Biblical Perspective on Immigrants

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Biblical Perspective on Immigrants

One of the major issues in the recent Presidential election was immigration. What does the Bible have to say about it? How would Jesus vote regarding immigration?

Last year the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007 was discussed in the 110th United States Congress. The bill would have provided legal status and a path to legal citizenship for the approximately 12 million illegal immigrants currently residing in the United States. The bill was portrayed as a compromise between legalization of illegal immigrants and increased border enforcement: it included funding for 300 miles of vehicle barriers, 105 camera and radar towers, and 20,000 more Border Patrol agents, while simultaneously restructuring visa criteria around highly skilled workers. The bill received heated criticism from all sides in the debate, and was never approved as it died through a series of votes on amendments.

One critic of the immigration reform bill said that American taxpayers would be saddled with a huge bill to pay for the social services needed by the illegal immigrants. They would receive $2.5 trillion more in social service benefits than they would pay through taxes.

Regardless of one’s view, this is a divisive issue. What would Jesus say about it? One person wore a T-shirt that asked the question this way: Who would Jesus deport? The Bible has something to say on the issue. The words “immigration” or “immigrant” do not appear in the Bible but that does not mean the issue is not found there. The NT uses three different terms to describe immigrants: “foreigner,” pilgrim” and “stranger.”

The word “foreigner,” comes from the Greek word par-oikos. It literally means to have a home (oikos) near or beside (para). It corresponds to our concept of resident alien. Abraham’s descendants were resident aliens in Egypt. Acts 7:6 (NRSV) says, “And God spoke in these terms, that his descendants would be resident aliens in a country belonging to others…”

The word “pilgrim” comes from the Greek word parepidemos. This corresponds to our concept of an exile. The apostle Peter combines it with sojourner to remind believers that we are only passing through this world on our way to our glorious eternal home in heaven. 1 Peter 2:11, “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.”  Peter’s point is that believers are ultimately citizens of another world and should view ourselves as sojourners and exiles in this world.

The word “stranger” comes from the Greek word xenos. Jesus used the word in a description about the final judgment. He said in Matthew 25:35, “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” In a very real sense Jesus is a stranger to this world. He left the glories of heaven in order to come and live among us in order to reconcile us with his Father. Moreover, He calls His people to reflect His own attitude and actions to others.

Indeed, let us remember that the life that ended on the cross began on the road. Christ the Savior began His life as an immigrant, fleeing the land where He was born to escape Herod’s wrath.

God’s new world has been unveiled in Jesus Christ and we are invited to belong to this household, marked as one of unmerited belonging. This year our nation will be wrestling with immigration reform. As the debate heats up, let us allow Christ to set the tone.

Let’s begin by confessing that all of us have been blessed with things we don’t deserve. By God’s grace and by Christ’s sacrifice, “We who were once far away have been brought near.” The story of Christianity is one of orphans becoming heirs, of strangers becoming citizens, and of lost sons coming home to a welcoming father.

We must also remember how critical the incarnation is to the story of Christ. He didn’t fix the world from a distance. He didn’t stay where it was safe. Christ tasted humanity on our behalf so that He could identify with all our trials and temptations. He was questioned repeatedly about what mattered most, and on each occasion He said that loving God and loving our neighbors are the ultimate measures of a godly life.

Regardless of one’s position on immigration, we cannot claim to be followers of Christ without recognizing the humanity of those impacted by a badly broken immigration system. Our strongest, most unrelenting reasons for seeking a better immigration process are not political or economic. They are spiritual.

We need not guess that God cares about immigrants. We need not infer this from the parables or the example of Christ alone – 92 references in the Old Testament mention the stranger, including passages that call us to treat immigrants with compassion and justice.

For example:

Exodus 12:49 One law shall be for the native-born and for the stranger who dwells among you.

Leviticus 19:34 The stranger who dwells among you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.

Ezekiel 47:22 It shall be that you will divide it by lot as an inheritance for yourselves, and for the strangers who dwell among you and who bear children among you. They shall be to you as native-born among the children of Israel; they shall have an inheritance with you among the tribes of Israel.

The entire Mosaic teaching on immigration summed up:

A “stranger,” in the technical sense of the term, may be defined to be a person of foreign, i.e., non-Israelite, extraction resident within the limits of the Promised Land. He was distinct from the proper “foreigner,” inasmuch as the latter still belonged to another country, and was only visiting Israel as a traveler. 

The terms applied to the “stranger” have special reference to the fact of his residing in the land. The existence of such a class of persons among the Israelites is easily accounted for. The “mixed multitude” that accompanied them out of Egypt formed one element; the Canaanite population, which was never wholly extirpated from their native soil, formed another; and a still more important one, captives taken in war, formed a third; fugitives, hired servants, merchants, etc., formed a fourth.

With the exception of the Moabites and Ammonites, Deut. 23:3, all nations were admissible to the rights of citizenship under certain conditions. The stranger appears to have been eligible to all civil offices, that of king excepted. Deut. 17:15. In regard to religion, it was absolutely necessary that the stranger should not infringe any of the fundamental laws of the state.

If he were a bondman, he was obliged to submit to circumcision, Ex. 12:44; if he were independent, it was optional with him; but if he remained uncircumcised, he was prohibited from partaking of the Passover, Ex. 12:48, and could not be regarded as a full citizen. Liberty was also given to an uncircumcised stranger in regard to the use of prohibited food.

Assuming, however, that the stranger was circumcised, no distinction existed in regard to legal rights between the stranger and the Israelite; the Israelite is enjoined to treat him as a brother. Lev. 19:34; Deut. 10:19. It also appears that the “stranger” formed the class whence the hirelings were drawn; the terms being coupled together in Ex. 12:45; Lev. 22:10; 25:6, 40.

The principle was that in order to participate in the nation one has to be willing to submit to laws of the nation. If one is not willing to submit to the laws of the nation, one cannot be a member of its society. This principle is misunderstood by many in our country today.

Citizenship does not exist by nature; it is created by law, and the identification of citizens has always been considered an essential aspect of sovereignty. After all, the founders of a new nation are not born citizens of the new nation they create. Indeed, this is true of all citizens of a new nation—they are not born into it, but rather become citizens by law.

Although the Constitution of 1787 mentioned citizens, it did not define citizenship. It was in 1868 that a definition of citizenship entered the Constitution, with the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment. Here is the familiar language: ’All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.’ Thus there are two components to American citizenship: birth or naturalization in the U.S. and being subject to the jurisdiction of the U.S.”

Most people believe that anyone born in this country is automatically a citizen of this country, but it’s not that simple. In order to be a citizen of this country one must be born or naturalized in this country and submit to the jurisdiction of the U.S. Constitution.

I think that naturalized citizens have an advantage here because they explicitly and intentionally submit to the jurisdiction of the U.S. Constitution. They take an Oath of Allegiance.

“I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.”

In conclusion, we find in scripture that it is God who actually sets the borders and times of the nations.  On this basis, while it is proper as a national imperative to protect borders, it is a divine imperative that this be done with great compassion on any who are willing to keep the laws of the nation.

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