The Bible says we are to treat people from other nations with honor and respect. It is helpful to remember the whole world belongs to God. People who cross national borders to flee from poverty and danger today are our neighbors even if not authorized to be here.
Only Native Americans are non-immigrants in the United States; everyone else traces his or her ancestral roots to another part of the world. As the nation became more established it set up a legal framework to control immigration in varying degrees.
The Migration Policy Institute says this:
About 41.3 million immigrants lived in the United States in 2013, an all-time high.
The U.S. attracts about 20 percent of the world’s international migrants, even as it represents less than 5 percent of the global population.
Immigrants accounted for 13 percent of the total 316 million U.S. residents.
Adding the U.S.-born children (of all ages) of immigrants means that about 80 million people, or one-quarter of the overall U.S. population, is either of the first or second generation.
Immigration to the U.S. is only a piece of the global relocation issue. Of particular concern are the 65.3 million people forcibly displaced by war, persecution, famine, and other causes (in 2015). Most of these people were relocated within their own countries, but 21.3 million were refugees and 3.2 million were asylum-seekers, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) agency.
Here are some key facts about refugees from UNCHR:
More than half (54%) of all refugees worldwide came from just three countries: Syria (4.9 million), Afghanistan (2.7 million), and Somalia (1.1 million).
During 2015, only 201,400 refugees returned to their countries of origin. Most returned to Afghanistan (61,400), Sudan (39,500), Somalia (32,300), or the Central African Republic (21,600).
Children below 18 years of age constituted about half of the refugee population in 2015, up from 41 per cent in 2009 and the same as in 2014.
For the second consecutive year, Turkey hosted the largest number of refugees worldwide, with 2.5 million people.
In the United States, 38,484 refugees arrived in the U.S. for resettlement from Oct. 1, 2016, to March 24 this year after being vetted in overseas centers. These and the following figures are available online from the U.S. Refugee Processing Center.
The United States admitted 8,839 refugees from 2006 to early 2017 (fiscal years), according to the U.S. Department of State. Texas received 671 of those refugees. During this same time frame, the U.S. admitted 33,165 people from Afghanistan with Special Immigrant Visas (SIV), and 5,091 came to Texas.
The following graph from the State Department reflects the annual level of refugee arrivals in the U.S. and the regions of origin from 1975 until early 2017 (fiscal years beginning Oct. 1).
Migrants in Scripture
To help our culture and the body of Christ understand immigration, it is helpful to talk about it within the broader scope of migration in Scripture.
The Bible deals extensively with migration and tells stories about real people who went through painful movements from one country to another, facing issues that are still relevant today.
The story of our faith begins with the migrant Abraham, who is commanded by God to leave his homeland and become a blessing to the nations. His great-grandson, Joseph, becomes a victim of human trafficking, then 400 years later and under the leadership of Moses, the people of Israel, in fleeing poverty and hunger, become a specific kind of collective migrant -- refugees.
Ruth marries a foreign man in her own land. Her husband dies, and Ruth travels to her husband’s family land and seeks family unity, just like many migrants do today. Ruth would become part of Jesus’ lineage.
The Lord Jesus himself becomes a migrant of sorts. Daniel Groody, a Catholic theologian and professor, says Jesus engages in a double migration. The first one is a cosmic migration, as he travels from heaven to earth, leaving the glory that was His at the right hand of the Father and becoming incarnate for the sake of humankind.
Jesus then engages in a second kind of migration. As a child, he has to flee to Egypt in order to escape an assassination attempt. Jesus is a migrant, and his love for us knows no boundaries. It crosses borders, both cosmic and human, to reach us and save us.
Later in the New Testament, Paul and the 12 apostles have to migrate in order to bring the Word of God to the world. The Christian faith is, essentially, a missionary faith. It requires believers to constantly migrate or else the faith cannot reach those in every corner of the world who need it.
If we are able to recognize our faith as a migrant faith and if we are able to see the plight of immigrants today as similar to the plight of those migrants in the Bible, we will surely identify with them.
If we identify with them, it will be easier to love them as our own. Once we declare that love, what follows is advocacy on their behalf in order to remedy the injustices they suffer.
In the end, the goal for us as the body of Christ in regard to the strangers among us is two-pronged: to see Jesus reflected in the eyes of the immigrants God has brought to us and to see immigrants with the eyes of Jesus.
Scripture — Immigrants Among Us
When Scripture addresses issues related to people who are living in a land that is not their own, the wording is usually translated into English as stranger, alien, sojourner, or foreigner.
There is probably no clearer statement regarding God’s view of immigrants than Psalm 146:9.
The LORD watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin (NRSV).
God looks upon immigrants and refugees as he does other vulnerable people. That God “watches over the strangers” implies not just seeing but also caring for and protecting. It is listed here as the opposite of what God does to the wicked. God brings ruin to the wicked; God looks after the immigrant and refugee.
The Old Testament links God’s concern for strangers in a foreign land to the experience of the Israelites in Egypt, when they were immigrants/refugees who crossed a national border seeking better economic and life-sustaining conditions.
He [God] executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt (Deut. 10:18-19 ESV).
When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God(Lev. 19:33-34 NRSV).
The Deuteronomy and Leviticus verses make it clear that not only does God look after immigrants and refugees, but God expects them to be treated well. The verses approach the issue of justice toward the stranger from two directions – God executes justice and God’s people are not to oppress the outsiders. More positively, God’s people are to love immigrants and refugees.
Malachi gets more specific, noting that God’s judgment awaits those who mistreat strangers.
And I [God] will come near you for judgment;
I will be a swift witness
Against those who exploit wage earners and widows and orphans,
And against thosewho turn away an alien—
Because they do not fear Me,” Says the LORD of hosts (Malachi 3:5 NKJV).
The admonition to not “turn away an alien” seems to have special relevance to the immigrant and refugee situation in the United States. At least in reference to the Israelites, God’s judgment awaits those who seek to get rid of immigrants. In other words, God’s people should welcome immigrants and refugees.
There are other Old Testament passages, but they all express similar sentiments.
In the New Testament, Jesus references strangers in the famous “least of these” verses about the judgment of nations.
Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink,I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” (Matthew 25:34-36 NRSV).
Welcoming the stranger is one indication that people are living in accordance with God’s will. They are more focused on God’s kingdom than on the boundaries of this world.
Jesus also famously said to love God with all of your being and to love your neighbor as yourself. A lawyer then asked, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus responded by telling a story about a “good Samaritan,” which to his Jewish audience at the time may have been seen as a contradiction in terms. A person had been beaten and left for dead on the road, two fellow Jews ignored his plight, but the Samaritan, a despised foreigner, went to great lengths to help the injured man. Jesus asked,
“So which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?”
And he [the lawyer] said, “He who showed mercy on him.”
Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:36-37 NKJV).
In other words, being a person’s neighbor knows no boundaries – racial, ethnic, or national. We are to love all people as we love ourselves, including immigrants and refugees. And we know from Scripture that loving is more than saying the word; it shows up in our actions.
Jesus, of course, had once been an immigrant/refugee. After his birth, his parents fled Palestine for the safe confines of Egypt.
Now when they [the wise men] had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Arise, take the young Child and His mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I bring you word; for Herod will seek the young Child to destroy Him.”
When he arose, he took the young Child and His mother by night and departed for Egypt, and was there until the death of Herod, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, “Out of Egypt I called My Son” (Matthew2:13-15 NKJV).
The family escaped the threat of death and lived as foreigners until it was safe for them to return to their homeland.
The Bible ends on a note about the oneness of God’s people.
After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands (Revelation 7:9 NRSV).
Before God, there is no difference between the people of the world’s nations and tribes. There is a oneness to the human race that transcends all categories that might separate them.
Scripture — Respect for Law
Unauthorized immigration presents a challenge. Undocumented persons simply do not have the necessary legal documents required by the United States government to be in the country, and this is because they entered the country in illegal ways or overstayed their legal limits.
The Apostle Paul famously wrote:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resistwill incur judgment (Romans 13:1-2 NRSV).
In short, government authority is allowed by God, and people are to respect that authority. That authority is expressed in a number of ways, including the laws a government passes. To break a government’s laws is to resist authority, which Paul says will bring judgment.
The laws being violated by undocumented immigrants are not to be taken lightly. It is a serious matter for a person to knowingly flaunt a government’s laws. If the Romans passage is taken alone, the Christian citizen of the United States has a challenge in balancing the Bible’s words about proper treatment of immigrants with Paul’s injunction to obey laws.
Romans 13:1-2 seems, however, to require greater interpretation because there can be ungodly laws and even evil governments. Scripture attests to God’s use of evil regimes, such as Assyria, to punish Israel, God’s chosen people. But evil governments are not the issue in the immigration debate; it is a matter of laws.
We should never allow one biblical passage alone to shape our ethical response to the world around us.
Paul also wrote:
When any of you has a grievance against another, do you dare to take it to court before the unrighteous, instead of taking it before the saints? Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetentto try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels — to say nothing of ordinary matters? If you have ordinary cases, then, do you appoint as judges those who have no standing in the church? (1 Cor. 6:1-4 NRSV)
Genuine believers have a unique wisdom that far exceeds the understanding of the “unrighteous” state. Followers of Christ should not need the state to tell them what is right and wrong.
Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers ofthis age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory (1 Cor. 2:6-8 NRSV).
Paul dismisses the wisdom of “the rulers of this age” and reminds his readers that the rulers of his time and place, Rome, “crucified the Lord of glory.”
How do we bring together Romans 13 with 1 Corinthians? It is the same writer referencing the same authorities.
Paul seems to be saying this:
Respect governmental authority because . . .
God has allowed it in His providence;
It serves an important function of bringing order; and
The state should not be resisted flippantly.
Followers of Christ have a wisdom that is above that of rulers:
Do not be surprised when rulers are unwise or even evil;
Understand how important your role is;
Governments rule only for a certain time; they are doomed to perish; and
A government crucified our Savior.
U.S. Immigration Policy
The U.S. Constitution gives Congress power to regulate citizenship and immigration (Article 1, Section 8):
“To establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization. . . .”
A constitutional phrase about who is eligible to be president also initially established a general understanding of citizenship (Article 2, Section 1):
“No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President. . . .”
But before the Civil War individual states had great leeway in controlling naturalization and recognizing citizenship.
Ratification of the 14th Amendment in 1868 brought change and consistency to the understanding of citizenship, especially in regard to freed slaves. Section 1 reads:
“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
In short, persons born in the United States and those naturalized are full citizens. And all citizens and non-citizens receive equal protection under the law and “due process” in the legal system.
That is the constitutional basis for the complex array of laws and regulations impacting immigration to the United States.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office provides a simple overview of federal immigration law today.
“The Immigration and Nationality Act sets immigration policy in the United States on the basis of four general objectives:
- To facilitate the reunification of families by admitting people who already have a family member living in the United States,
- To attract workers to fill positions in certain occupations for which there are shortages,
- To increase diversity by admitting people from countries with historically low rates of immigration to the United States, and
- To provide a refuge for people who face the risk of racial, religious, or political persecution in their home country.”
With those objectives, federal law provides limits on the numbers of immigrants allowed in various categories. Some people gain legal permanent resident status and others are admitted for a specific temporary purpose.
Legal permanent residents may become citizens through a process known as naturalization. Those who are not legal permanent residents are not eligible for naturalization.
U.S. law limits annual immigration to 675,000 permanent residents, with some exceptions for close family members, according to the American Immigration Council. Each year, Congress and the president determine a separate number for refugee admissions.
Despite an established process for legal immigration to the U.S., many people come to the U.S. illegally or stay beyond their temporary visa status. More than 11 million illegal immigrants now reside in the U.S. Daniel Kowalski of Bender’s Immigration Bulletin and has said “most of the nation’s undocumented people would love to ‘get in line’ to come into the country legally. If only they could.”
“But they can’t because they don’t fit into any visa preference category or because the wait for the visa can take decades. Without a relative to petition for them under a family-based preference or a job that fits into an employment-based category, there simply is no line to enter.
“Millions of low-wage service, industrial, manufacturing and construction jobs are filled by unauthorized workers who don’t qualify for visas because the Labor Department won’t certify a shortage of “U.S. workers” in those occupations — be they citizens, green card holders, refugees and others with work authorization.
Illegal aliens are not criminals, despite what you may hear.
Unauthorized crossing the U.S. border and living without proper documents is not a criminal offense, it is a civil offense. To call them criminals is to try to group undocumented persons with those who violate federal and state criminal law.
Section 1325 of the U.S. Code dealing with improper entry by an alien says, violators will incur civil penalties.
Civil and criminal offenses are usually differentiated by the nature of the offense and punishment assessed. Criminal-law.freeadvice.com makes the distinction more clearly for those of us who are not lawyers.
Civil offenses involve violations of administrative matters. The Federal Trade Commission frequently imposes civil fines on companies that violate consumer statutes. For example, if an organization carelessly reports incorrect credit information about several consumers, they can be fined for each violation. Another example of a civil offense is contempt of court. This can arise in any civil matter, but is often used in family law matters. If one parent is ordered to pay child support, but fails to make any attempts to pay their obligation, the other parent can move for contempt sanctions. . . .
Criminal offenses, on the other hand, arise from the violation of local ordinances or state or federal statutes prohibiting certain conduct. A criminal offense can involve a fine, an arrest, or confinement in jail or prison.
Civil offenses, such as violation of immigration laws, can be punishable by jail time, but that does not make the jailed person a criminal.
This distinction between civil and criminal is at the core of the debate surrounding immigration laws and offenses. Since crossing our border is not a criminal offense, undocumented persons are not criminals unless they commit criminal offenses once in the United States.
How to Talk About Immigration
The United States is involved in a broad and sometimes inflammatory discussion of immigration. The Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission asserts that immigrants, whether documented or undocumented, are to be cared for and respected as Scripture instructs. We also recognize that undocumented immigrants have broken U.S. law. This breaking of reasonable laws cannot be ignored.
Those who hold these two positions will desire to be careful in how they speak about this significant issue. Here are four brief suggestions on how to address these issues:
Scripture clearly teaches that God’s people are to treat the outsiders in their midst with care and respect. There is no justification for demeaning behavior or hateful language toward immigrants, whether they be documented or undocumented.
The Bible teaches respect for law because God uses government to create safe environments for human flourishing. In a democracy, it is important that we always seek to promote laws that are just, especially to vulnerable people.
While care for immigrants and respect for law are biblical principles, committed Christians living in a democracy may disagree on the specifics of immigration policy. We should be respectful of those differences and work together to have a just and appropriate legal framework.
Immigrants are people created in the image of God. As we deal with public policy it is important to treat immigrants as the creations of God. Most of them are fleeing desperate circumstances caused by economic deprivation, government corruption, and violence by criminal elements in their homelands. They need our care and compassion
Ministry to Immigrants
Ministry to Refugees
We stand with refugees out of a calling to follow Christ and to serve those in need – “the stranger among us.” The faith-inspired spirit of welcome and love is what makes America great in the first place, said Patty Lane and Kathryn Freeman in a blog post. We want for our refugee neighbors the same thing Daniel wanted, and the thing Mary and Joseph wanted for Jesus when they fled to Egypt — safety and the ability to live out their calling.
Given the limited risk and the magnitude of the humanitarian crisis we are facing, we hope others will join us as we prayerfully request that President Trump reconsider the scope and effect of this order and work with congressional leadership to devise a solution that bolsters American security without causing unnecessary delays for refugees fleeing violence or disregarding traditional American values.
Patty Lane, director of intercultural ministries for Texas Baptists, has offered six practical ways to serve refugees:
1. Know your local resettlement agencies
Resettlement agencies are the first point of contact for refugees. They help refugee families find housing, employment, and get acquainted in their new home. Most resettlement agencies have volunteer opportunities for individuals and churches. Catholic Charities and World Relief are two of the largest faith-based agencies. Many of the following opportunities are brokered through a resettlement agency.
2. Help connect people with employment opportunities
If you own a business and have jobs available, let the workers in the refugee community know. Resettlement agencies like World Relief and Catholic Charities are always needing employment opportunities for their clients. To work in a place with a Christian employer could be transformational for the life of an entire family.
3. Offer a ride
Transportation is a prevalent need. It takes a long time for refugees to learn to drive or buy a car. Churches can help with transportation easily because almost everyone in the church can drive and has access to a car. Volunteers are always needed. Contact your local resettlement agency, refugee congregation, or ministry and they will know exactly how to utilize you in this ministry. Don’t forget as you drive your new friends around you can build relationships and share your lives together.
4. Offer health care assistance.
Does your church have members in the medical field?
Refugee communities need access to healthcare. Doctors, dentists nurses, etc. in churches are all needed, especially by providers who offer transportation. Partner with a refugee church to organize a health clinic on a Saturday and you will find that you not only are a blessing to the refugees but you too will be blessed.
5. Volunteer to be a conversational partner
Many need literacy and ESL classes. You need no training for this, just a willingness to have conversation in order to practice English. Literacy Connexus is a great resource. Visit the website to learn more about how you can get involved.
Pray for refugees here and refugees around the world. Pray for their specific physical and spiritual needs and pray for them to find God in spite of all the trauma and desperation they have experienced. Pray for them to come to God and for Christians to be God’s hands and feet in their lives. Pray that as we know more refugees God will change us as well - to make us more and more compassionate and caring. To have God’s eyes to see the world as God does. Pray for where God would have you connect to the people in your community who have come as refugees
As you serve, remember, the most important thing a refugee needs is to be shown love and trust. This may mean just a smile or helping hand. Be friendly. A caring friend who sees them as the person they are with their own unique story goes a long way to becoming a friend and helping them adjust to their new home.
Here are some helpful resources:
- Refugee Services of Texas www.rstx.org
- International Rescue Committee www.rescue.org
- World Relief www.worldrelief.org
- Refugee Highway Partnership http://www.refugeehighway.net
- Project: Start www.texasbaptists.org/start & facebook.com/refugeereferralcenter
- Literacy Connexus www.literacyconnexus.org
Feel free to check with your local association or reach out to my office at Texas Baptists.
Patty Lane is director of intercultural ministries for Texas Baptists. Contact her at email@example.com (214) 828-5372.
Services for Immigrants (ISAAC)
The Immigration Service and Aid Center project of the Christian Life Commission focuses on equipping churches and other organizations to engage the immigrant community along a continuum of ministry options.
As a starting point , ISAAC provides unbiased immigration information from a Christian perspective. Whether it is through personal visits, sermons, website information, newsletters, or Facebook, the ISAAC staff will help your organization “separate the wheat from the chaff” on a broad range of immigration issues and topics.
Assistance in obtaining immigration law training and in completing the “recognition” and “accreditation” process
Help with starting an ESL, citizenship, or other program
Education and information on immigration matters
Link to ISAAC web site
Scripture speaks about how we should deal with one another. James gives us simple yet powerful advice:
You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. (James 1:19-20, NRSV)
The Apostle Paul wrote the following to the Christians in Ephesians, but we can apply it to all of our relationships:
Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. (Ephesians 4:31-32, NRSV)
Humility is such an important virtue. The writer of Proverbs said, “Before destruction one’s heart is haughty, but humility goes before honor” ( Proverbs 18:12, NRSV). And Paul wrote these words:
I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. ( Ephesians 4:1-3, NRSV)
Scripture tells us to guard our words, but it also tells us to speak to God about our concerns and to listen to God’s voice through the Word and the Spirit. Timothy wrote the following:
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. (1 Timothy 2:1-2, NRSV)
Jesus said His followers listen to Him, and He promised to guard them.
My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. (John 10:27-28, NRSV)
As we deal with issues in the broader society, Scripture should guide us both in helping us shape our worldview and in helping us know how to relate to others, especially to those with whom we disagree.