Jesus Creed

Jesus Creed

The Undocumented and the Laws of the Bible

When I began hearing Christians chat about how to follow the Bible when it comes to the undocumented and illegals, I was a bit amazed both by the right and the left. This piece by Brad Hirschfield is exacting in its biblical awareness and shrewd in application: the issue is not so much about how folks got here as about whether or not they live according to the law. Does the Bible, so far as you know, ever say anything about the legality or illegality of entering a country? Does it speak about how to live once in someone else’s land?

Q: Illegal immigrants are flouting U.S. laws, but does affluent America (or Arizona for that matter) have a larger moral or spiritual obligation to help illegal immigrants who are trying to better their lives? What about religious obligations to welcome the stranger? Are we our brother’s keeper?


The Hebrew Bible mentions obligations to so-called strangers on numerous occasions. The message is pretty much always the same and perhaps best summed up by the words of Leviticus 19:33-34, 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.

But who that stranger is that deserves such equality and even love is not necessarily a parallel to the millions of people who cross our borders illegally every year. Or perhaps it is. The stranger of the Hebrew Bible is better understood as a resident alien, a non-citizen who agrees to abide by the laws of the community into which he or she has come. To that extent then, many if not most, illegal aliens in this country, would not qualify. On the other hand, there is no mention in the Bible of barriers to entry into the Israelite nation, so perhaps they do….


While other biblical texts and traditions could be introduced into the debate on immigration, based on those verses bearing directly on the issue, the path forward is actually pretty clear: how one got here is largely irrelevant, though the obligations that must be assumed in order to stay are significant.

Biblical “immigration policy” was not about maintaining the purity of the community or fear of withholding the benefits of membership, but it was quite clear about the obligations that needed to be met to enjoy the privileges (not rights) of such membership. It would be quite a step forward to see people actually look to that model for guidance instead of simply thumping their Bibles to prove that which they already believe anyway.

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Patrick Hare

posted May 31, 2010 at 2:31 am

As a Californian, living in what used to be Mexico before the United States took it over, and living in an economy which would collapse without migrant workers, let me say that this piece is especially on point, and well thought out – both politically and theologically.
We can’t support our infra structure without migrant workers – we need a policy that reflects that need and allows workers to come here legally.
Our current policy is ridiculously conflicted. For example, we don’t accept Mexican driver’s licenses for immigrants, and we insist that they not drive without a license and insurance. Of course they can’t get insurance without a license and the state won’t issue them a license. And then people complain about them driving without licenses and insurance. We need a system that allows immigrants to comport with the laws.
BTW, his last line about people thumping their bibles to prove what they already believe reminds me of a line I heard recently – many people use the bible like a drunk uses a lamppost – more for support than illumination . . .

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posted May 31, 2010 at 5:39 am

It is important to understand the difference between man laws and God laws. One thing never mentioned about illegal immigration is that the only thing classifying someone as “illegal” is a man law. We can opt to change our immigration law instead of “Hating” on the people who them came here to survive and provide. With that being said there is a huge correlation between the bible and immigration. Jesus is often called Jesus of Nazareth..yet we know he was born in Bethlehem, he was an immigrant! So I wouldn’t say immigration is just addressed in the Old Testament but in the Gospel as well. Jesus had to be moved as a child just to survive. The writer eluded to maybe there was no such thing as illegal immigration then. Immigration laws are fairly new to America as well and were undoubtlt started by people who did not follow Leviticus 19:33-34. Man law vs God Law

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posted May 31, 2010 at 9:42 am

I think that there are two separate questions. The easier one to answer is what should we do when illegal immigrants are already here and have been here for some time. As Christians we need to show them love. Part of that may be helping them get legal status.
On the other hand, should we let our borders be completely porous and allow whoever wants to come in? I think that you could argue against that. In his book, the Immigration Crisis, James Hoffmeier shows how in several cases different nations had immigration laws and those were respected by the people of Israel (e.g., Joseph asking Pharaoh permission for his family to move to Egypt). Certainly such laws are not portrayed as inherently immoral, although certain applications of them were. So having just immigration laws isn’t a bad thing nor is enforcing them.

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kevin s.

posted May 31, 2010 at 9:59 am

“It would be quite a step forward to see people actually look to that model for guidance instead of simply thumping their Bibles to prove that which they already believe anyway.”
@Patrick Hare
What is your definition of “migrant worker”? While it is likely true that California’s economy would suffer without anyone who has migrated to work there, you seem to be suggesting that removing illegal immigrants would be catastrophic. If so, what is your basis for the assertion?
The California economy has already collapsed under the weight of its own bureaucracy. Illegal immigration only exacerbates the strain on that bureaucracy.
As for the drivers license issue, I have always understood that to be a means to the end of immigration law enforcement. I don’t think anyone is particularly concerned about unlicensed drivers, per se.
To the extent the law is conflicted, you could argue that we should not use licensure as a primary means of providing identification. It is, however, enormously convenient to do so. Since the only reason to change the process would be to allow those already breaking the law to continue unabated, I see no important conflict here.

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Doug g

posted May 31, 2010 at 10:23 am

Israel was not a pluralistic society. Strangers were bound to obey what we today would call religious law. For the ot law to apply here we’d need the same assumptions.

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posted May 31, 2010 at 12:08 pm

I must confess that I have a big problem with language that tags human beings as “illegal”.
While the author makes good points, is not the OT passage cited sublated by Matthew 25:35 ? “‘For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in;”? ?being “servants of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”
Regarding the economy and migrant workers, I believe it is estimated 50-90% of all food production done by those “illegals”???perhaps laws ensuring a living wage is paid would better attack the issue on both fronts?

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posted May 31, 2010 at 12:37 pm

The intent to misapply the Biblical admonition to welcome the stranger, is as immoral as is illegal immigration. The concept was intended to treat them as a brother, but you do not love your brother, when you encourage them to break the law and do harm to others, in fact, such rationales breed a sense of entitlement to sin and to moral relativism. That is an offense to God, as well you know. There are times when we must tell people the hard things they do not wish to hear, and the Lord told us we must suffer and sacrifice for what is right. He did not tell you that you must sacrifice your poor neighbor’s lives so you can pat yourselves on the back, but that is what those of you who misrepresent Biblical verse in this way. Here are other Biblical admonitions, perhaps you should contemplate them:
Luke 10:27 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.
Romans 13:8 Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.
Romans 13:10 Love does no wrong to a neighbour, therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.
Again, please tell me which among you have given away your an your family’s sole means of support, your home, everything away to an illegal alien? How many of you have rendered yourselves homeless and into privation? How many of you have ever thought about the possibility that your poor fellow citizens are the true strangers to you, because you neither feel empathy and compassion for them, or seek to encourage others to be aware of their suffering? Are there not tent cities enough, homeless men, women and families to open your eyes? Or perhaps your focus lies with illegal aliens for less altruistic purposes, for example that you resent paying a fair wage to a US citizen and desire to punish them for merely wanting to be able to survive in this expensive, first world economy? There is Old Testament and New Testament verses about the need to follow the Commandments, and against worshiping false gods, like gold and profit, but you don’t want to speak about that, do you?

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kevin s.

posted May 31, 2010 at 1:46 pm

“perhaps laws ensuring a living wage is paid would better attack the issue on both fronts?”
Illegal immigration is the means by which companies subvert wage laws, so this would actually make the problem worse.
“Or perhaps your focus lies with illegal aliens for less altruistic purposes, for example that you resent paying a fair wage to a US citizen and desire to punish them for merely wanting to be able to survive in this expensive, first world economy?”
If you are the Chamber of Commerce, that is why you have a horse in this race. Don’t forget those who see illegal immigrants as potential votes. Notice that the Democrats are rather less keen on Cuban immigrants, even though they are seeking asylum from tyranny.
I guess you can call this a bi-partisan issue.

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Patrick Hare

posted May 31, 2010 at 2:52 pm

Kevin – I used the term “migrant worker” (somewhat inartfully, perhaps) to refer to those who immigrate from other countries (legally or otherwise) for the economic opportunities that this country provides. (I realize that there are US citizens who travel for seasonal work who are referred to as “migrant workers” as well).
This country has relied on the labor force of immigrants throughout its history – Irish, Chinese, etc. (not to mention those dragged here by force) – to provide the labor needed for growth. Previously paper mills, steel plants, railroads – now hotels, restaurants, construction and agriculture. The removal of all immigrants here illegaly would have a significant impact on those industries – catastrophic is perhaps an overstatement. Numerous studies show that the overall economic impact of people who enter the country illegally is positive.
Insofar as our economy relies on the contributions of immigrants, we need an immigration policy that reflects that need – that allows unskilled and uneducated workers to enter the country legally, which will allow them, among other things, to get driver’s licenses and insurance. (as a public defender in the Los Angeles court system, I can assure you that the courts are full of immigrants charged with driving without a license – their Mexican licenses are considered invalid because they live here now).

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posted May 31, 2010 at 7:23 pm

Unfortunately the issue of immigration is much more complex than what is portrayed in the media. It seems as if the focus is solely upon those who come, often out of desperation, to earn money for survival. The whole other issue is the global economy and the economies of our neighboring countries that is forcing people as their means of employment vanish. That is also, I think, part of the resistance now to undocumented immigrants as much of our manufacturing has gone to China. It is very scary for people who are worried about when they too will lose their jobs and so focussing anger on others is easy to do. It seems as though the anger would be better focussed toward the employers who continue moving good jobs overseas as well as those employers who hire undocumented workers so that they can suppress wages for everyone. It seems as though the only thing that people can agree upon is that the system is broken, but we cannot agree upon how to fix it.
I have a new call as a pastor in a community that has a higher percentage of undocumented residents than the national average (or even CA). If we are to love God and love our neighbors, we must love all of our neighbors regardless of who they are or how they came to be here. For my church it is to recognize that the community is not what it once was and to engage ad re-root into the community that exists now. In all practicality we don’t get to choose our neighbors, but we are called to love them.
I have also always been intrigued by the history of migration. Biblically it started with Abraham and Sarah and continues throughout history, even to the settling of this continent. I have not done the research, but a cursory look at history seems to show that the people already living in the place where migrants go are not usually too excited to receive them. But stopping migration seems to be like trying to stop a flood… the water has to go somewhere. The big difference though is that migrants are human beings who are created in God’s image and so should always be treated with dignity and respect.
@Patrick Hare: are you the Patrick who was at Fuller? I think we were in a small group together.

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kevin s.

posted June 1, 2010 at 12:15 am

“Numerous studies show that the overall economic impact of people who enter the country illegally is positive.”
They do? How so? To which studies are you referring?
The removal of illegal immigrants will have an impact on industries, as they will then be forced to pay a fair wage to their employees. Customers will, in turn, be forced to pay a fair wage for their commodities.
This will be problematic in the short term, but beneficial in the long term. No reasonable economist would argue that an artificially cheap labor force is good for the economy.

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Patrick Hare

posted June 1, 2010 at 1:00 am

Kevin –
There are many, but here are a few –
Peter L. Reich, Public Benefits for Undocumented Aliens: State Law Into the Breach Once More, 21 N.M. L. Rev. 219, 241?42 (1991)
Effects of Immigration in Santa Clara County and California 12 (2004),
available at (finding that ?undocumented immigrants more than pay their way?)
I can send you many more if you want.
But don’t get me wrong – I am not arguing for maintaining the status quo. I fully agree that the workers who are here illegally are easily exploited and create an artificially cheap labor force. What I am arguing for is a broader policy of allowing the much needed labor force into the country LEGALLY.
And amen to Nancy’s comment – we need to globally address the principalities and powers that lead to the disparate economic circumstances for our neighbors to the south.

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posted June 1, 2010 at 3:22 pm

Though there are certain timeless principles to be gleaned (fairness, loving strangers, etc.) I fear that trying to draw strict parallels between out situation in 21st century America and the ANE culture and economy is risky. Let me add another perspective on this.
Very good arguments exist supporting citizenship. Citizenship is healthy for society on a variety of fronts.
1. It ensures that those who come are minimally prepared to succeed in and contribute productively to our society (basic grasp of the English language, US laws, societal norms, etc.)
2. It prevents the creation of a down trodden underclass. We are well on our way to this sad reality.
3. It puts people “on the map” so to speak. They can be properly counted and accounted for. “Invisible” people are not good for a society.
4. It ensures that those who come really want to be here; not simply here just to get what they can. (A sensible number of migrant worker permits would be an exception).
It is not wrong, immoral, or mean-spirited to uphold citizenship requirements in our country. It is not wrong to be a nation of laws. And it is not bigoted to expect those coming from south of the border to conscientiously respect our laws just as so many in the Asian and European countries do…meticulously. We can be both compassionate and respectful of our laws, and for that we should strive.

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posted June 3, 2010 at 6:30 pm

I for one would enjoy being allowed to live in a country other than the United States. Unfortunately ….

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