A Biblical Perspective On Immigration

This background paper was written for the well-respected Center for Immigration Studies by Dr. James Edwards Jr. Because the original paper consists of 4 sections and is quite long, we are sending only a shortened version of the first section. We plan to send out other sections later.

This first of 4 parts “examines the biblical role of civil government”. The second looks at “migration in Scripture”. The third answers the question, “What is the responsibility of immigrants and would-be immigrants?” The fourth “concludes with the application of biblical principles” to current immigration.

In writing this, Dr. Edwards is responding to mainline churches whose leaders imply that those who oppose illegal immigration and high immigration levels are violating Judaeo-Christian traditions. He says that 80% of Americans are Christian, but that there is a wide gap on the immigration issue between church leaders' views and those of the Christian rank-and-file.

Because church leaders and others like to cite the Old and New Testaments to justify unrealistic immigration policies, Dr. Edwards says his report “attempts to shed helpful light, in the best tradition of reasoning from the Scriptures (Acts 17:2)”.

The entire document is available at http://cis.org/ImmigrationBible.


Civil Governments Biblical Role

A central question must be answered before a biblically informed immigration policy may be determined: What role does God intend civil government to fulfill? After all, earthly government will be the mechanism through which public policy is formulated.

Scripture clearly indicates that God charges civil authorities with preserving order, protecting citizens, and punishing wrongdoers. A prime passage is Romans 13:1-7. Similar teachings, such as I Peter 2:13-17 and Titus 3:1, urge citizens to obey secular authorities, because they hold godly agency, whether the individuals in charge are personally characterized by godliness or not. This conduct of good citizenship is one means of revering God. Earthly governors bear the sword on behalf of those under their authority for instance, preserving law and order, fighting off invaders, and meting out punishment to those who break the law.

Further, standards of justice are not fully moral if they are not accompanied by judgment and punishment.

In other words, civil government has been delegated authority to use force because government fulfills the role of protector of a specific body politic and the members of that political society. The reason the sword of justice has been delegated to earthly governments is for protection of a defined set of people who live under a governments jurisdiction. It is not power for powers sake, but power to protect and defend a states own people and resources. Earthly rulers are to guard their own citizens against evil in the world and in the hearts of men.

And God holds rulers accountable for their official conduct (e.g., Deut. 17:14-20).

These points concerning civil government relate to immigration policy in several ways. One is the implication of national sovereignty, which includes the right to determine the grounds for admitting foreigners into the jurisdiction, and on what conditions. It also leads to the deduction that immigration policies should principally benefit citizens, not harm citizens well-being. Further, its implications include the prerogative of punishment or expulsion of those foreigners who do not abide by the civil laws, including immigration laws, as well as determining the criteria and conditions for foreigners admission. These sorts of prudential judgments may change according to the prevailing situation.

Old Testament Principles. Even the passages of Scripture most often cited by religious advocates of mass immigration and amnesty plainly do not argue for open borders. Rather, these writings generally reflect equal justice under law principles.

Consider Leviticus 19:33-34: When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. Similarly reads Exodus 22:21: You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.

Dr. Stephen Steinlight has noted that the Hebrew term for sojourn means temporary stay. A related term used in some scriptural translations is stranger. Nor is it reasonable to jump to the conclusions many on the open borders side do about related passages. These activists claim that such passages mandate that a society welcome any and all foreigners presenting themselves. No such passages state or imply overlooking illegality committed on the part of the alien in his entry. Nor is there any requirement of unlimited or uncontrolled admittance of those who are members of another nation or society. Assertions like those are, at a minimum, a wrong reading. Such verses actually indicate nothing about the grounds for alien admission to ancient Israel.

In fact, as Steinlight and others have noted, a fair reading of the relevant Old Testament passages makes clear that foreign residents were to comply with Israelite laws, such as Sabbath observance (e.g., Deut. 16:9-15). Furthermore, the law God laid down for Israel allowed legal distinctions to be drawn between native Jews and resident aliens. For instance, Deuteronomy 15 commands the remission of the debts of fellow Israelites every seven years, but [o]f a foreigner you may exact his debts (v. 3)

Another theme stands out in the Bible. God regards borders as meaningful and important (see, for instance, Prov. 22:28 and Prov. 23:10-11). Consider Deuteronomy 32:8: When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God. Ezekiel 47:13-23 details the Promised Lands boundaries. Numbers 34:1-15 describes the borders the Lord established for each tribe of Israel. Deuteronomy 19:14 commands against moving a neighboring tribes boundary stone marking a given tribe of Israels inheritance in the Promised Land. Another example appears three months after the Israelites left Egypt. The base of Mount Sinai was made off-limits (see Exodus 19:12ff), under penalty of death, until the people had been consecrated. Resident aliens who had children and settled in Israel (largely because of Israels failure to complete the mandate to remove them) were allowed private property in Israel (Ezek. 47:21-23)

God also employed foreigners as instruments of His justice, with invasion as a curse (just as he used the Israelites to exact justice against the pagans residing in the Promised Land). For example, II Chronicles 36 describes the decline of Judah, the culmination of kingships and continual disobedience by Gods people. This sad passage tells of the Chaldean conquest of Israel and the judgment meted by the Babylonian captivity. The curse in Deuteronomy 28:43-44 reads: The sojourner who is among you shall rise higher and higher above you, and you shall come down lower and lower. He shall lend to you, and you shall not lend to him. He shall be the head, and you shall be the tail. That curse plays out throughout Old Testament history.

In short, the Old Testament teaches fair treatment of resident foreigners, with certain requirements of the aliens related to religious and civil legal standards. It also instructs that aliens were to assimilate to the Hebrew culture. Boundaries are meaningful, as well, and foreign presence among the Hebrews on several occasions was a curse. Few details of immigration procedures, standards, or other policy prescriptions appear. To infer some open-borders or mass-amnesty mandate from what actually appears in Scripture is wrong.

When considering mercy as public policy, however, an important distinction must be drawn. Not every moral or ethical teaching in the Bible fits cleanly or applies equally to both individuals and societies. This is certainly true with justice and mercy. The case for civil authorities executing justice is much plainer, while their application of mercy in public policies is merely tempering, not predominant. Legislating mercy requires prudence, restraint, and good judgment.

Similarly, Jesus affirmed the place of civil government, the executor of justice. Christ said in Matthew 21:22: Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesars, and to God the things that are Gods.

Christs (“Golden Rule”) applies to individuals instead of governments.

As an agent for members of the body politic, civil government acts on behalf of a larger group of people. Civil authorities have no resources other than what citizens entrust to them. Every obligation civil authorities take on they do in their capacity as public agents, not personally (other than, say, as individual taxpayers themselves).

Related to this is the familiar passage about treatment of the least of these my brothers the hungry, the naked, the stranger, the prisoner. The passage in Matthew 25:31-46 plainly concerns the eternal reward or punishment of individuals. The judgment here is based on individual acts of kindness, as private persons. It becomes highly problematic to ascribe the specific mercy ministries this passage cites to bodies politic.

It invites skepticism to conclude that feeding the hungry or welcoming the stranger as a matter of public policy at public cost is implied here. And given that immigration policies pit the interests and well-being of citizens of a body politic against those of people subject to other national jurisdictions, laws that privilege foreigners, wealthy elites, and special interests over the welfare of citizens (particularly average and less fortunate members of society) are, at a minimum, morally obtuse. The least of these in this context are those with a claim to particular authorities protection, not foreigners or native elites.

Similarly, the notion of neighborliness illustrates the individual (versus societal) obligation. The Good Samaritan parable exemplifies the commandment to love ones neighbor as one loves oneself. It appears in Luke 10:25-37, where the social outcast in the story Jesus tells acts more as a true neighbor than do more outwardly upstanding characters. It shows ones investing himself in someone in need, taking mercy, as the example of loving neighbor.

While principles from this example may serve in certain public policy areas, the model largely applies to individuals. At the policy level, it would be too easy for the state to demand conduct best exercised voluntarily by individuals, not under compulsion. Such is not mercy, nor is it motivated by love. The same goes for the state erroneously regarding foreigners as neighbors and treating them better in certain ways than its own citizens.

And while the general principles of mercy Christ mentions here may inform certain public policies, it would be wrong to jump to particular policies as justified (or mandated) here (such as U.S. funding of foreign programs that perversely result in dependency and illegitimacy). For each national government, the least of these will be native-born sufferers, the less fortunate of its own nation, those who stand to lose if forced to compete for jobs or education, for example, with people who would immigrate from some other nation (whose own civil authorities are responsible for their welfare). Further, in the United States, federal authorities are constrained by the U.S. Constitution, which limits their authority to certain denominated duties.

It is important to note another element of justice. God brings reward and punishment to human societies this side of eternity. Corporate entities such as civil societies have no existence except in the here and now. Thus, they temporally experience consequences affecting the whole. Scripture teaches that individuals are ultimately responsible for their personal sin or righteousness, but those personal moral dimensions affect the life of the body politic, as well. An aspect of this principle involves Gods empowering specific civil rulers over particular peoples (e.g., Deut. 32:8; Prov. 8:15-16; Acts 17:26).

A compassionate act, when exercised by an individual, often becomes an injustice when compelled by civil government the agents who are supposed to be the guardians of justice and protectors of the innocent, the least of these, the citizens or subjects of their jurisdiction.

How might this concept apply in U.S. immigration policy? Take amnesty, for example. Forgiving foreigners for entering the country illegally or staying when their visas expire might be seen as merciful or compassionate, at least in its effect on the people gaining legal status without having to suffer the consequences the law otherwise would require of them. However, the government, as agent, has acted in such a way that coerces innocent citizens and law-abiding immigrants to suffer the consequences.

In recent amnesty proposals, 12 million or more illegal aliens would be legalized. These amnestied lawbreakers would tie up the immigration bureaucracy; introduce through chain migration millions of relatives into an already clogged system; qualify for scarce public resources such as Medicaid, welfare, and other public assistance; and the costs of all these things would be borne by American taxpayers. Furthermore, the scale of such mercy would do harm to many Americans and communities, and lead to more illegal immigration by the signal such policies would send (and indeed have sent with previous amnesties).