What the Bible really says about how to treat refugees

Recently a text written by Jesse Carey, in Relevant Magazine, supposedly about what the Bible says about immigrants, refugees and displaced people, has come to me. The text is a bit old (from November 17, 2015), but is being reheated because of President Trump’s recent decisions in this area. Given these things, here are some comments on “What the Bible Says About How to Treat Refugees.”

Carey presents what he calls “12 verses about loving immigrants, refugees and displaced people”. The first thing to note is that none of the texts presented by Carey mentions the word refugees. The texts speak about foreigners, the poor and needy, travelers, strangers, and neighbors, but never about refugees. A refugee is a foreigner, but not every foreigner is a refugee. The same goes for stranger. Amazingly, refugee is also not synonymous with traveler. Every refugee is traveling (against his will, it is assumed), but not everyone who is traveling is a refugee. Finally, a refugee can be poor and needy, but poor and needy and refugee are also not synonymous. It seems that Carey has difficulty reading: when he sees words like foreigner or traveler or poor and needy or stranger his brain reads refugee. Either that or he’s being flagrantly dishonest.

The second observation is that, in the language used by Jesus, for the Christian every refugee is a neighbor. Not every refugee is poor and needy, not every foreigner is a refugee, nor does every stranger is a refugee and not every traveler is a refugee. But for the Christian, every human being is a neighbor, and so deserves his mercy. The problem is that Carey wants to apply this to immigration policies, and immigration policies are not made by Christian individuals, but by governments.

The history of the relationship between churches and governments is long, complex and tumultuous. To make a quick summary, suffice it to say that during the Middle Ages church leaders and political leaders fought and argued among themselves about who would dominate the people of Europe. The Bishop of Rome wanted to be above the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. At the local level, bishops and priests fought with nobles of all kinds. The result was a general confusion. One of the great victories of the Modern Era, beginning with the Protestant Reformation (which celebrates 500 years this year) was the separation of churches and state. Especially since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, the tendency has been for states not to use their arms to impose a religion on the population. Carey wants to go the other way. He even cites 1 Corinthians 12:12-14 as if it applied to every human being, and not only to Christians.

The Bible teaches that individual Christians must care for needy people, and certainly refugees fall into this category. But the Bible does not teach that the state should do this. The role of the state, according to the Bible, is to carry the sword to punish wrongdoers and to benefit those who follow the law (the classic text regarding this is Romans 13). In other words, biblically the function of the state is restricted to security. Receiving immigrants is certainly a policy with which Christians can agree, but fully open borders, without any vigilance, are a delusion and nothing more. Wrongdoers can disguise themselves as immigrants to enter a country, and it is up to the state to do some kind of security check.

I am not discussing here the details of Trump’s current policy for immigrants and refugees. It is quite possible that there are aspects within it that Christians can or should disagree with. But by wanting to impose Christian behavior on the state, Carey goes against one of the greatest victories of the Modern Age, the separation of churches and state, something amazing for a liberal and progressive author. Does he approve of compulsory prayer in schools, the end of teaching Darwinism and punishment for those who do not attend Sunday worship? Hope not.

Roger Williams has already presented this discussion very clearly more than 300 years ago: Christians cannot impose their religion using the state for this. What can be expected Biblically from the state is in the second table of the law: you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony … Basically, do not hurt others, do not lie to them and do not take their stuff without permission, things that any kindergarten child knows are wrong. I do not think we need the Bible to teach us that.

I hope that the state is open to immigration as much as possible, being restricted only by security concerns. I hope Christians will welcome the refugees. I hope the wall of separation between church and state is never overthrown. And I hope that the rulers of the United States will leave the Islamic world for the Islamists to take care of. They already have enough work taking care of the safety of Americans in North America.

On immigration, trade, and inequality: why nobody should care (that much)

Recently, I read snippets from George Borjas’s book, We Wanted Workers (I got distracted and reverted to reading Leah Platt Boustan’s Competition in the Promised Land).On its heels came this article by Dani Rodrik in Foreign Policy. Both work make the same case, that free movement of goods and people may imply some negative effects on inequality. Borjas argues that immigration increases inequality while Rodrik argues that low-skilled workers are displaced.

Both arguments are not convincing.

First of all, immigration will always increase inequality in one area. This is by definition. Unless the migrants follow the same distributional pattern as the host population, inequality will increase. If somebody from Cuba enters the United States at the tenth percentile, he increases inequality by swelling the ranks of low earners. If somebody from China enters the United States at the 90th percentile, he increases inequality by swelling the ranks of the high earners. However, from a global perspective (world population), inequality has actually dropped since the migrant has a greater income than in the past. After all, bringing a Haitian to the US may increase US inequality measures but the ten-fold increase in his income (this number comes from my colleague Ben Powell) means that worldwide inequality drops.

To be honest, I know that Borjas is probably aware of this point, but many of those who spin his work don’t get it. Borjas’s argument is little more sophisticated. His claim is that low-skilled workers (high school dropouts) see their wages go down while everybody else (high school graduates and university graduates) gains from immigration. This increases inequality because they are left behind economically. But this is where his argument is alike that of Rodrik and where it misses the target dramatically.

While I could be lazy and simply say that many other scholars place Borjas at the extreme of the spectrum of academics with regards to the effects of immigration on labor markets. Indeed, there are more scholars who find that low-skilled workers also gain from immigration all things being equal. But, I won’t be lazy. Let me assume, for the sake of argument, that the empirical result is valid. If unskilled workers are displaced, why can’t they find new employment elsewhere. If the effects of immigration are so positive for everybody else, it means that everybody else is substantially richer and they can demand more goods. Are there barriers preventing the unskilled from acquiring jobs? The answer is emphatically yes.

The ability to find a new form of employment following changes in the labor market depends on the frictions that exist on the labor market. Some of them are natural. We have to assume search costs (time, energy, some money) to look for a job and get the training for that job. But there are also barriers that create unnecessary frictions. The rise of occupational licencing is one of those (growing) frictions (see here, here and here). We could also point out that product regulations tend to affect the prices of goods that weigh more heavily in the consumption baskets of lower-income workers (here and here) thus pulling the poorest down. We could also point to the fact that states with right to work laws seem to have enjoyed more limited increases in inequality than the states without such laws (here). We could also underline the fact that housing regulations are making it harder for unskilled workers to move to dynamic areas, thus locking them in low-productivity areas (here). And the list could go on for a few more pages, but I think the point is made: there are tons of factors that make displacement a problem. However, those who worry about it when it comes from changes resulting from trade or immigration are concerned with a minor (and positive in the long-run) variable. In a way, Borjas and Rodrik are (rightfully) concerned about the poorest but they fail to identify the problem like if a doctor was concerned with his patient’s loss of sight rather than concentrating on the brain tumor that caused the loss.

Free trade and open borders generate massive benefits. But there are short-term costs as production methods and resources are being reallocated. Many government policies amplify exponentially these costs and delay reallocation. This creates the inequality they bemoan.

A non-argument against immigration

I often encounter the argument that immigrants, especially Muslims, are so different from the populations of their host countries that they threaten the institutional foundations of these societies. As a result, the logic goes, we must restrict immigration.

I do not accept that argument as valid nor do I accept it as sufficient (in the case I am wrong) to make the case in favor of further restrictions on immigration.

First of all, the “social distance” between immigrants and the hosts society is very subjective. The caricature below offers a glimpse into how “unsuited” were Catholic immigrants to the US in the eyes of 19th century American natives. Back then, Catholics were the papist hordes invading America and threatening the very foundations of US civilization. Somehow, that threat did not materialize (if it ever existed).  This means that many misconceptions will tend to circulate which are very far from the truth. One good example of these misconceptions is illustrated by William Easterly and Sanford Ikeda on the odds of a terrorist being a muslim and the odds of a muslim being a terrorist. Similar tales (especially given the propensity of Italian immigrants to be radical anarchists) were told about Catholics back then. So let’s just minimize the value of this argument regarding going to hell in a hand basket.


But let us ignore the point made above – just for the sake of argument. Is this a sufficient argument against more immigration? Not really. If the claim is that they hinder “our” institutions, then let them come but don’t let them participate in our institutions. For example, the right to vote could be restricted to individuals who are born in the host country or who have been in the country for more than X-number of years. In fact, restrictions on citizenship are frequent. In Switzerland, there are such restrictions related to “blood” or “length of stay”. I am not a fan of this compromise measure (elsewhere I have advocated the Gary Becker self-selection mechanism through pricing immigration as a compromise position).*

The point is that if you make the argument that immigrants are different than their host societies, you have not made the case against immigration, you have made the case for restrictions against civic participation.

* Another “solution” on this front is to impose user fees on the use of public services. For example, in my native country of Canada, provincial governments could modify the public healthcare insurance card to indicate that the person is an immigrant and must pay a X $ user fee for visiting the hospital. Same thing would apply for vehicle licencing or other policies. Now, I am not a fan of such measures as I believe that restrictions on citizenship (but offering legal status as residents) and curtailements of the welfare state are sufficient to deal with 99% of the “problem”. 

US Immigration: a Primer

President Trump was elected for a variety of reasons but any observant person knows that the general topic of immigration played a significant role. Mr Trump appears unfamiliar with the current American immigration system and he is ignorant of the economic benefits of immigration, or he downplays them. Below I address modest parts of both topics. I aim for sensationalism rather than for completeness.

First a little bit about the American immigration system such as it is in January 2017. There are two main bizarre ideas among Trump supporters about the real system: One regards who is allowed to come into this country (legally, I mean); the other strange misconception has to do with how aliens become US citizens.

The system by which the US admits immigrants is a little complicated and its description relies on a specialized legal jargon. In my considerable experience, few people have the patience to sit through a lecture on American immigration policy. So, let me cut to the chase:


There is no way, zero way, the average married Mexican can legally immigrate into this country.

This is worth mentioning because many are under the impression that illegal immigrants are cheats who cut through the line instead of patiently waiting their turn.

The “average Mexican” does not have American-born children, children who are US citizens by birth. Mexicans who do have such children and the children are minors go to the head of the line. There is no (zero) line for those who don’t have close relatives who are Americans or legal immigrants. This example illustrates the US immigration policy that accounts for most legal immigrants in most years: Family re-unification.  

Sophisticated people noticed long ago that there is an instantaneous way to acquire an American relative. It’s to marry an American. Doing so for the purpose of gaining admission to the US is illegal for both parties involved. I don’t know if anyone ever goes to jail for it but it’s ground for immediate deportation. Nevertheless, I am told by some of my immigrant friends that there is a thriving little cottage industry of visa brides and grooms for a fee in some parts of the country. I cannot verify this rumor but I believe it.

Similarly, there is only one way the average married Irish man or woman may immigrate into this country: Winning a lottery. (You read this right: a lottery which one may play as often as one wishes; it has not entry fee.) In 2015, only about 49,000 people, all from Europe and Africa, gained admission on the basis of winning that lottery.

Some legal immigrants gain admission under the broad category of “employment related reasons.”  This category includes high-level programmers as well as farriers. (Look it up.) It’s a small number. In 2015 they made up about 15% of all one million-plus legal admissions. Our average Mexican and our average Irishman does not qualify here either.

You may have heard of an “investor’s visa” accorded to foreigners who will create employment in the US. That’s always a tiny number, about 10,000 in 2015.  It’s not always open. Congress decides about if every so often.

There is a third main, amorphous way by which foreigners are admitted, “asylum” broadly defined. I call it “amorphous” because the definition of who is a refugee or an asylum seeker can be changed by Congress in a very short time. The President decides how many can be admitted in either category. The number admitted under this category is accordingly highly variable. It was about 150,000 in 2015. It could have become 500,000 in 2016 because of a new crisis anywhere in the world. (It didn’t.) The current, Trump figure of  50,000 seems just about normal historically. Yet, there is wide variation about the average.

There is thus no orderly queue that Felipe or Ahmed could join on their own if they wanted to avoid becoming illegal aliens.

That’s it, folks. If you want to know more about the raw numbers, study the relevant pages in the Statistical Abstract of the US.

So, contrary to what I suspect is a widespread idea among conservatives, it is not the case that there is an orderly, wide-open legal way to immigrate into this country that illegal immigrants perversely ignore. Illegal immigrants are not rudely jumping to the head of the line; they come in through a side-door the US does not seem able to close.

One more thing, a programmatic idea: Instead of the present admission policies (plural)  based on viciously absurd selection we have, we could take a page from the Australian and from the Canadian playbooks. That is, we could coolly decide what kind of immigrants we want and try and tailor a door to those precise dimensions. Presently, we are doing very little of this, however unbelievable it may sound. Such a rational procedure would not not need to eliminate refugee and asylum seekers admissions.

I am personally in favor of such a reform . I also think special policies  should apply  to our proximate neighbors to the north and to the south. I developed this idea with Sergey Nikiforov in an article [pdf] published in the Independent Review several years ago.

Incidentally, I am a product of a rational immigration policy myself. I was admitted on merit alone. I rest my case! Thank you for asking. OK, truth be told, I tried to come in as a spouse of an American citizen but she dumped me.


On to the next misconstrued idea. I keep hearing (on talk radio, I confess) irate citizens affirming that foreigners who don’t want to take American citizenship should not be admitted. The case hardly arises.

In fact, in reality, to be allowed to become a US citizen, to take American citizenship, requires several years of residence in this country after being legally admitted. (See above.)

Hence, personal preference plays little role in determining which immigrant does not become a US citizen. I don’t have the numbers but I am sure that, as a rule, the vast majority of legal immigrants adopt American citizenship shortly after they are legally empowered to do so. It is true that, in theory, some hesitation or some problems may arise in connection with some countries of origin who do not wish to recognize dual citizenship. In practice, depriving anyone of his passport is low on the list of priorities of most countries from which new US citizens originate. (India may be an exception – a curious exception – as if the country were facing an unbearable burden of immigrants of all sorts.)

The consequence of this scenario is that, contrary to what I think is a widespread notion, there is no horde of legal immigrants living in this country and peevishly and disloyally refusing to take American citizenship. It also follows that there is no mass of illegal immigrants who obstinately refuse American citizenship. It’s not available to them, period.

I think it’s legitimate to be opposed to illegal immigration and even to legal immigration but it’s best to do on the basis of correct information.

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
— poem by Emma Lazarus, 1883

French Expatriates and Foreign Francophiles

First, a definition: an expatriate is someone who lives outside the country of his birth on a more or less permanent basis. I am dealing here with French expatriates specifically, a fairly rare breed in relation to the size of the French population, rarer than English and American expatriates, for example.

The French expatriates often land in a particular town of a particular country at a particular time for no particular reason. They may have been heading somewhere else and gotten stuck along the way. They always include wives and former wives of natives who may have divorced them, or died. Coming from different epochs (such as before and after the establishment of French social democracy in the 1980s), they form historical strata. Each stratum remembers a different France, and the strata may entertain disparate and often incompatible visions of the fatherland.

They have developed new habits in the country where they live and, without knowing it, they have drifted far from their culture of origin. Many disseminate patently false notions about the country where they were raised; they do it more or less innocently because myth-making and absence go well together. Their French self is forever a young person, or even a child. Their own children are simply natives of their land of residence with a smattering of the French language and no real curiosity, forever strangers to their parents.

The Francophiles are yet another story. They are people who don’t have the luck to have been born French but who love what they imagine is French culture with a degree of repressed hysteria. No part of the world is free of them. I have bumped into them everywhere I have been; they have victimized me everywhere with their undeserved love. Many but by no means all are also francophone to some extent. Some gain standing in their own mind via their real or imagined mastery of what they have decided is a superior national culture.

They are usually very parochial, doubly so because they are fixated on France and on their own country, to the exclusion of knowledge of any other part of the world. Others are teachers of French who feel professionally obligated to revere that which they teach and, by extension, everything French. Often, they don’t even know the language very well, limited as they are by the cramped discourse of textbooks, without awareness of the vigor, of the colorfulness, and, especially, of the frequent crudeness of the real French language of both literature and everyday life. (“Cul-de-sac,” for example, means “ass of a bag.”)

Once, a long time ago, in Bolivia of all places, I observed that the two groups mixed well. It was at a Bastille Day celebration at the French consulate. The French expats and the Francophiles shared the rudimentary popular imagery of the 1789 French revolution, that beheaded a king for the sake of “public salvation,” and his pretty, frivolous young queen, just in case. (That was after storming a prison-fortress, the Bastille, that was largely undefended.)

Think of reading my book: I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography. It’s available from Amazon, under my name. I need the bucks. Please!