Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, temptest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
—Statue of Liberty

Few issues in modern American culture raise more ethical questions than the heated discussion about immigration. There are many sides to these many questions, making this one of the most complicated conversations in American politics and life. One study noted that “few subjects are so fraught with misinformation and lack of information, complexity and paradox, political interest and governmental neglect, social concern and human callousness, careful economic analysis and fiscal incertitude” (Illegal Immigration in America: A Reference Handbook).

In light of this overwhelming conundrum, it would be wise for all sides to be thoughtful and not hasty as we formulate our suggestions to solve this knotty problem. Bible-believing Christians must bring to the discussion the teachings of God’s Word so that, in the final analysis, the proposed solutions will truly be a Christian response to immigration reform and not just a collection of political platitudes based upon preconceived notions.

Old Testament Teaching on the Stranger

One starting point for Biblical discussion of the issue of illegal immigrants is the Old Testament teaching about strangers among the Israelites. Several statements command a caring attitude and corresponding actions relative to any such foreigner among the people. Israelites were not to glean the harvest but to leave the gleaning to the “poor and the stranger” (Leviticus 19:10; cf. Ruth). It was wrong for any Israelite to oppress or vex any stranger in the land (Exodus 22:1, 2). Following God’s example, the Israelites were to practice justice and mercy toward strangers (Deuteronomy 24:17–21). Other passages include Deuteronomy 10:17–29; 18; Jeremiah 7:5–8, and Malachi 3:5.

Reading these Old Testament passages might tempt one to conclude that Americans should allow illegal immigrants to obtain health care and other benefits. If God wanted Israel to demonstrate love for the alien, surely America can do no less. Some might want to push the application to the point that the United States should have an open borders policy. After all, Jesus said to do to others as one would have them do unto oneself (Matthew 7:12).

However, the interpreter must be careful at this point, especially with the Old Testament text. Problems arise if one attempts to directly apply these texts to a modern American situation. First, the United States does not have a covenant relationship with God as a nation in the same way that Israel does. I am not suggesting these passages have no profit for Christians—every Biblical passage has something for believers today (2 Timothy 3:16, 17). However, one should not obscure dispensational distinctions and view these passages as regulatory for Church Age believers as they sort out this issue. Another problem is that all of these passages deal with strangers quite apart from the issue of whether they are in the land legally or illegally. Can it then be assumed that no distinctions are to be made in our modern national experience? Or should we simply note that these passages really do not directly address the issue of illegal immigration in modern America?

In addition, if one is consistent, some passages that seem to go other directions must be taken into account. For example, the Hebrews were not to allow strangers to eat the Passover unless they assimilated to the point of adopting circumcision (Exodus 12:19–49). On such points, strangers were kept at a cultural distance if they did not assimilate. In another case, an Israelite could charge interest on loans to a stranger, but not to a brother Hebrew (Deuteronomy 23:20). This makes a sharp distinction between the ways a brother was treated compared to a stranger. On the other hand, strangers were also not allowed to eat blood in their food (i.e., they were to follow some Hebrew practices) if they sojourned among the Israelites, apparently whether they were circumcised or not (Leviticus 17:10–12). If one looks at these kinds of passages and thinks of direct application to the American scene today, he or she might be tempted to believe that the passages suggest the need for strangers or immigrants to assimilate and to allow for some sort of conditional and sometimes unconditional restrictions. While there is value in considering these verses in context relative to the issue at hand, it still must be noted that wisdom applications in the modern world sometimes require quite a bit of sophistication. It would be difficult to solve the significant ethical issues of illegal immigration by appealing to these Old Testament texts alone.

Biblical Teaching about the Poor

Perhaps more fertile ground for discussion is the Bible’s teaching about the poor, considering that most immigrants who come into the United States today are poor by American economic standards. The Old Testament teaching about the poor is plentiful. In the Pentateuch, God commanded through Moses, “For the poor will never cease from in the land; therefore I command you, saying, You shall open your hand wide to your brother, to your poor and your needy, in your land” (Deuteronomy. 15:11). This characteristic passage deals with the treatment of poor “brothers.” However, other passages, as we have seen, speak of generous dealings with strangers, as well as with the needy in general (e.g., Leviticus 19:10). Proverbs notes that “whoever shuts his ears to the cry of the poor will also cry himself and not be heard” (21:13). A number of other Old Testament passages could be marshaled to show this theme.

The New Testament develops the theme of the poor along similar lines. Luke portrays Jesus applying Isaiah’s words to His own ministry in this way: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon Me, because the Lord has anointed Me to preach good tidings to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound” (Isaiah 61:1; Luke 4:18). In the early church the poor and needy were taken care of (Acts 2:44, 45; 4:32–35) including specific directions for helping widows (Acts 6:1–6; 1 Timothy 5:5–16). Remembering the poor was in the apostles’ hearts and minds (Galatians 2:10). Helping widows and orphans is taught by James (1:27), as is the need to honor the poor (2:6).

One can read such passages as these from both the Old and New Testaments and understand why former President Bush emphasized the idea of compassion when addressing the mostly poor illegal immigrants in America. The trans-dispensational nature of Biblical teaching about the poor highlights it as a transcultural concern in the mind of God. Therefore, this consideration must be part of Christians’ thinking process as they examine the issue. To be sure, there are rocky places. One can easily visualize allowing so many immigrants, legal and illegal, into the country that any support system for the poor becomes unviable (similar to negative projections about the future of Social Security). Even though this is true, it is never justified for a Christian to approach this issue without compassion for the poor. The exact ways in which such compassion must be worked out, ways that are partly crafted by other balancing thoughts in Scripture, remain to be seen.

God and Racial Diversity

Reading about immigration in the U.S., one can quickly find claims and counterclaims about racism. Is the opposition to illegal immigration (and maybe legal immigration) motivated by a dislike of Latinos from south of our border? Does a white supremacy or ethnocentricity lie at the core of opposition to illegal immigration?

The answer to this question is complicated. To be sure, no Christian should harbor any racial prejudice. To do so sins against God and mankind. God has made of one blood all the nations of the world (Acts 17:26). Paul said this to a prideful civilization. Jesus cared deeply about Samaritans (Luke 10:30–37), as He did for all people. We must follow our Lord’s example in this matter and not waver, even inadvertently, by voicing any form of racism.

On the other hand, one must not sin in the opposite extreme. It is equally sinful to impugn the motives of honest people who are uncomfortable with lenient views about immigration. There are those who are too quick to use the race card to produce an emotional response in their favor. A better approach to the question comes from Dana Wilbanks, who asks and answers the question in this way:

Is it possible to be a restrictionist without also being a racist? Is it possible to favor strong measures to prevent illegal immigration from Mexico without being driven by xenophobia? I believe it is. There is a morally credible case to be made for more restrictive policies. This position should not be branded as inherently racist. The restrictionists raise legitimate concerns that must be carefully addressed, not simply dismissed out of hand.

God has declared His heart about the races of the world by ensuring that someone from every race is included in His coming Kingdom. This is evident in His promises given in Daniel 7:14 (all the peoples, nations, and languages) and throughout the rest of the Bible. The follower of Jesus must share this heart of God. God loves diversity, and so should the Christian. To do otherwise is to open oneself up to the temptation to devalue others. As far as the immigration discussion is concerned, this means that any arguments from the restrictive side of the debate must studiously avoid any inclinations opposed to immigration on the grounds of disdain for diversity.

Immigration and Evangelism

Bible-believing Christians who live in America have an opportunity that many Christians never see. The foreign mission field is emerging all around us. The diversity that immigration brings can be seen in a positive light from the vantage point of the church’s mission. This does not mean that Christians should necessarily favor lenient views of dealing with illegal immigration. It does mean that the missiological impulse that God has given the church should help us see the current state of affairs as an opportunity for the gospel and not as just an ethical problem to be solved.

Again, Christians can learn from the past. North American Protestants who opposed immigration in the late 1800s initially kept a distance from the immigrants. However, as time progressed, they were forced to acknowledge the necessity of deliberate ministry to them, especially if they were going to maintain any Christian influence in the country’s urban centers. Slowly but surely the call to missions began to replace the tendency to separate. The dispensationalist Arno C. Gaebelein, an associate editor of the Scofield Reference Bible and editor of Our Hope magazine, ministered to the social and spiritual needs of Jewish immigrants in New York City during the 1890s. He viewed this opportunity as part of a personal call from God to do missions overseas, but God had changed the venue by sending the people to him.

Sowing the gospel seed throughout the world is as clear a command of God as reaching out to show social compassion to those in need. Matthew lays out clearly the transition from a racially limited ministry (“go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”; 10:6) to a Gentile mission encompassing all peoples (chapter 13; 28:19, 20). The latter describes the nature of ministry in the Church Age. Thus, if in the providence of God, He has brought the world to our door, believers should have a measure of excitement when thinking about intentional evangelistic outreach to immigrants. Even if believers hold to the restrictive view of immigration, they should still seek opportunities to deal with the people whom God has sent.

The Pursuit of Honesty

Whatever else is said of a Christian, it must be said of that person that he or she tells the truth. Although differences of opinion in the analysis of historical records cannot be avoided, there exists in the American immigration debate a kind of shallowness that comes across as either dishonesty with respect to American history or sloppiness in framing the questions. For instance, some have recently suggested that America is being overwhelmed by millions of illegal immigrants. But statistics state otherwise. (See my review in “A Biblical Approach to the Ethical Dilemma of Immigration Reform.”)

It simply will not do to suggest that we are experiencing waves of immigration unseen before. This is not to diminish the significance of social, political, and legal problems related to the issue of illegal immigration. However, we are saying that the presentations about the problem should not be exaggerated by those interested in the value of truth. Michael Barone gives a corrective history lesson in The New Americans, showing how immigration has been a major part of American life, with historic lessons that can inform our current situation. Truthfulness and careful analysis should be part of every Christian’s speech when confronting this issue.

The Christian and the Rule of Law

One of the defining keys for how to deal with illegal immigration from the Bible’s point of view relates to Biblical instruction on obeying the law. Both Jesus and Paul were clear that believers are to obey government authorities (Matthew 22:21; Romans 13:1-7). To be sure, there appear to be exceptions or allowances for civil disobedience in a fallen world. When lives are at stake, apparently it is right to disobey authorities (Exodus 1:15–22). If the government commanded me to kill an illegal immigrant, I would not do it. It also appears that disobedience is allowed when the gospel itself is at stake (Acts 4:18–20). If the government ordered me not to share the gospel with illegal immigrants, I would disobey that order too. However, in light of the Bible’s insistence of obedience to the government, churches should not hide illegals from the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Christian businesspeople should not hire illegals unless the government specifically allows it.

Assimilation to the American way of life is largely an adoption of and commitment to American laws. Whenever immigration laws are reformed, Christians should be obedient to the new plan. This is not open to question. Potential solutions should consider both the realistic enforcement of laws and compassion for the many who are in this country illegally but otherwise living lives of hard work and value for the American economic and cultural situation. Full amnesty—forgiveness for breaking the law—may not be the best starting point when discussing the process of immigration reform, likely resulting in unintended consequences for an attempted good act of mercy. But at some point we must consider appropriate policies that address the millions of illegals already living in the United States. When discussing a Christian response to immigration reform, disagreements may not be on a matter of principle as much as on the implementation details for dealing with the problem.

What should the church do?

Page 28 features a famous quote from the Statute of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor.” This goal can be realized in the context of a local church if the church emphasizes the Bible’s teaching on this difficult issue.

  • Learn to love the stranger in the land.
  • Show compassion to the poor and needy.
  • Expect and value racial diversity.
  • Pray for and pursue immigrants as a mission field.
  • Pursue honesty when discussing immigration issues.
  • Obey the laws of the land, even when they are contrary to one’s own desires.

Michael Stallard (PhD, Dallas Theological Seminary) is systematic theology professor and dean of Baptist Bible Seminary, Clarks Summit, Pa.

3 possible responses to immigration reform

An amnesty approach favors a general amnesty to all or nearly all illegal immigrants living in the United States. Most of those who hold this view also favor liberalized policies for future legal immigration. Adherents of such a position are sometimes labeled by opponents as “open-border enthusiasts,” but few persons actually espouse a complete pardon for all illegal immigrants.

A restrictive approach advocates enforcement of U.S. immigration laws. Usually proponents argue that illegal immigrants should be arrested and/or deported. They should not be allowed to share in the benefits that legal persons (immigrants or natives) in this country enjoy. Many of those who hold this view also favor conservative policies and stronger restrictions for future immigration.

A partial amnesty approach attempts to deal with illegal immigrants with a kind of middle ground between general amnesty and the restrictive approach. Proponents say deporting all illegal immigrants is impractical, given current estimates of 8 to 20 million in the U.S. Instead, advocates suggest regulating the movement of illegals toward citizenship status through recognition of wrongdoing indicated by fines along with incentives toward assimilation. While many plans of this kind exist, the most well-known was President Bush’s guest worker proposal.

The range of responses to the overall issue, as well as the intensity (and even hatefulness) of discussion among the various views, informs the Bible-believing Christian that he must be thorough and exact in examining the problem’s various facets. Unfortunately, the issues cannot really be dealt with in the space of one article. However, the following discussion will modestly try to raise the correct concerns coupled with a preliminary evaluation based upon Scripture. Hopefully, a practical solution for our churches can be proposed.

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