Executive Order 13769 and the Biblical Case for Vetting Asylum-Seekers
by Stephen Ferguson, March 2, 2017: Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States
Unless you have been in cryogenic stasis for the last few months, you would know that Donald Trump is now President of the United States. Some Christians are almost dancing in the streets, as if Trump were Emperor Constantine, come to end decades of semi-official persecution. Other Christians are in mourning, also viewing Trump as a modern-day Constantine, but in this case come to usher in the Great Apostasy.
One recent issue that has brought these differing perspectives to light is Executive Order 13769, Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States, signed on January 27, 2017. As you no doubt already know, the Order has been subject to a spate of legal challenges, and is probably eventually destined for the Supreme Court.
I will say at the outset that while the world seems to have gone into a collective apoplectic fit, President Trump didn’t invent this problem. The Order needs to be understood within the context of a growing world immigration crisis that almost every country in the West has, or is going through, the gravity of which could see the collapse of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.
The protests would indicate many Christians don’t feel entirely comfortable with the Order – not even among Trump’s core base. As reported in the media, a broad coalition of Evangelical leaders spoke out against banning certain entrants from majority-Muslim nations, even on a temporary basis, pending new “extreme vetting” procedures being introduced. As a government lawyer with several years of experience in immigration law, I will come straight out and say I feel Christians need to be very careful in overstating their opposition to the Order, and pose two questions for you to consider.
Looking at the Order specifically, Rev. Franklin Graham, president of the international Christian relief organization Samaritan’s Purse and son of famous Evangelist Billy Graham, dared to go against the general trend by saying: “It’s not a biblical command for the country to let everyone in who wants to come; that’s not a Bible issue.” So the first question is whether Graham is right: “Is there a biblical case for vetting asylum-seekers?”
Many disagree. Vickie Reddy, author of We Welcome Refugees was recently quoted in Christianity Today as saying: “Today’s order means our team’s hope of welcoming a family in the next month is not going to happen.” But would removing immigration controls help families, given statistics showing that 61% of all asylum-seekers to the West are males under the age of 35? Should the West, including the US, adopt the example of Chancellor (“Mother”) Angela Merkel who, in 2015, announced, “no limits on the number of asylum seekers,” only to backtrack some months later when Germany could not cope? The second essential question, therefore, is: “Would a more open-border system better protect the most vulnerable and deserving?”
Question #1: Is there a biblical case for vetting asylum-seekers?
The biblical case for refugees
First impressions suggest the Order, and similar measures around the world, contravenes the biblical injunction: “Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt” (Ex. 23:9).
From an Old Testament (OT) perspective, the children of Israel were commanded (when not committing genocide against Canaanites) to love foreigners as themselves (Lev. 19:33-34). Even a portion of the tithe was set aside to assist the alien (Deut. 26:12).
From a New Testament (NT) perspective, we are called to give hospitality to strangers, because in doing so we may have unknowingly entertained angels (Heb. 13:2). Jesus also made clear that we are to love our neighbours, but that our neighbours include even Samaritans – hated outsiders with a suspect religion – much like Muslims today (Luke 10:25-37).
The Christian argument in favour of supporting immigration is widespread and brings to mind a recent article by Bruce Campbell Moyer, published in Adventist Today on December 29, 2016, which made an excellent biblical case for holding this view. But that is only part of the story.
The biblical case for vetting
While scripture suggests we should welcome immigrants, it doesn’t tell us to accept them with no questions asked. In particular, the OT cities of refuge were set aside as special places of asylum, but it appears ancient “green cards” were not automatic: “The slayer shall flee to one of these cities and shall stand at the entrance of the gate of the city, and explain the case to the elders of that city” (Joshua 20:4). In other words, scripture recognizes the validity of vetting!
From a NT perspective, Jesus demanded we “give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s” (Matt. 22:15-22). Christians are therefore to submit and give honour to civil authorities, who are appointed by God to bring wrath and judgment (Rom. 13:1-6). If these governments are appointed by God, we should consider that in both ancient and modern times, their fundamental duties include controlling immigration (Ex 23:31-33), regulating travel (Luke 2:1-4) and safeguarding territorial integrity (Luke 3:14; 14:31).
Cries for justice, equity and a fairer system
Now to avoid any doubt, I am not saying I support Order 13769 in its entirety. I don’t think it makes much sense to impose a blanket ban on citizens of poor Muslim countries when Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are excluded. I don’t agree with blanket-banning Syrians, who are about the most vulnerable people on earth.
The Order might also deny people due process, whereas Joshua 20:4 mandates a hearing. And I don’t agree with the some US officials’ using the Order to justify heavy-handed tactics, such as when Muhammad Ali Jr., son of the boxing legend, was recently detained at a Florida airport because he was doubly unfortunate to be an African-American with a Muslim-sounding name.
Nonetheless, in the cacophony against the Order, it is important we don’t lose sight of the fact there needs to be some sort of orderly process. This is precisely because many refugee-advocates are right in complaining there is no refugee “queue.” Without a queue, there is a danger of asylum’s becoming a first-come, first-served system.
To give a first-hand example, a good Iranian-Baha’i friend of mine languished for several years in a UN refugee camp in Pakistan awaiting his “turn,” all while other middle-class Iranian-Muslims took flights from Tehran to Indonesia, paid smugglers to ferry them to Australia, and then claimed asylum. How is that fair? It isn’t. It is why Rev. Franklin Graham is right.
Question #2: Would a more open-border system better protect the most vulnerable and deserving?
Turning to our second question, I feel there are two common mistakes Christian refugee-advocates make in complaining about government immigration policies. The first is a lack of nuance about who is most deserving. The second is a failure to accept economic realities.
The problem of lumping all “brown people” together
Anyone calling for an orderly immigration system is likely to be called a racist, either behind his back or to his face. However, I can tell you from years of experience, the actual racists are often refugee-advocates who offensively lump all “brown people” together.
It is uninformed advocates who often fail to recognize the very significant difference between a 6-year old Yazidi girl from Syria fleeing a war zone who, because of poverty now languishes forgotten in a tent city in the Jordanian desert, and a middle-class PhD student from Iran, who comes from a conservative but otherwise perfectly safe country. If you think I am making this up, I suggest you view the eye-opening “Four Corners” documentary aired by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, in which one Iranian asylum-seeker quite openly admitted:
“There are lots of reasons why I came here because Germany is kind of, you know, luxurious and my field of study is industrial management. I was a PhD student in my country and I want to pursue my education in the field of production management and for Iranian people unfortunately we needed to pass off ourselves as Iraqi or Afghans because the border is really closed for Iranian people because they say that Iranian people are not living in war. There was no alternative for people like me.’
Between the Syrian girl and the Iranian PhD student, who do you think satisfies the definition of “refugee,” that is, someone with “a well-founded fear of being persecuted”? But of the two, who do you think has the resources to pay people smugglers to get to the West?
Failure to accept economic realities and 4th-grade mathematics
So whom should we let in? Don’t say everyone. Don’t say we should accept both the Syrian girl and the Iranian PhD student, because that naïve answer belies a basic understanding of 4th grade mathematics. What you are really saying is you support a first-come, first-serve system, based on wealth and ability over need.
The UNHCR estimates there are some 65.3 million displaced people in the world, which means not even the world’s richest countries can accommodate everyone. The cold hard fact is resources are limited. It currently costs about US$20,000-$100,000 per refugee, which translates to about US$1.3 to $6.5 trillion to settle those 65.3 million displaced persons. To put that into perspective, the total US budget for 2016 was $3.6 trillion, with the Australian budget for 2016 being a mere US$450 billion. You can see the problem.
Spending entire national budgets on millions of asylum seekers isn’t realistic. Even progressive citizens expect their governments to spend money on health, education, welfare, the environment, the arts and a host of worthy programs. As mentioned previously, even Merkel had to close the door when Germany couldn’t cope, both financially and socially, with over a million new arrivals.
This is why the world’s most generous nations, such as Canada, still have limits on how many refugees they will accept. Australia’s ultra-progressive Greens’ Party supports a generous quota of 50,000 refugees, but even that is still only a drop in the proverbial bucket of 65 million.
Biblical illustrations of hard choices
The communistic Early Church had to accept the hard reality of allocation of finite resources when the Apostles intervened on behalf of the Hellenistic (Greek) widows who were being discriminated against (Acts 6:1). Paul also had to limit charity to only those widows over the age of sixty (1 Tim. 5:9), and elsewhere pronounced, “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat” (2 Th. 3:10).
Applying this tough calculus, while we should legitimately help the less fortunate, we equally need to be careful of “Corban,” that is, neglecting the private duty to our own families for the sake of appearing holy through making a public sacrifice (Mark 7:11). In our rush to be compassionate, we need to accept that open-border immigration policies might actually cause more harm than good to those most vulnerable.
Conclusion: Is the road to hell paved with the best intentions?
So what is the solution? Perhaps not Order 13769 as it currently stands. At the very least, perhaps we should consider putting more resources into the points of origin, so that asylum seekers don’t have to flee their countries in the first place.
I am mindful of that old cliché, about the road to hell being paved with the best intentions. While your local church group is helping that Iranian PhD student find a new job and place to stay, I fear you have forgotten about – or worse, don’t even know about – that 6-year-old girl stuck in the Jordanian desert. Out of sight, out of mind. It is a horrible reality to confront, but the truth is we might unwittingly be leaving a pregnant woman out in the cold because we gave away the last room at the inn. When confronted with difficult, multifaceted issues, it isn’t enough for us to be innocent as doves – Jesus also calls us to be as wise as snakes (Matt. 10:16).
 See Elana Schor and Seung Min Kim, “Christian groups oppose Trump’s preference for Christian refugees,” Politico, Jan 29, 2017.
 Carol Kuruvilla, “Here’s How Franklin Graham Justifies Trump’s Expected Refugee Ban,” Huffington Post, Jan 26, 2017.
 A quick note on terminology: The terms asylum seeker and refugee are often confused: an asylum-seeker is someone who says he or she is a refugee, but whose claim has not yet been definitively evaluated”: “Asylum-Seekers,” United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Feb 27, 2017.
 Cited by Kate Shellnutt, “Evangelical Experts Oppose Trump’s Refugee Ban,” Christianity Today, Jan 25, 2017.
 Phillip Conner, “Asylum seeker demography: Young and male,” Pew Research Center, Aug 2, 2016. Interestingly, the figures for male asylum seekers under the age of 35 include: 57% for Syrians, 76% for Afghanis, 80% for Pakistanis, 82% for Bangladeshis, 92% for Gambians. Does that suggest Syrian refugees are on the whole more genuine, in that they are fleeing immediate danger with their entire families, rather than simply sending a male “anchor” to the West, who will later sponsor over the rest of this family?
 The Associated Press, “The Latest: Merkel Sees No Legal Limit on Asylum Seekers,” Business Insider, Sep 5, 2015.
 Matthew Karnitschnig, “Merkel Backtracks on Open Borders,” Politico, Sep 13, 2015. The level of backtracking by Chancellor Merkel is truly astounding, as she goes from “Mother” of all refugees and “Chancellor of the Free World” to a full-blown Islamophobe, calling for a ban of the burqa in an attempt to win over the growing right-wing insurgency in her own country: Joseph Klein, “Merkel Backtracks Amidst Refugee Crisis,” Frontpage Mag, Dec 9, 2017.
 That said, I understand the politics behind the Order, in that it lists seven countries the previous Administration had named as “of particular concern.” President Obama himself had subjected citizens of these countries to additional immigration restrictions, but of course not to the same magnitude: Mallory Shelbourne, “Spicer: Obama administration originally flagged 7 countries in Trump’s order,” The Hill, 29 Jan 2017.
 Emma Graham-Harrison, “US border agents ask Muhammad Ali’s son: ‘Are you a Muslim?’”, The Guardian, Feb 26, 2017.
 Taken directly from the transcript of Barbara Miller, “One Night in Cologne,” Four Corners, March 29, 2016:
The prevalence of Iranian nationals travelling into other countries and claiming asylum, including Australia, is well-known and documented. It was actually a key initiative of Left-wing Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to have Indonesia impose tougher visa restrictions on Iranian tourists, many of whom would then pay smugglers to travel by boat to Australia. As stated elsewhere, there is also a nuanced difference between Iranian minorities, such as members of the Baha’i faith who suffer real State-sanctioned persecution, compared with majority Iranian Shi’ites.
 Article 1 of the Convention, as amended by the 1967 Protocol.
 See https://www.unhcr.org/en-au/figures-at-a-glance.html.
 Patrick Kingsley, “Why does resettling a refugee cost 17,000 pounds in the US – but 85,000 in Britain?”, The Guardian, Sep 13, 2016; “Each “Refugee” Costs US Taxpayers $20K,” The Observer, June 8, 2016.
 See “Monthly Budget Review: Summary for Fiscal Year 2016,” Congressional Budget Office, Nov 7, 2016, see: https://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/114th-congress-2015-2016/reports/52152-mbr.pdf
 “Budget 2016-2017,” Budget Paper No. 1, Statement 3, The Australian Tax Office, see: https://budget.gov.au/2016-17/content/glossies/overview/html/overview-13.htm
 See Josef Joffe, “After Berlin, Angela Merkel’s open door to migrants might slam shut,” The Guardian, December 21, 2016; and Justin Huggler, “The door is closed: Germany begins turning away migrants at the border after Cologne sex attacks,” National Post, January 13, 2016.
 In 2015, Canada resettled 20,010 refugees. The United States was actually the most generous country, resettling 66,517. Other generous countries, especially on a per capita basis, were Australia at 9,399, Norway at 2,383 and Sweden at 1,902. See “UNHCR Global Trends 2015,” Refugee Council of Australia, June 20, 2016: https://www.refugeecouncil.org.au/getfacts/statistics/unchr2015/
 Michael Gordon, “Greens back rise to refugee intake to 50,000, new ‘skilled’ visa,” The Sydney Morning Herald, Apr 15, 2016: https://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/greens-back-rise-in-refugee-intake-to-50000-new-skilled-visa-20160415-go7l3f.html
 For a full analysis on the biblical concept of Corban, see: Joel Marcus, Mark, Anchor Bib. Comm. 27, 2 vol. (New York: Doubleday, 1999, 2007), 452.