What the Scriptures Say About Immigration

The Hebrew Bible and the New Testament have plenty to teach us about how to think about the immigration debate.

As the current U.S. immigration policy clash--what to do about illegal aliens and insecure borders--heats up, many Americans have turned to scripture for guidance. Jewish scripture, for example, speaks repeatedly of the kindness due to the “stranger” and reminds us that the people of the Bible--the Hebrews--were once despised foreigners in an alien land, Egypt.

Yet the Bible's message isn't simply to welcome everyone and not ask anything of them in return. Instead, the scripture teaches a middle way that asks us to welcome "strangers"--but also requires these guests to take on moral and civic responsibility in their adopted land.

President Bush, who addressed the nation on Monday night in a televised speech, also favors a middle ground between the extreme positions of expelling the 11 million or so illegals (if that were even possible, which of course it’s not), on one hand, and opening the border without restriction, on the other. He would increase U.S.-Mexican border security with National Guard troops while offering some immigrants “guest-worker” status. This position has offended some both on the right and on the left.


A Christian might bring forward the strong teaching of Paul, especially in Ephesians 2:11-21, that after the advent of Jesus Christ the distinction between native and foreigner, Jew and Gentile, has been transcended: “So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.”

In the Hebrew Bible, many verses seem to advocate a wide-armed welcome for immigrants and foreigners. Here are a couple of examples from Leviticus: “When a stranger dwells among you in your land, do not taunt him. The stranger who dwells with you shall be like a native among you, and you shall love him like yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt—I am the Lord, your God” (19:33-34). “If your brother becomes impoverished and his means falter in your proximity, you shall strengthen him—stranger or resident—so that he can live with you” (25:35).

That last verse appears to teach that a “stranger” (in Hebrew, a ger) not only should be welcomed and accepted but supported and uplifted from poverty. Not so fast, amigo.

Let’s try to take scripture seriously while applying its wisdom to the immigration question. That doesn’t mean denying that the Bible on your bookshelf speaks in different voices. First off, we need to make a distinction between the Old and the New Testaments.

For we are talking here about a classically political issue. Paul and Jesus both thought the world as we know it was about to end, so the idea that they were laying out a philosophy of governance for the ages would have puzzled them.

Not so the writers of the Hebrew Bible, a document that is very much concerned with the design of a just and merciful commonwealth. Hebrew scripture insists on the continuing, indeed eternal relevance of national identity. Even in the times of the Messiah, “Israel will be the third party with Egypt and with Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the land, for the Lord, Master of Legions, will bless them, saying, ‘Blessed is My people, Egypt; and the work of my hands, Assyria; and My heritage, Israel’” (see Isaiah 19:19-25).

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