Books offer Christian moral frameworks for judging immigration issues

"Just Immigration: American Policy in Christian Perspective" by Mark R. Amstutz. Wm. B. Eerdmans (Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2017). 258 pp. $25.

"Immigrants and Citizens: Justice and Responsibility in the Ethics of Immigration" by Tisha M. Rajendra. Wm. B. Eerdmans (Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2017). 169 pp. $25.

With last names like Ramirez, Garcia and Sanchez filling up baseball lineups; and tacos, empanadas and guacamole spicing up fast-food menus, one could ask if Latinos are as American as apple pie.

Yet Hispanics are a driving wedge into our nation's divisive politics over immigration. Although the overwhelming majority in the United States are citizens or here legally, attention is focused on the 11 million to 12 million Hispanics and others who are in the country without legal permission.

Long before Donald Trump ratcheted up the rhetoric during the 2016 presidential campaign and later as president, immigration, legal and otherwise, has been a contentious issue in the United States.

Over the decades, numerous overhauls, including a 1986 amnesty for millions of people in the country illegally that was signed by President Ronald Reagan, have been tried but major problems persist. Finding solutions remains a complex, nuanced task.

For Christians, it also means applying moral and ethical principles to a tangled web of political, legal and humanitarian issues.

Both these books make no effort to provide solutions or to offer specific policy suggestions. They try, in differing ways, to give Christians a moral and ethical framework to judge what's happening on the ground.

The authors see immigration as part of larger worldwide migration movements as people flee wars, economic hardship and political repression seeking safer zones in other countries. Thus, the books also discuss the plight of refugees, asylum seekers and temporary guest workers.

A key for both is trying to determine the responsibilities and obligations that citizens and immigrants have to each other.

"Just Immigration" is the more complete work. Author Mark R. Amstutz, a political science professor at Wheaton College, dissects current U.S. immigration laws, pointing out defects and strengths. He discusses where Catholic, evangelical and mainline Protestant churches stand on key issues and then gives some guidance on how Christians should approach themes from a faith perspective.

While praising the desire -- and need -- of Christian churches to add their moral voices to public debate, he criticizes most for advocating specific policies rather than providing a biblically and theologically sound criteria for forming consciences. Churches should be educating rather than advocating, he writes.

He tends toward a fundamentalist view of what is biblical and theological, leaving him open to criticisms from Christians with different views on scriptural and theological interpretation.

Regarding the U.S. Catholic bishops, he complains that they are promoting specific policy reforms such as earned amnesty, thus entering "into the contentious terrain of political decision-making -- an area of prudential judgment in which the clergy do not have expertise."

Instead, the bishops should provide moral guidance on secular issues in conflict, he writes. "Since the right to migrate is in tension with sovereignty, the bishops could have used their considerable theological and moral resources to illuminate how to reconcile these claims in advancing just immigration."

The best thing about "Just Immigration" is the author's objective outlining of what is U.S. law and practice on immigration, making it a good resource work. In today's highly polarized political climate, it is refreshing to see someone base analysis on facts rather than ideological bombast.

"Migrants and Citizens" takes a more academic approach, noting that global migration flows are important humanitarian and political issues in many countries.

Author Tisha M. Rajendra, a theological ethics associate professor at Loyola University in Chicago, analyzes various yardsticks for examining migration issues, such as human rights and global justice, before offering some guidelines.

Rajendra sees two main competing tendencies. One is a xenophobic reaction in the U.S. and Europe in which complex immigration issues "are reduced to questions of how to keep migrants out." At the same time "migrants remain undeterred in their quests to reach their countries of destination."

Her bottom line is that justice on immigration issues should be seen as a "responsibility to relationships," based on reality, in which citizens and immigrants understand that they have mutual obligations and responsibilities to each other.

Like Amstutz, she doesn't offer solutions to specific policy issues but guidelines by which individuals and societies can make practical judgments.

Both books offer starting points, not end games.

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Bono, a retired CNS staff writer, covered Hispanic affairs.