Windows and Doors

Windows and Doors


A Bible-based Immigration Policy

posted by Brad Hirschfield

The Bible is being increasingly used to “prove” what a moral, ethical, spiritual, Jewish or Christian (take your pick) stance on US immigration policy would look like. More often than not, such Bible thumping generates more heat than light. But it’s especially interesting since the Hebrew Bible’s commands that we welcome strangers, may not include today’s illegal aliens at all.
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.
What seems clear from scripture (that itself a complex claim) is that loose borders or barriers to entry are only reasonable if accompanied by quite strict rules about participation once having arrived in the new community. That means that neither side in the current debate really understands what the Hebrew Bible intended.
Conservatives, generally obsessed with the “inappropriateness of rewarding illegal immigrants with any of the benefits of American life”, miss the fact that how someone came to join the Israelites had no bearing on their status within the community once they arrived. There really was a sense of community as sanctuary – precisely what those taking a hard line on immigration oppose.
Liberals however are just as off when insisting that biblical hospitality know no bounds and asked no questions – that it was an unqualified right with no attached obligations. In fact, like all ancient sanctuaries, there were many rules to be followed and norms to be upheld. In other words entry was open to all, and once in they were treated as equals, but demands were made and failing to meet those demands was grounds for exclusion from the community.
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.



  • B. Liu

    Rabbi Hirschfield, thanks for a thoughtful and even-handed article. I would love to read a more in-depth treatment of this topic.

  • Thomas Beck

    “Liberals however are just as off when insisting that biblical hospitality know no bounds and asked no questions – that it was an unqualified right with no attached obligations.”
    I don’t know any “liberal” who believes this let alone “insists” on it. There may be some activists within immigrant communities who do, but they are not contiguous with “liberals.” Most liberals think we should do a better job of controlling our borders, but that we should be generous in providing a path to legalization for the immigrants already here, and that we should assist in creating jobs and opportunities back in the countries from which the immigrants come in order to reduce the pressures that drive them to come here. But we certainly believe everyone in the US, legal or not, must obey US laws once here and strive to contribute to the nation.

  • Zevulun

    I think it’s inappropriate for a Christian (conservative or otherwise) to thump the Hebrew Bible for any political cause.

  • Lucy

    I have lived in California my entire life, so I am pretty familiar with the issues of immigration. I have known many immigrants, most legal, but I’ve also known others who were illegal. (Not all of them were from Mexico; some were actually from Ireland!)
    Most illegal immigrants take jobs no one else will take; not so much because “Americans don’t want to work but because the employers want to pay them badly and provide horrible working and living conditions.
    As the rabbi noted, people tend to see in the bible what backs up the position they already hold. Obviously, we cannot allow everyone to wander across our borders without any documentation, if for no other reason, it is a terrible security risk. Yet, we also should not demonize these people, who are mostly harmless and desperate. We must certainly have compassion for their young children, who may have no idea of their status and often grow up assuming they are “American.”
    Most of us come from immigrant ancestors, many of whom came here under questionable circumstances. My great-grandfather fled Eastern Europe and when he could not get into the US (quotas for Jews, you know) he went to Canada and eventually made his way to New York. Not exactly legal…so, lets guard our borders and punish employers who hire illegals to save money. Please, though, don’t demonize desperate people.

  • Akchooarie

    Lucy writes: “Obviously, we cannot allow everyone to wander across our borders without any documentation, if for no other reason, it is a terrible security risk. Yet, we also should not demonize these people, who are mostly harmless and desperate.”
    So what I recommend is the following: Don’t demonize those particular illegal immigrants about whom we know nothing, but demonize the fact that a scary percentage of dangerous people are sneaking in the US.
    I’m afraid Lucy’s effort to use 80-year-old history to make a case for modern-day reality falls short, because back then there weren’t so many terrorists bent on the US’s destruction sneaking in through the border.
    Examples of such people: http://www.wsbtv.com/news/23434381/detail.html

  • http://blog.beliefnet.com/windowsanddoors/2010/05/a-bible-based-immigration-poli.html#post Dee Ripple

    I would have loved to have you expand your dissertation on what the rules and regulations were. I have had several e-mails from folks bashing illegal aliens, which have led me to answer them with thoughts of my own on how Israel was to treat those that joined them, as well as how Israel treats people now wanting to immigrate. I feel that hating folks, especially children that are poor and hungry, is totally against what Torah teaches, and the same goes for those saying that they are Christian…which is to love and help those that are poor. It is a tough subject, one that begs for a better solution for all involved.

  • ichthusthree

    so can you tell me how this can translate to the Palestinians & Israel?

  • Hal

    Rabbi Hirschfield, I agree with the above poster who says they’d like to see a more drawn out discussion of this. Also, you write, “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.”
    If you’re speaking about illegal immigrants who break laws by stealing, raping, murdering, etc in the U.S. then I agree with you. If you’re instead speaking about illegally crossing the border as a violation of law, I disagree with you. Depending on how you define breaking the law, crossing the border without documents is merely a civil penalty. The majority of such “undocumented” crossers end up following the rules of this nation.
    I’m all for respecting law and order, and as someone who works for a faith-rooted organization that promotes biblically based immigration reform I believe we must have laws that protect American citizens. No one I know argues for unbounded hospitality but we do argue for respecting the dignity and respect of the human being and the family unit, two other values important to the Bible as well.

  • Ackchooarie

    Hal writes: “If you’re speaking about illegal immigrants who break laws by stealing, raping, murdering, etc in the U.S. then I agree with you. If you’re instead speaking about illegally crossing the border as a violation of law, I disagree with you.”
    You totally left out “break laws by stealing, raping, murdering, etc in Mexico.”

  • Simplyput

    What I find amazing is being called a “Bible thumper” when one dare talks about “no borders” rather than allowing an individual to express the fact you lift the border (lines), in odred to clearly see a welcome sign as an equal.
    That shouldn’t have anything to do with the fact that there are laws to follow within the confines in which we live.
    We shouldn’t be called, “Bible thumpers” just because some of us look at the ‘welcome sign’ as how GOD himself would treat ALL human beings. It’s a good thing God isn’t that narrow.

  • Conservative lady

    illegal immigrants are the onest that come into this country illegally without going through the immigration process. why cant they apply and wait in line like everyone else? i had to wait in line for 2 years from canada to usa. there were times when they didnt allow me to cross the border and i had to go back to canada but i knew this was the law. nothing is free. its not just about mexicans either. its about keeping our country safe!! the law is the law. if your here illegally you knew what the consequences would be. hard enough to get rear ended by an illegal alien without a liscense. ive had that happen and the guy escaped and in the van there were another 30 guys with him…..we need documented legal people in usa. i want to know whom my neighbors are. once they are here legally then we can welcome them as the bible says but for nwo we dont even know their backgrounds, for al we know they can be alquada!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Also want to emphasize that obama should make this a priority to protect the USA citizens. also mexico has strict immigration laws, why are they playing with our laws/

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