve.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Bob T.'s picture

There are a lot of empty homes in this area who are in foreclosure. Some end up with people moving in to live there. They are illegal squatters. The Banks and mortgage companies take legal action to evict these as soon as possible. However, what if the court said that we need compassion and the bank has vast resources and the family living there has no place to live. Therefore, we will allow them to have this property as a way of doing equity and bringing social justice. Then one day you and your family go on a long vacation and come back and find squatters in your house. You go to court and they look at your assets and say that you have accumulated a great deal so in the interest of social justice we declare amnesty on all home squatters and you cannot have your home back.

The concept of nationhood is recognized in scripture. God sets the boundaries. Babel was the purposeful dividing or mankind. People have a right to form their own societies set with legal boundaries and laws. This is nationhood. Nations gain assets which they hold in trust for their citizens. Taxes are collected and social programs are provided. Those who enter the boundaries of a nation in a way not allowed by that nation are breaking the law and are there other than legally. They are also squatters taking over and using that which does not belong to them. To allow them to continue to squat and use assets not intended for them is to steal from the other legal citizens and give to the illegal citizens. It is a false compassion and a false principle of social justice.

Here in California the studies have indicated clearly that illegal immigrant squatters take far more from the assets of the society than they contribute. L.A. County has closed several medical centers and hospitals because of the county health dept. budget shortfall of 300 million. That is also the amount estimated to be spent providing medical services for the illegal squatters. They get free services through emergency rooms and necessary hospital care. They also have children who are then legal citizens and yet are qualified for welfare child care. This becomes the family income for those with several children. It costs California billions and is the cause of the state financial crises.

My son is a Narcotics officer. He sees our failure to deal with the border issue properly as the greatest danger to our nation. 90% of all Meth comes over from Mexico. It comes with many of the illegals. Major drug cartels come and go across the border. They are now in over 150 metropolitan areas. Kidnappings and killings have become numerous in some southwestern cities. At this rate we can expect to have the cartels running major parts of our society in the near future.

People have a right to organize for a safe and orderly society. The Christian faith contributes to a moral society by providing a moral foundation. Democratic societies need a Cristian moral religious foundation to function effectively. Christians and churches have a duty to uphold and support the laws of the society in which they exist. Our ministries should endeavor to operate within the sphere of the laws of the nations in which they operate. This is especially so when the laws benefit the legal citizens for which they are made and are necessary for a safe and orderly society.

Our federal government is failing the legal citizens by not closing the Mexican border. It can be closed just as there was an Iron curtain in Europe. It is the primary crises to the American republic. The country will dissolve into social chaos if this is not done. It is our first danger. Terrorism is but number two.

Christians must be careful that they do not have a false compassion which fails to consider their duty to love their neighbors as themselves instead loves squatters and steals from their neighbors and places their neighbors in danger of having a society that is chaotic and dangerous. Robin Hood was not in the Bible. Nationhood was Biblical starting with Israel. The principles of private property and punishment of those who violate civil law is also seen in Israel.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Bob... mostly with you on this one. 1 John calls us to love "in deed and in truth." Such a simple sentence but so hard to do. We tend to either get "deed" or get "truth" but too rarely both. Often the most compassionate thing looks coldest on the surface because the truth is deeper and few will bother to dig for it.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Joel Shaffer's picture

I am in full agreement that our border needs to be closed (Up north as well as down south). A high wall is needed to protect our borders, especially from potential drug dealers, criminals and potential terrorists. However, because of our economy's need for unskilled workers, I am for opening our immigration policy wider to include those who are unskilled and poor. As it stands, our immigration policies are meant to bring in highly skilled workers such as scientists, engineers, etc....., those who have financial resources, and those who are connected to people with financial resources. As a result, the unskilled poor laborer, which our economy needs, is shut out.

When my Grandpa came over from Sweden in the 1920's, he was poor, unskilled, with no connections in America. I find it interesting that according to the immigration policies of today, he wouldn't have met the criteria to come over to America.

As for the undocumented workers, I am not in favor of giving them full amnesty, but I am in favor of allowing them to stay in the U.S., provided their wages are garnished for ten years so that they pay for breaking our laws. Then they can apply for U.S. citizenship. It might even be an incentive to go back to their country of origin and enter the U.S. the legal way, if our nation is also allowing a greater number of unskilled workers to come in.

Anyway, this solution of a "high wall, wide gate" might be one that balances compassion with our rule of law.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Being something of an "order freak" myself, I like that approach as well as a concept. Get it under control, then be generous. But as it is, there's just not much control and probably the cruelest approach of all is one where success or failure emigrating is random.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Bob T.'s picture

I am not sure about the high wall wide gate compassion.

First, under present immigration laws my European grandparents would have been excluded also. However, this has to do with a developing nation's needs verses a developed nation's needs. They are different. My wife's ancestors would have made it in OK for when they came the immigration laws were very open. They were on the Mayflower. They did not even pass through immigration checks. They had no passports.

Most illegals have taken jobs formerly occupied by legal citizens. There has been a constant shortage of agricultural workers as the illegals have taken better jobs in construction and manufacturing. When construction was booming it had large numbers of illegal workers. Another area was RV manufacturing here in the west. Illegals had as much as 80% of the jobs. Same with other industries.

The illegal immigrant arrives and then goes to a location he hears about, like MacArthur park in downtown L.A. He pays 50 to 100 dollars for fake ID set. He then applies for a job and presents the fake ID. The employer is not required to verify (e-verify is a law again not being enforced). The employer hires the worker. He sends in the required quarterly Social Security and tax withholding. He gets notification at about 6 months that the SS number and name do not match or are not valid. He ignores it and then either keeps sending and hears no more or stops sending and just keeps it. The illegal worker keeps working. The employer has been able to hire workers at a couple dollars less per hour because of the ability to hire illegals. He knows this so does not the immigration laws enforced. Hispanic rights groups also do not want the laws enforced. Organizations like La Raza (The Race) have an agenda based upon the view that the southwest U.S. was taken illegally in the first place.

The big myth is that illegals take jobs legal citizens will not take. Not so. In every case where the INS has raided certain job places and arrested illegals, the jobs were filled by legal citizens within a very short time.

Would we not be forgetting to have compassion on our fellow legal citizen neighbors to allow illegals entry to take jobs?

Would we not be forgetting to have compassion on our legal citizen neighbors to allow legal immigration for jobs where we have citizens already here who will take the jobs? Some high tech companies have applied for permits for immigration so they can hire immigrants at lower wages. What is our governments responsibility in acting in behalf of the citizens?

A developed and well populated nation with a 10.2% unemployment rate (actual estimated at 17%). can no longer state "we are a nation of immigrants" and therefore feel obligated to be generous in immigration policy. There is a difference between a developed society and a developing society. We actually are not a nation of immigrants. We are a nation of citizens with ancestors who were immigrants. Most of them immigrated to a developing society. Almost none who came were involved in drugs and crime. There was not the welfare and workers comp. insurance for immigrants to become involved with. There were not the medical costs that are mandated for all persons who are residence, legal or not. The supreme court has ruled twice that the constitution applies not just to legal citizens and residents of the nation, but to all who reside within the borders. Therefore, all benefits that the state has for citizens cannot be denied to illegal immigrants. California passed a voted upon resolution denying certain benefits to illegals by making them available to citizens and legal residents only. It was overturned by the U.S. supreme court.

By the way, Obama must know, as should most in congress, that any medical coverage provided in their bills can have provision denying it to illegals and it would be overturned immediately by the courts. They are just playing games for the public in this regard.

Compassion to some must not be at the expense of failing to see a duty of compassion to others. The best and most direct compassion Christians can have right now is to look first to the needs of citizens and legal residents and uphold our presently just immigration, and demand common sense in making needed changes.

By the way all our grand children are Hispanic and we love them dearly. This is not a race issue. Some immigrant advocates wish to make it one. We need to stop all illegal immigration from those dangerous Germans, crazy Irish, and snooty English. These are my and my wife's ancestors.

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