Can Biblical Principles Inform the Immigration Debate?

This is a recent paper that I wrote on the continuing immigration debate in the United States.

The United States of America is a country of immigrants. Throughout the country’s history, immigrants from all corners of the world have relocated to the United States in search of jobs and the promise of the so-called “American Dream.” However, in recent years, the notion of immigration has become a major political topic, even playing a prominent role in the 2008 presidential election. Most of the debate has centered on the country’s 11.1 million illegal immigrants,and what action the country should take in response to those who enter the country without documentation. With a debate that has been contentious and filled with rhetoric, one wonders if Biblical principles, particularly those regarding care for the stranger, can be applied to the current illegal immigration debate and help set the course for future policy discussions. This paper will examine the Bible’s understanding of stranger and foreigner, then make an application of these principles in the current immigration debate within the United States.

In order to engage the topic of illegal immigration, it is important to have a basic understanding of the issue. Most of the discussion surrounding illegal immigration has centered on the Hispanic immigration coming from the United States’ southern border. Politicians, wanting to be seen as tough on crime and promoting jobs for natural-born Americans and legal immigrants, have argued for strict measures. These measures include the Arizona immigration bill, which allows police to do traffic stops to check immigration status, and a U.S.-Mexico border fence, which was erected to prevent illegal immigration. Some have argued that immigration should be curtailed because of national security concerns, because many immigrants take jobs American workers should have, and because they do not pay taxes.

Some reject these arguments and positions, claiming that immigration should be protected. Among those is Vinoth Ramachandra, who argues that policy decisions, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, placed an unfair burden on Hispanics to seek jobs where they could. “They are victims of [NAFTA] that pits them in unfair competition with state-subsidized agribusiness giants from the United States and Canada,” Ramachandra writes. He also debunks the notion that illegal immigrants do not contribute to society, arguing that they pay taxes on goods and services, as well as property taxes, which are included in their rents. M. Daniel Carroll R. joins this debate in saying that Hispanic immigration is not the same as in previous generations, because of the large number of immigrants and their desire to maintain their cultural identity. He also argues that Hispanic immigrants attempt to make the best of what they can and interact with their new homes in ways that impact every aspect of their lives. This attempt at assimilation is done in the midst of “the pain of separation from home and all that is familiar, as well as with the indifference, fear, or even hostility of the host culture.”

While recognizing the issue of illegal immigration is more complex than what this brief introduction of the issue is able to discuss, it is appropriate to ask how Biblical principles can provide assistance in this discussion. More specifically, are there aspects of Scripture that, if applied to the illegal immigration debate, would help guide and define national and state policies on the issue? It would seem that the Biblical concepts of the imago Dei and its treatment of strangers would be applicable to this discussion.

The concept of the imago Dei is important to the discussion of illegal immigration. It comes from Genesis 1:27, which states that all humanity was created in the image of God. Because of this created nature, we are endowed with certain rights simply because of our shared humanity. This means that each person has a value and worth, which cannot be denied, regardless if one is a legal or illegal immigrant. Ronald Sider explains that, because of the imago Dei, each person has a responsibility to care for one another. “Every person’s human right to life, freedom, and all the other things that the Creator reveals as human rights flows from God’s creative design.” To deny someone their humanity would deny the work of God in that person. As Christine Pohl writes, “Every person is worthy of respect because of the work of God in them and for them.”

How then does this concept of the imago Dei apply to the on-going discussion regarding immigration in the United States? Carroll argues that the concept of human worth should be central in any discussion about immigration, particularly Hispanic immigration. “Because immigrants are made in the divine image, they have an essential value and possess the potential to contribute to society through their presence, work, and ideas.” With this, Ramachandra’s argument that “humankind is one family” is appropriate to the immigration debate. He argues that humanity is connected to one another through the incarnation of Christ. Applied to the discussion about immigration, the person who seeks to enter the United States – whether legal or not – should not be seen as someone taking a job, or as a potential criminal, but as one’s brother or sister. This would get to the heart of Paul’s words when he argues that there should be no earthly differences between us, because we are one in Christ.

While the language of the imago Dei gives us a groundwork of human rights for all people, there are other Biblical principles and language which will help in this discussion. Specifically, the Bible’s understanding of stranger and how to care for the stranger is important in the discussion regarding immigration. The Hebrew concept of stranger, which is similar to our understanding of an immigrant, comes from the word gerim (from the root word ger), which means “sojourner” or “resident alien.” Ramachandra says it “refers to someone from another ethnic background who has taken up long-term residence in Israel.” In several places, the Old Testament gives us guidance on how the people of Israel were to treat the stranger in their midst. Most important, the people of Israel were to remember that they were once strangers in a foreign land, and that remembrance was to guide them in their interactions with strangers and foreigners. The people of Israel were also reminded that they were even then strangers in the land given to them by God, and they were only here on earth for a short time. While the New Testament does not specifically mention principles regarding strangers, it does offer some general guidelines that are appropriate here. Christ teaches that the Greatest Command is to the love the Lord and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Paul writes to the church in Ephesus that they were to remember their position as outsiders, while the author of Hebrews calls individuals to offer hospitality to strangers.

This idea of hospitality to strangers is key to understanding how the people of Israel were to interact with strangers and foreigners. They were called to offer basic needs, such as food and shelter, to strangers and to not oppress foreigners. To protect the stranger meant that the people of Israel were taking on responsibility to care for their safety, to make sure they had proper provisions, and to ensure their rights were protected. As Pohl writes, “Without special attention, resident aliens would be marginal to most Israelite institutions – to extended families, as well to legal, economic, political, and religious institutions.” Regardless if “they had assimilated or not” the people of Israel were called to treat the stranger “in exactly the same way as native Israelites.”

This understanding of stranger can be applied to the discussions regarding immigration. Just as the people of Israel were called to remember their identity as foreigners and their own experience as strangers, we as citizens of the United States would do well to remember our own experiences as immigrants. Most Americans can trace their roots to some wave of immigration that contributed, in some way, to the composition of American society. To deny someone the opportunity to come to America would be to ignore our own family history and stories. Even more, the Biblical narrative calls Americans to not see the immigrant based on their legal status, but to welcome them because of basic humanity, which we all share.

With this understanding Biblical principles in the imago Dei and concept of the stranger, it is appropriate to make some comments about how the American discussion of immigration should proceed. Ramachandra offers an important policy suggestion, writing that the notion of an illegal immigrant should be done away with. He argues for nations to “decriminalize the worldwide movement of peoples and treat each person, whatever his or her economic status, with the respect he or she deserves as a human being.” That may be too extreme, especially given that it would allow for the free movement of terrorists, which would open up potential for harm and stand against any potential benefit of Ramachandra’s position. Carroll argues that there must be control and order at the country’s borders. But, he says, this Biblical approach offers a “basic mind-set from which one can begin to formulate policy and evaluate pragmatic decisions that must be made in many spheres of national life.” It is hoped that this mind-set would remind those engaged in the topic of immigration reform that we each share a common humanity, which serves as a connection to our strengths, our weaknesses, and our vulnerabilities. Thus, instead of debating immigration reform from an “us against them” mindset, we enter into it from the position of shared equality. A Biblical approach to immigration reform would then establish a policy of welcoming the other, the immigrant, into our communities and into our social, economic, and political dimensions. As Miroslav Volf writes, this concept of welcoming the immigrant should cause us “to readjust our identities to make space for them” which comes before “any judgment about others, except that of identifying them in their humanity.”

The debate about illegal immigration in the United States is one that has been argued mostly from the position of economics. This paper has attempted to show how a Biblical argument can guide this debate in order to lead those concerned about this issue to see immigration reform in the context of human dignity and welcoming of the other. We cannot see Hispanic immigrants simply as job-stealers or criminals, but as individuals of worth who should be welcomed and treated as humans because of their basic humanity as a child of God, who are created in the image of God.

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