How Should We Think About Immigrants?

We have heard more talk about immigrants and immigration policy this election season than any in memory, and the conversation has been highly charged. Since the issue is so prominent just now, it might be helpful to have a sketch of biblical attitudes toward immigrants.

For the sake of full disclosure, I should say where I come down on the issue of U.S. immigration. I think we should endeavor to have both the most compassionate immigration policy and the most secure border in the world. But I am not here advocating a particular view on immigration, which is a discussion for another time. I’m advocating a particular attitude toward immigrants.

My views have been shaped by experience. One of my closest friends is a naturalized citizen who was born in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Another was born in Ecuador. The U.S. is a better place because it counts them as its own.

But my views are also shaped by the Bible, which says a great deal about immigrants. There are many direct statements regarding their treatment. A few will suffice to represent the tenor of Scripture.

Following Israel’s escape from political oppression, God gave these instructions: “Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt.”

Likewise, Scripture teaches, “The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born.” Further, “…you are to love those who are aliens, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt.”

In matters of law, God’s people were warned: “Do not deprive the alien or the fatherless of justice.” Judges were to make sure that immigrants, who were vulnerable because of their lack of political power and representation, were treated justly. This meant that “You are to have the same law for the alien and the native-born.”

Immigrants were granted equal access to services as the native-born. This included special food distributions and work opportunities. At the national celebration known as “First-fruits,” immigrants were specifically listed among the aid recipients.

Beyond the many specific instructions regarding aliens, there are numerous examples of interactions between the chosen people and the immigrants within their borders. Abraham, the father of the Jewish people, constantly interacted with such people. They considered him a “prince among us” and scripture calls him “the father of many nations” – that is, of many ethnic peoples (the Greek word is ethnos) – and his wife “the mother of many nations.”

The people of Israel were fierce in war, but for their day they were unusually considerate of immigrants. King David employed skilled foreign-born labor in the construction of the great temple and accepted immigrants into military service. The prophets continually urged that foreigners be treated with justice, as when Malachi writes that the Lord Almighty will be against “those who…deprive aliens of justice.”

The idea that immigration is evil and that immigrants are enemies is not sanctioned by the Bible. Disdain for immigrants is repeatedly condemned by the biblical writers and prophets. They insist that justice be done for the vulnerable, and include in that number those who do not have citizenship.

Now immigration in ancient times and immigration today are two different things. The Bible does not provide any kind of blueprint for immigration policy. Rather it urges us to adopt a compassionate attitude toward immigrants. Were this biblical model to inform our policies, it’s not clear how immigration in America would change. There would still be trials and deportations, but our attitude would be different. We would be a light to the world.

But we are not that light today. The current debate has degenerated into a shameless brawl between liberals and conservatives over votes. Both sides need to go beyond what is politically expedient to ask what is right. Yes, good people will answer that question differently, but whatever answer the Christian gives, it needs to be consistent with the biblical command to “love those who are aliens.”

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 6/25/2016

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One Response to How Should We Think About Immigrants?

  1. Shayne, I’ve been thinking a lot about what you said in the comments section of your last post — that much of the angry discourse going on today is motivated by fear. The subject of immigration is certainly an example of what you were saying.

    Even from a strictly humanistic viewpoint, we in America are raised on Jeffersonian democratic ideals that, as you say, are supposed to make us a light to the rest of the world. We’re supposed to get a lump in our throat when we recite Emma Lazarus’s description of the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” To be an American is more than just to want freedom for ourselves; it’s to want it for everybody.

    But fear gets in the way of this ideal. We used to fear Russian infiltration. That fear dominated our views on immigration for most of the twentieth century. But when the Berlin Wall came down, it didn’t take us long to put new faces on our fears. Now we fear Muslim terrorists, and we have at least one politician trying to ban all Muslims from entry into our land. I can only wonder who it is we’ll fear a century from now.

    Like you, however, I am not merely a humanist. As a follower of the risen Christ, I have pledged myself to One who “has not given us the spirit of fear, but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” That doesn’t mean I’m not afraid; it means that my Lord expects me to find solutions to our present problems, despite my fears.

    I have come to look forward to your posts, Shayne. They help bring sanity at a moment in our history when we desperately need it.

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