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.
Immigration in the United States
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 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. Click here to read more.
Refugees in the World
The United Nations accounted for 15.1 million refugees in mid-2015 -- the highest number in 20 years. Another 5.1 million registered refugees are cared for in about 60 camps in the Middle East. Refugees “live widely varying conditions, from well-established camps and collective centres to makeshift shelters or living in the open,” according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. “More than half of all refugees of concern to UNHCR live in urban areas. They all await one of three possible solutions: repatriation, local integration or resettlement." Click here to read more.
What the Bible Says
People living in a land not their own
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 those who 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” (Matthew 2:13-15 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.
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.
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 resist will 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 incompetent to 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 of this 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.
- 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.