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Say what you will about Donald Trump. He has pushed immigration to the forefront of the 2016 Republican primary, and his crude bravado in speaking to this issue is one of the major reasons he’s still riding high.

No one denies that US immigration policy is a mess. One poll found that 63 percent of Republicans want to deport the estimated 11 million illegals in the United States. Sniffing a popular cause, Congress has jumped aboard with legislation focused on identifying, arresting, and punishing violent criminals among illegal aliens.

Considered strictly as a policy issue, there is much to commend open borders. Like Prohibition, recent efforts to control immigration haven’t done much to control immigration, but instead have pushed immigrants into back alleys and speakeasies that do a brisk business in forgery, illegal and dangerous transport, and other skullduggeries. Opening the border would undercut these criminal networks, as legalizing booze put the bootleggers out of business.

Even Pat Buchanan admits that most migrants work hard for their share of America’s prosperity. If border controls were relaxed, Kevin Johnson has argued, honest refugees and migrants could come in safely through legal checkpoints, allowing the INS, Homeland Security, and other agencies to use scarce resources to target known or suspected terrorists, drug-runners, and other criminals.

With open borders, Johnson says, “rules and regulations governing the entry of noncitizens into the country would approximate those that exist for goods, services, and capital that enter.” We’d benefit from freer, more mobile labor, as we benefit from cheap imports. Many doubt whether the new immigrants can be assimilated, but for all our groping disarray, America is still damned good at turning people from every corner of the globe into devoted Americans: In the image of ourselves make we them. It’s not hard. Most of them are here because they’ve long dreamed of becoming Americans.

That’s hardly a slam-dunk policy argument, but it’s a serious position, worthy of better than the wacky-nut treatment it’s usually given.

But it is a policy argument, and there’s the rub, because immigration cuts deeper than policy can reach.

Immigration has always roiled under the surface of American politics. It’s the price of being America, a land subdued by outcasts and transplants, first from Western Europe, then from the world. Every fresh wave of immigrants is an American identity crisis. Are we a Protestant nation, or can we make room for Irish Papists? Are we European, or are we commodious enough for Indians and Chinese? Are we English-speaking, or are the polyglot sidewalks of midtown Manhattan as essential to the glory of America as Midwestern farm towns?

We have not always welcomed the huddled masses, but have zagged from comparative openness to restriction to selective exclusion before zigging back. Immigration was never wholly unregulated. Even before it was federalized, states imposed limits on entry. With the “Chinese Exclusion Act” of 1882, the federal government took control of immigration, and it used its power in part to preserve the nation’s racial, ethnic, linguistic, and religious purity. When the Act was contested, the Supreme Court upheld the “plenary power” of Congress to control immigration and expel unassimilable groups. Quotas favoring Europeans followed, then a policy focused on reuniting families, now a mashup policy attempting to meet the conflicting demands of market regulation, anti-terror security, family unity, and generosity, all without breaking the bank of the welfare state.

G. K. Chesterton said that America is a nation with the soul of a church, and our Pentecostal population is among the most obvious proofs. Yet here more than anywhere else, the Church’s polity clashes with American polity. When we follow the guidance of our Scriptures, Christians don’t have the luxury of ambivalence, much less hostility, toward immigrants. On the assumption that strangers would move into Israel, Torah exhorts the Hebrews to treat strangers with justice, mindful that they had been strangers in Egypt. Torah’s inclusiveness is fulfilled in Paul’s declaration that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, native-born or foreign-born.

The fact that immigrants aren’t white or American doesn’t matter; questions about American citizenship are secondary. Christian immigrants—and there are many—are brothers and sisters; non-Christians are a mission field, conveniently dropped on our doorstep. What’s not to like? If America is ethnically diverse, so much the better, because so much the more does it resemble that final kingdom assembled from all tribes, tongues, nations, and peoples.

Trump’s candidacy has been buoyed by Evangelicals, who display a typically American ambivalence about outsiders. That Evangelicals support Trump might be evidence of a compartmentalization of political and religious convictions, or it might be a symptom of a deeper pathology. Trump’s bombast has sparked an identity crisis not only for the nation but also for the Church. While he forces Americans to ask, “Is America a nation with the soul of a church?” the question he puts to Christians is more probing: “Are we a church with the soul of America?”

Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute. He is the author most recently of Gratitude: An Intellectual History. His previous articles can be found here.

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