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The Selfish Ambition of Our Immigration Debate

In Galatians, the apostle Paul writes about the “fruit of the Spirit” and the “works of the flesh.” The former is a product of God’s influence in our lives, and the latter are actions that come from humanity’s corrupted and unredeemed disposition (Gal. 5:19–26).

Among the works of the flesh, Paul mentions what the English Standard Version refers to as “rivalries,” which the New International Version calls “selfish ambition” (v. 20). These are quarrels born of self-seeking. They divert our eyes from what’s good and true, shifting our focus toward spiting those who stand in the way of our gaining worldly treasure. Preoccupied with antagonism and winning the argument, we devalue doing what’s right. The fight becomes more important than the solution.

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Our country’s immigration policy has long been a casualty of this dynamic, and the partisan rivalries obstructing the pursuit of comprehensive immigration reform exemplify so much of what’s wrong with our politics.

America’s immigration problems on the southwest border are no small matter, involving both a humanitarian crisis for migrants and, on the home front, security and scarcity issues. In 2023, US Border Patrol reported over 2.4 million encounters with migrants on the Mexican border. Texas alone has a backlog of 458,630 immigration cases in its court system.

But migrants keep coming and applying for asylum because they believe the United States offers a better life—and that if they can just get across our border, they’ll be able to stay. Many migrants arriving at the southern border have left their native lands, like Venezuela and Colombia, to escape both economic and political hardship. “It’s wrong to claim that nobody arriving at the border is a refugee, as many have very legitimate claims of asylum,” explained Mexico-based journalist Ioan Grillo. “Yet it’s also wrong to say there aren’t any economic migrants. Or that people don’t flee both poverty and bullets.”

God told his people to take care of immigrants because of their often desperate situations (Zech. 7:9–10), and that age-old desperation is still our world’s reality today. Yet too many of our political leaders have been, at best, half-serious about fixing these problems. Selfish rivalries, pettiness, and fearmongering have frustrated years of efforts to address immigration reform with the cooperation and sobriety it requires.

People on both sides of the aisle were optimistic about the prospects of immigration legislation after then-president Barack Obama’s re-election in 2012. “I think 2013 is the year of immigration reform,” Sen. Lindsey Graham declared. The bipartisan “Gang of Eight” drafted the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013 and passed it in the US Senate, but the House never took it up. The bill died in the 113th Congress.

Soon, bipartisan immigration reform became anathema in the Republican Party. A loud minority of Tea Party activists found that hard-line border rhetoric got more attention than talk of comprehensive solutions. In 2014, Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost his seat, at least in part, because of his support of immigration reform, which his primary opponent characterized as amnesty for illegal aliens.

On the presidential campaign trail the following year, Sen. Ted Cruz took Gang of Eight member Sen. Marco Rubio to task for the unforgivable sin of working with Democrats on a bill that would’ve given some illegal immigrants a path to citizenship. “The Gang of Eight voted as a gang against enforcing and securing the border,” Cruz said, though his own record on immigration reform was far less restrictionist than he’d claim once public opinion turned.

The rise of former president Donald Trump, who infamously launched his 2016 presidential campaign suggesting most Mexican immigrants are violent criminals, guaranteed the Gang of Eight approach had no near-term future in the GOP. And now, almost a decade later, migrants, border states, and local governments are all unnecessarily suffering because of the selfish ambition of a few.

The situation came to a head early this year, with the Biden administration in a “standoff” with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and more than a dozen other red-state governors, after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the federal government in a border dispute. Given the urgency of the moment, another bipartisan group of senators crafted a narrower compromise deal—but apparently such a solution isn’t politically expedient in an election year.

Trump publicly opposed the deal, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, in private, reportedly pressured Senate Republicans to do the same, saying the former president wanted to campaign on a broken immigration system and urging his colleagues not “to do anything to undermine” Trump. That version of the deal died, and a new version, announced this past Sunday, died on Wednesday in the Senate.

This is civic malpractice. Foreclosing an opportunity to address a major national problem to win an election is a violation of public trust. This zero-sum gamesmanship has gone much too far. Legislators don’t have to accept the first proposal placed on the table—the deal that failed this week included unrelated war funding—but they do need to engage in good faith, with an eye toward solving the problem.

And the problem is not exclusive to Republicans. While Democrats have demonstrated a greater commitment to reform, some on the Left have reflexively resisted strong border control. “I hope Democrats can understand that it isn’t xenophobic to be concerned about the border,” Democratic Sen. John Fetterman recently said. “It’s a reasonable conversation, and Democrats should engage.”

Whether they will remains to be seen. Over the years, Democrats have responded to Republican opportunism and harshness with some rivalry-motivated antics of their own. This theater may help them win elections, but it has done a disservice to our country by downplaying the hardships that border states endure.

In some cases, Democrats’ own constituents have suffered for their selfish ambition. For instance, cities far from the southern border—like Chicago, Denver, and New York City—virtue-signaled and bragged about being sanctuary cities without adequate budget or plan for actually supporting thousands of migrants. Progressive mayors and governors used the border crisis as an opportunity to capitalize on national partisan polarization. They used a caricature of conservatives as a foil, talking about sanctuary city status as a cheap way to spite Republicans without having to deal with any of the real costs of our broken system. They boasted of generosity but were never forced to seriously consider what they would do if they had to govern Texas.

That performance was cut short when Texas Gov. Greg Abbot began sending asylum seekers up north to cities that only intended to support them symbolically. His decision was morally and ethically suspect, but he effectively called the Democrats’ bluff and forced them into the conversation in earnest. Instead of selling wolf tickets to the media, they now had skin in the game. And after receiving tens of thousands of migrants, they started screaming bloody murder. Even New York City Mayor Eric Adams criticized the Biden administration on immigration. The charade has been exposed.

We don’t have to pretend both sides are equivalent on this issue to recognize that it’s more complex than simply being kind and letting migrants in or mean-spiritedly keeping them out. While the Christian call to treat the immigrant with compassion is clear, that general disposition doesn’t prohibit us from acknowledging the practical reality. We don’t let everyone in the street into our homes, because we don’t have enough food or rooms for all. America has wealth, but it’s not without those same considerations when it comes to immigration. Encouraging people to come to a place that is not prepared to accommodate them is not kind.

It’s time to get serious. We need comprehensive immigration reform, and we should encourage our leaders to do the hard work of democracy, to sit down and thoughtfully find solutions that both sides can accept.

What we need right now is to start thinking and acting like a united country. We can’t afford these partisan rivalries and the selfish ambition that perpetually stalls important legislation until the next election. We can’t afford to only worry about our party, region, state, or city. This is not how to maintain a healthy republic.

We also can’t belittle the struggles of our political opponents. Regardless of which party we’re in, Christians should have no tolerance for the denigration of immigrants, self-interested gamesmanship, or political theatrics where the lives of hurting people are concerned. The Bible calls us to love the foreigners among us, to feed and clothe them (Deut. 10:18; Jer. 7:5–7). We can’t let our self-interest or contempt for the other party make us lose sight of that command.

Justin Giboney is an ordained minister, attorney, and the president of AND Campaign, a Christian civic organization. He’s the co-author of Compassion (&) Conviction: The AND Campaign’s Guide to Faithful Civic Engagement.




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