Immigration has long been a point of contention in American politics, and it seems to have come to a head recently with President Obama declaring executive action on the matter. I daresay that at the heart of the bitter dispute between the president and Congress is a struggle for political power having nothing to do with immigration policy, but the constant war and arguing has at least brought the issue of immigration to the forefront of the American political consciousness. Republicans say we should reinforce the border with extra personnel and arms and immediately deport any illegal aliens, sending them back from whence they came regardless of the circumstances which drove them to flight from their countries of origin. Democrats think we should grant forms of amnesty to illegal immigrants, subject to a very specific (and somewhat stringent) set of criteria, and the border, while needing to remain secure against potential terrorists, should still be generally open to those who can cross it without posing direct threats to our national security (extra resources optional). Should a Christian side with one party or the other — or neither?
I think it’s important to begin with what Scripture teaches about the sojourner and the stranger. Abraham himself was an immigrant, called by God to leave his homeland for an as-yet-undisclosed country (Genesis 12). While I don’t recommend passing off your wife as your sister like Abraham did (a nasty habit his son inherited, more’s the pity), I do believe this can be a starting point for this discussion. Abra(ha)m left for a land of promise, passing through multiple other countries and city-states along the way, generally abiding by local customs and laws while doing so. His great-grandson, Joseph, though a Hebrew, became an administrator of Egypt second in power only to Pharaoh himself (Gen. 41). As administrator, he used his authority to care for all peoples who came to Egypt seeking assistance in the famine, including the very brothers who had sold him into slavery years before. In Joseph we have a precursor to the Mosaic law’s care for the Other.
The Torah received by Moses gives a great many injunctions about immigrants. Repeatedly throughout Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, God instructs Moses, “And you shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:21). Immigrants into the land controlled by the Hebrew people are to be treated fairly and justly, regardless of what brought them there. They’re not even required to become part of the community of faith (although, if they do, they are to be held to the same laws and moral code as the worshiping Jews, including mandatory circumcision); they may safely dwell among the children of Abraham as distinct — but equal — peoples. Indeed, the ethic of reciprocity (a.k.a. the Golden Rule) is mentioned expressly in regards to immigrants: “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God” (Lev 19:34). At no point is the sojourner/stranger/immigrant to be considered less than a “native” Jew. They are to be loved and provided for, regardless of anything else. And at all points, the people are to remember that they, too, were once strangers in a foreign land.
Certainly the New Testament upholds that ethic. Both the Greatest Commandment and the parable of the Good Samaritan teach us to love others as ourselves and to help them in their need, even if they’re of different nationalities, religions, or other criteria. Paul’s missionary journeys, Peter’s visit to Cornelius, and Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch show us that our God recognizes no borders. The Gospel is a message to all peoples, all countries, all ethnicities (Mt 28:19-20-; Lk 2:10; Acts 1:8). Any border we may draw and then try to protect is an artificial boundary designed to keep people out — thereby making them not “our problem.”
Yes, borders keep us safe to an extent. And yes, they do protect our standard of living since they prevent people from making demands on our tax dollars. But have you ever considered that we have enough wealth to make Solomon blush, that perhaps we should be inviting people in so we can care for them through sacrificial giving? We are to give freely to everyone who asks of us — but not giving just what they ask for, but going above and beyond (Lk 6:29-31,35). If anyone, immigrant or otherwise, comes to us asking for food, shelter, safety, work, education, or anything else, we are to help them in every way we can. This is a duty which takes no heed of human law.
Should immigrants come to our country (or any other) through the established, legal channels? Yes, they should. There should be a respect for the laws of the nation they wish to make their home, and that begins with adhering to the legal immigration process. But which of us would look at a fellow human being, a brother or sister in Christ, who comes from a country ravaged by war, disease, poverty, and famine, and tell him or her to leave a place of safety simply because they didn’t file the proper paperwork? Who among us would be so blatantly jingoist and xenophobic that we would rather watch people suffer and die without doing something to help them just because it might cost us something?
America was a melting pot, a nation of immigrants who founded a new country because they sought freedom: freedom of religious practice, freedom from persecution, freedom from early deaths after a lifetime of suffering. How quickly we seem to forget that fact when other people want to do the same thing our grandparents and great-great-great-great-great-grandparents did. If it weren’t for immigration, I myself wouldn’t exist (being the blend of Welsh, German, and Irish blood that I am). Why do we fear the Other, the very diversity God created and loves so very much? Why do we forget that people of all nations will worship around the throne of God (Revelation 7:9)? Why are we unable to remember the exact thing Moses and his flock were required to keep in mind: we were once strangers in a foreign land?
And so whenever someone asks me my position on immigration, I’ve decided to simply quote Deuteronomy 26:5-9, something which was to be recited by every Israelite during the presentation of the offering of first fruits:
You shall answer and say before the LORD your God, “My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down to Egypt and sojourned there, few in number; but there he became a great, mighty and populous nation. And the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, and imposed hard labor on us. Then we cried to the LORD, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction and our toil and our oppression; and the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm and with great terror and with signs and wonders; and He has brought us to this place and has given us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”