A Theology of Immigrant Labour
A Theology of Immigrant Labour

A Theology of Immigrant Labour

Foundational thinking on immigrant labour has to do with public justice, rights, duties, and responsibilities.

Concerns about the rule of law, economics, and culture legitimately shape many people's views on immigration, but I think that part of the current struggle with immigration is related to the jobs immigrants often undertake. While not the only reason for such perspectives on immigration, a brief look at public opinion data and immigration policies lends credence to this assertion: Our view of immigrants is shaped by how we view the work of their hands. However, I would argue that Christians ought to see the new immigrants of today, not simply by the work of their hands, but first and foremost as God's created beings.

Pope John Paul II's 1981 Papal Encyclical "On Human Work" notes that if we evaluate people based on their dignity as creatures made in the image of God, we will "practically do away with the very basis of the ancient differentiation of people into classes according to the kind of work done." If this were true for North Americans today, it would not only have implications for how we perceive immigrants, but might result in more just immigration policy.

There are advantages to being white and poor over being black and poor

Public Attitudes about Immigrants

Contemporary scholars have found that the work immigrants undertake shapes perspectives of them. In a significant review of attitudes towards immigrants from a cross-national study conducted in seven industrialized nations, Shanto Iyengar and colleagues found that people are less favorable toward unskilled immigrants than immigrants with out-group cultural or ethnic attributes (2013). Their study indicates that economic concerns about less skilled immigrants are more important in shaping attitudes than cultural or racial concerns.

Views of particular ethnic groups are associated with the real and perceived economic status of such groups. For example, in the US, contemporary views of Asian immigrants vary from that in the past when Asian immigrants experienced considerable antagonism (e.g., see the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882). As noted in a recent Pew account:

A century ago, most Asian Americans were low-skilled, low-wage labourers crowded into ethnic enclaves and targets of official discrimination. Today [. . .] more than six-in-ten (61%) adults ages 25 to 64 who have come from Asia in recent years have at least a bachelor's degree. Today, recent arrivals from Asia are nearly twice as likely as those who came three decades ago to have a college degree, and many go into high-paying fields such as science, engineering, medicine and finance.

In the US at present, views of Asian immigrants are not only more favorable than views of past Asian immigrants, but also more favorable than those of Hispanic immigrants today. Many Hispanic immigrants now fill those low-skilled, low-wage jobs and account for over two-thirds of immigrants in the US without documentation. In a recent study of immigration attitudes, Jeffrey Timberlake and Rhys William find that respondents with a positive views of Asian immigrants focused on Asian contributions, associating unauthorized immigration with Latinos (2012). They, like many, do not appear cognizant that there are ongoing issues with visa overstays by Asian immigrants as well: Asians account for 11% of undocumented immigrants in the US.

In ongoing research with my colleague Lyman Kellstedt, we try to identify the primary factors shaping immigration attitudes in the US among the general population with a particular emphasis on religious groups. We find that white evangelicals are the most opposed to comprehensive immigration reform in all of the surveys examined. For example, in a recent Pew Survey, we find that far more white evangelicals than those in the general population believe that immigrants threaten the US economy and American society (50.8% versus 35.1%). In regression analyses of American National Election Studies data (2012), the primary factor shaping attitudes are concerns with unauthorized immigrants.

In multiple public opinion surveys, many respondents believe that undocumented immigrants, particularly unauthorized ones, are here primarily to take government entitlements and that they cost societies more than they contribute. Few economists concur. A 2006 Wall Street Journal survey of 46 economists who analyze immigration found that 96% believe undocumented immigrants are beneficial to the economy based on taking jobs native workers will not and holding down inflation. As for concerns with wages, 59% believe they have only a slight impact on wages for low skilled jobs. In the U.S., economist Giovanni Peri has found that those for whom wages are most impacted by new immigrants are actually foreign born workers; he only finds a calculated 1% drop in wages for native-born workers who are high school dropouts. Furthermore, wages of other categories of workers actually improve with the inclusion of immigrant labour via expansion of a nation's productive capacity overall (2009; 2010).

Furthermore, in the US there are considerable limits on access to government services for all immigrants; in fact, there is a five year delay for legal permanent residents to gain eligibility. And this says nothing about those here illegally, who are generally ineligible. Scholars Leighton Ku and Brian Bruen find families of low wage immigrant workers use Medicaid, food stamps, and the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) less than their native-born counterparts. Jean Christophe-Dumont, lead investigator of a major 2013 OECD study of the fiscal impact of immigration in 27 countries, notes: "Contrary to public belief, low-educated immigrants have a better fiscal position than their native-born peers. And where immigrants have a less favorable fiscal position, this is not drive by a greater dependence on social benefits, but rather by the fact that they often have lower wages and thus tend to contribute less."

Yet these beliefs persist. Why? Many critics of immigrants tend to emphasize concerns with wage depression for native workers in the lowest sectors. Leaders of some of the key "anti-immigrant" groups in the US, like Roy Beck of Numbers USA, claim that they have a high view of work and the working class. They contend that groups like theirs exist to represent the workers of America left behind by the professional class and squeezed by immigration; the latter, they argue, depress working class wages. Again, while a number of economists would acknowledge a slight impact on wages, particularly for those lacking secondary degrees, most find that immigrants help create more jobs, contribute to economic growth as they stimulate investment, boost productivity, and improve worker output. Economist Michael Clemens, for example, finds little evidence that immigrant workers lessen the employment opportunities of native workers, but rather contends their contributions improve "the lives of natives as well as those of the immigrants" (2014). In addition, many new immigrants start small businesses, and all spend money that benefits the economy.

Indeed, part of what has made the US case distinct from many European nations is that in the US, immigrants are not able to quickly access social services yet have high employment rates (comprising 5.2% of the labour force) and lower than average criminal rates.

Higher rates of employment and lower rates of criminality, as sociologist Sampson argues, are due to an emphasis by many immigrants (Mexican in particular) on family, religion and hard work. Work is the primary draw as migrants seek to support themselves and, most often, families in their home countries as well. And employment often serves an important acculturating function, what some have referred to as an education in modernity, national values, and independence. Even Samuel Huntington, citing a poll in his infamous text critical of immigration to the US (Who Are We? 2004), acknowledged that more Hispanic than white parents agree that "[t]he U.S. is a better country than most countries in the world." On the whole, immigrants appear to embody even more of the virtues related to a positive culture than native-born Americans.

Confused Attitudes = Confused Public Policy

Our view of immigrants is shaped by how we view the work of their hands

What do these commonly held perspectives on the work undertaken by immigrants imply for public policy? When it comes to immigration, most industrialized nations are of two minds. Many seek to recruit better educated and higher skilled immigrants to fill the top sectors of the economic strata (see the mania for STEM experts). These governments simultaneously draw labourers to complete tasks that native residents in wealthier societies are often unable or unwilling to do. A key dilemma for many states is that while it may be politically popular to issue visas and enable citizenship for those working in the upper economic sectors, it is less politically palatable to open up the door wider for those in the lowest sectors. One outcome is flows of immigrants arriving in wealthier nations without legal status to fill jobs that might otherwise go unfilled.

In addition, presuming people are what they do, a reductionist and troubled way of thinking, has led to the establishment of short term guest worker programs with complicated long term consequences (see Germany, Denmark, etc.). Many, but not all, guest worker programs fail to evaluate the ramifications of what it means for people to migrate (e.g., difficulties and costs of migration, strife in home countries, immigrants' desires to be united with family).

Unfortunately, immigration policy, influenced by overcharged political environments, economic incentives, and public concerns about lesser skilled immigrants, is often confused, unsatisfactory, and unjust. As Paul Collier has described, in recent years in a number of European nations and in the US, immigration policy has been driven by "short term political opportunism":

The stance of the political Left, which by this time was largely pro-migration, appeared to be "downplay the issue, have as much immigration as we can get away with, and claim it is pro-growth." The stance of the political Right, which by this time was largely anti-immigration, appeared to be "vaguely oppose migration, but do not be explicit for fear of association with racists and do nothing that would slow growth." (Exodus: How Migration is Changing Our World. 2013)

Rather than immigration policy that meets the needs of the nation and the immigrant, that gives people legal status, value, and dignity, and enables a just order in society, in the U.S we've been reduced to piecemeal legislation, circumventing maneuvers by state governments and the executive, and thwarted attempts at comprehensive reform by the national legislature.

Redeeming the Work of Immigrants' Hands: A Theology of Immigrant Labour

Many believe that undocumented immigrants cost societies more than they contribute. Few economists concur.

It goes without saying how complicated the issue of immigration is for all. Reaching agreement is no easy feat. And I don't mean to minimize concerns of Christians and others about the rule of law, personal responsibility, and the implications of illegal immigration for states. Comprehensive immigration reform in the United States, if it is to be just, must deal with these concerns. However, we also need to consider why nations have come to rely on immigrant labour (especially in the uppermost and lowermost economic sectors) and the somewhat hypocritical response of despising immigrants for coming when host countries continue to send mixed signals (with inconsistent policies and uneven enforcement approaches).

I would urge the church to continue to respond with views of work and of people based in Scripture. Do we see them as God sees them? My hope is that we can take an honest look at why it is that so many are frustrated with the immigrant populations in our nations. Is it solely because some have broken a law to arrive in our nations? Is it because we fear they will burden our societies and change our cultures? Is it because we despise them for taking on the work we find despicable—picking fruit for 12 hours a day in 100-degree weather, mowing the lawns of the privileged, bussing tables of patrons who won't acknowledge their existence.

And if states are often unwilling to consider the moral implications of immigration, ought not churches to be the ones to do so? As Kellstedt and I have noted elsewhere:

[T]he church can play a significant role, continuing the efforts of many congregations to assist immigrants to assimilate, as well as encouraging substantial interactions between immigrants and citizens overall. But, it may be even more important to help congregations see the moral components of the immigration issue—honouring the Biblical values of "welcoming the stranger," keeping families together, considering the justice implications of migration nationally and globally, and acknowledging the conditions in other societies that lead to immigration in the first place. Clergy have done this historically with issues like race, abortion, marriage, and poverty. There is no reason why it can't be done with immigration.

To be clear, I do not think this means churches ought to give explicit support for one policy or another, but seemingly the church ought to be a place where moral considerations surrounding the issue are addressed. In particular, questions about whether individuals have a right to migrate and provide for their family, and about states' rights to secure borders and justly regulate migrants should be informed by Christian conceptions of imago Dei, the task of the state to secure public justice, and its relationship to broader international questions of justice like nationality sovereignty.

The outcomes of church engagement on the issue are not completely obvious, but it seems crucial that foundational thinking on the issue comes not simply from the media or our politicians, who too often are willing to discuss immigration for motives which fall outside those key questions about public justice, and immigrants' rights, duties, and responsibilities as people made in the image of God. And based on our research, what happens in congregations matters. For example, in the Pew RPL survey noted above, those who go to church regularly and hear positive messages from the pulpit about migrants (such as exhortations to welcome the stranger, keep immigrant families together, help the needy) are far more supportive of immigrants. The propportion that perceives immigrants as a threat drops quite significantly for white evangelicals (from 50.7% to 26.1%). And worshipping with immigrants matters as well. Only 19.6% of white evangelicals who worship with immigrants see them as a threat to society and the economy (versus 50.7% without such exposure). In my recent survey of parishioners in four evangelical congregations in the US similar patterns emerge. Comparing parishioners who have and have not heard messages about migration in their congregations, 62% versus 40% believe immigrants strengthen the US with their hard work and talents, while 32% versus 44% believe immigrants are a burden because they take American jobs, housing, and healthcare.

My father, as a new immigrant who came to the U.S. from Cyprus in the 1960s, picked peaches in orchards in the San Joaquin Valley, painted homes, and took on a range of manual positions before he could use his previously earned college degree to teach in a US high school. Yet he was valued in our congregation and in our community for being a child of God, a hard worker, a devoted family man, and a conscientious neighbour.

Ripe peaches. Well-painted homes. Interesting history lectures. Challenging exams. Thoughtful Sunday school lessons. Contented grandchildren. Happy neighbors. These are some of the fruits of my father's hands. He was a child of God who lived to glorify Him and enjoy Him forever.

Congregations are unlikely to direct their parishioners to support one policy or politician (all to the good), but as noted above, they can help remind us to honour our fellow human beings—migrant or not, legal or not—as people made in the image of God, called to work to God's glory. And may that help guide us in pursuit of just immigration policies nationally and globally, policies that are just for the immigrant and just for the nation.

Ruth Melkonian-Hoover
Ruth Melkonian-Hoover

Ruth Melkonian-Hoover is an associate professor in Political Science and International Affairs at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts. Her scholarly interests include Latin America, immigration, women and politics, and religion and international affairs. She has published articles in Social Science Quarterly, The Review of Faith & International Affairs, Latin American Perspectives, and Political Research Quarterly. She is married to Dennis Hoover, and is the mother of Isaac and Gabriella. And to her chagrin, although she was once a housecleaner, her home today reflects little of that experience. She enjoys teaching and conducting research on religion and immigration.


Download and Share Articles From The Comment Reader

An introduction to Public Theology for the Common Good

Want more of the same fresh, thought-provoking content delivered right to your inbox once a week?