The Biblical Foundation for Immigration

On this day when there is a definitive possibility of a “shutdown” of our federal government largely because of a lack of agreement about immigration policy, I was reminded from 1 Peter 1:1 that Christians are “elect exiles of the dispersion” (ESV). I thought this a good time to reflect on some Bible passages that should form a foundation for Christian’s thinking on immigration policy. The Bible says very little directly about most contemporary national policy issues. And while the scripture does not provide detail on immigration policy, the Bible does give us direct moral perspective on immigration.

All people are created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27-28). All people should be given and treated with the respect and dignity owed to image bearers of the Almighty. We have the potential and capability to contribute in productive ways to our cultures and societies. Human flourishing is contingent upon people having the opportunity to reflect the image of God through creative service to Him through serving other image bearers. Immigrants can contribute to  societies and cultures that are different from their nations of birth.

As I was reminded this morning from 1 Peter, Christians are aliens and sojourners in a foreign land. We are like Abraham, “… looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10). As the gospel song says: “This world is not my home I’m just passing through”. Philippians 3:20 reminds us “… our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ”. All Christians will one day be part of the ultimate migration, which will be shared with people “… from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Rev 7:9).  The great commission commands us to take the good news of Christ Jesus to the entire world:

18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in[a] the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matt. 28:18-20).

Christ himself spent part of his childhood as a refugee in Egypt.

13 Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14 And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son. (Matt. 2:13-15)

We should have compassion on people that need to flee the land of their birth.

The nation of Israel’s exodus from Egypt was a significant event in their history pre-figuring the deliverance that would ultimately come in the person of Christ. Because Israel had been a stranger in the land of Egypt they were to treat strangers in their land well.

21 You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 22:21)

33 When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong.34 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. (Leviticus 19:33-34)

18 He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. 19 Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 10:18-19)

if you do not oppress the sojourner, the fatherless, or the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own harm. (Jeremiah 7:6)

29 The people of the land have practiced extortion and committed robbery. They have oppressed the poor and needy, and have extorted from the sojourner without justice. (Ezekiel 22:29)

10 do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart. (Zechariah 7:10)

Global immigration is a reality. Technology, both in the form of communication and transportation, has made our world a much smaller place during the last 100 years. People will want to immigrate to the United States and US citizens will sometimes desire to move to another country to live. In addition, poor governance leading to poor economic performance motivates people to move to nations with more sound government and better economies. Sometimes armed conflict forces people to flee their countries. Immigration is a fact of 21st century life. While the Bible does not delineate policy detail, it does indicate that Christians should support a humane immigration policy. My ideal policy would be open borders. No one should be in the country who is undocumented. An open immigration policy does not mean that we have no passports and no national boundaries. What it means is we do not artificially restrict individual’s movements. People with known criminal backgrounds and communicable diseases should not be allowed to move freely between nations, but ideally we should not restrict movement by any other criteria. Transferring citizenship from one country to another should not be difficult. Open immigration is how we provide individuals created in the image of God with the respect and dignity they deserve.

25 thoughts on “The Biblical Foundation for Immigration”

  1. One question: open immigration would still be accompanied by some bureaucracy, right? Would you still submit applications and wait for approval in your system, or how would the vetting for these limited criteria be done?

    1. Yes – there would be some process for application and acceptance.

      I have not carefully thought through the detail of the vetting process, although I agree with what you have said in the other thread. I think the process should not prohibit people from coming if they elect to be productive members of our society. I do not like the current “chain” immigration in practice. I would like for families to be able to emigrate together.

  2. So glad to see this being written about Bert. As a Cedarville grad, long time neighbor to immigrants and deeply involved in immigration policy, it is good to see this issue, which is often only evaluated through a political lens, get some theological insights. There is so much misinformation around immigration and terms like “chain migration” misnomers. There is time to help give clarity to those media talking points, but we can’t talk politics without first a transformed & renewed mind. We need to follow a progression of good thought before we head to politics. We should consider our theology, our anthropology, and our then our sociology. That will enable us to test and approve what God’s good and perfect will is when bombarded with political ideas and opinions.

  3. I agree that immigration to the US should be much easier. If someone desires to come here to build a better life, we certainly should not attempt to prevent them. Most importantly, you are right that Christians ought to love immigrants just as we are called to love everyone else made in his image.
    That being said, how do you propose that we address the undocumented (illegal) immigrants already in this country?

    1. Hi Carter,
      I would propose that we treat each of the approximately 11,000,000 undocumented immigrants as individuals. Each person needs to be vetted and examined for citizenship if that’s what the person wants. Anyone with evidence of criminal activity or being able to work and refusing to do so should be deported. For the people who want to contribute to our country, we should provide them with a humane path to citizenship. This would be a monumental task and I have not thought through the detail on how it might be accomplished. One element needs to be the revision of our current policy to make certain that we do not have undocumented immigrants in the country.

      1. Should there be any type of penalty imposed on people for coming in illegally as they take the path to citizenship, bearing in mind it would be impossible to fully enforce the law on all of these people?

      2. Do you think that it would be feasible to identify and actually deport each undocumented immigrant with “evidence” of criminal activity or who refuses to be productive? In this case would you deport individuals, or break up families?

  4. I agree that those who are looking to seek a better way of life and have a desire to be contributing members of society should be able to find this life in the US through a relatively painless process. It is really a shame that fears over national safety has caused this process to be so difficult that some cross over illegally.
    Do you think that the US will actually ever be able to come up with a way to make America more legally accessible to the right folks, or do you think safety concerns will never dispel enough to make that possible?

    1. Hi Michael,
      I do think that is possible to improve our current policy greatly. However, I do feel that changes to current policy will be very difficult with today’s political environment. However, we should be able to vet immigrants over safety concerns. Overcoming the short run perceived economic threat will be more difficult.

  5. Thank you for this Biblically-based post about immigration. My grandmother’s family fled to Germany from the Soviet Union, and then they made their way to the US in the years after WWII. They were shown much kindness when they came to America, and they were able to create a good life for themselves in America.

    I am very grateful for the courage of my family, but I am also grateful for the Americans who actively welcomed my family here. This certainly helped them to integrate to the new culture and values.

  6. Good writing and convincing arguments. I appreciate the way in which you began with a Christian worldview, and then applied it to immigration policy, instead of starting with policy and unfairly integrating Scripture.

  7. I liked the scripture used to support your argument and I completely agree with you. They will know that we are Christians by our love, and we need to love and accept people as Christ would. You stated that people tend to migrate toward countries with a good economy and opportunity, as naturally almost anyone would. Do you think instead of America just being a refuge for people to live a safe healthy economic life that America could implement some policy or a movement to better other countries governments? If America began to spread out and make other countries like us, it would eliminate everyone coming to us. Do you see any possibility that this could work or ever be implemented?

    1. Benjamin,
      What you are describing is the result of free movement of people between nations based on their economic choices. It is not so much about making other countries like the United States, but rather doing all we can to make certain that the political institutions in other nations are inclusive and lead to inclusive economic institutions. Each nation and culture will have to decide exactly what this looks like and how it functions. Economic growth and development will occur where people who are in God’s image are free to unleash their creative natures!

  8. Thanks for your article on immigration which has stimulated some good comments. Your biblical references are consistent with the character of our compassionate Father God and the behavior He desires in His image bearers. But the issue is challenging to me, seemingly for the reason that God is a God of justice and mercy–and He desires that these two aspects be expressed in humankind as perfectly as possible. So, it seems to me that without Truth and justice, mercy is weakened if not meaningless. Likewise, I’m suggesting that without a strictly enforced, objective policy of immigration supported by a tightly managed “wall,” our nation will not be able to maintain what America has traditionally been as an attractive beacon for those seeking a better opportunity. Immigration policy (and a “leaky wall”) managed for years in a haphazard manner, often motivated by misplaced compassion (or political desire for enlarging a voting block) has gotten us behind the eight ball–hence many who are here illegally whose fate we must decide. Without strict immigration policy supported by a wall with effectively managed “gates” for entry, I don’t see how we can get to the goal you have stated and with which I agree; namely, “Each nation and culture will have to decide exactly what this looks like and how it functions. Economic growth and development will occur where people who are in God’s image are free to unleash their creative natures!”

    1. Hi John, good to hear from you and I hope all is going well! “God is a God of justice and mercy–and He desires that these two aspects be expressed in humankind as perfectly as possible. So, it seems to me that without Truth and justice, mercy is weakened if not meaningless. Likewise, I’m suggesting that without a strictly enforced, objective policy of immigration supported by a tightly managed “wall,” our nation will not be able to maintain what America has traditionally been as an attractive beacon for those seeking a better opportunity.” When you are discussing justice, I assume you’re talking about the disposition of the undocumented aliens in the United States at this time. I would argue that a large number of these individuals have not really done anything greatly wrong. They have committed no moral crime beyond breaking a poorly conceived and exercised policy of a nation-state. I am not saying what they did is “Mother Theresa” (choose your saint) good, but that most are not guilty of a horrible moral abrogation. Around three quarters of the jobs lost In manufacturing are losses attributable to technological change and innovation. Many of the current undocumented aliens from South America are filling low skill work positions. These individuals certainly do compete with American workers and there is some evidence that wages in low skill positions are lower. What I am saying, is that for humans to fully flourish they need to be treated with respect and dignity. If a worker wants to come here and compete against native workers, that person should be able to do so. No one who is mentally and physically able in the United States should be able to remain on welfare indefinitely– whether an immigrant or a native worker. We do have a problem with welfare–It is not a problem with immigration–welfare should be short lived and never become a way of life.

      1. Thanks for your warm and welcoming greeting, Bert. I’m sorry I didn’t flesh out my intent in using “justice” in the context of immigration policy. By it I meant “just treatment” of people who want to immigrate, which in my judgment means fixing the current broken system by controlling/restricting movement so that “gates” can be opened and operated through proper screening and implementation of some king of merit-based system that allows admission of those who are able to compete and contribute positively to our workforce and society; and which may need to include limits on numbers allowed to enter from each respective homeland each year. I hope this clarifies a bit in an admittedly complex issue.

  9. Just from a practical perspective, there seem to be some equally advantageous reasons for permitting a more open form of immigration. Recently, there was an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal making the case for a freer immigration system; part of the op-ed’s claim was that immigration is essentially a “free lunch” for the country the immigrants are moving to. Obviously, we know that there is no such thing as a free lunch, and there are costs to having a loose immigration system (cultural adaptation, social welfare costs, etc.), but the op-ed’s author makes a good, practical argument, namely: we don’t have the necessary birth rate to sustain our growth. What we lack in birth rate can be made up for in immigration, and thus it provides a logical and practical basis for permitting more immigration.

    1. I keep hearing this cultural adaptation argument: How much weight do you give it? I have a hard time taking it seriously since we’re a nation of many cultures already. We’ve had waves of immigration before. We’ve been afraid of Italians and Irish taking over, but it’s never been a real threat.

      1. Actually Theo, the beauty of the American culture is that it’s impossible for another culture to take over through immigration.

        We are the great melting pot, our culture is defined by many cultures coming together and elements of cultures from all around the world in one place.

        The only way that we can lose our culture is through closing our borders and adopting a nationalistic stance that we need to preserve the American culture.

      2. Theo,

        Normally, I don’t really care because the libertarian bone in me tells me to let others do their own culture in their own homes. The only problem I see with that line of thinking is in the case of places like Sweden where their culture is starting to clash with a wave of refugees in a fairly dramatic way. That’s my reservation. I don’t mind if migrants retain elements of their culture, but I think there are certain elements they need to adapt if they want to live here (i.e.- language, civic obedience, etc.). In all honesty, though, I think those are things any host country should reasonably and fairly expect of a new immigrant.

      3. I thought Sweden was pretty angry at Trump for suggesting what you just said (among, of course, a dozen other things). Are you sure you have your facts straight? We Americans seem to get very worried about other countries’ immigration habits when most of us have no actual experience to go on. Swedes seem to be pretty pro-immigrant from polling. Is there some kind of event you’re referring to?

      4. https://www.pri.org/stories/2017-09-11/sweden-was-among-best-countries-immigrants-thats-changing
        https://www.reuters.com/article/us-sweden-immigration-crackdown/sweden-intensifies-crackdown-on-illegal-immigrants-idUSKBN19Y0G8
        https://www.usnews.com/news/best-countries/articles/2017-07-10/immigration-forces-sweden-to-re-evaluate-its-welfare-state
        https://www.economist.com/news/europe/21723123-more-needs-be-done-ensure-it-survives-immigration-changing-swedish-welfare
        https://www.thelocal.se/20170601/anti-immigration-sweden-democrats-overtake-moderates-as-swedens-second-largest-party-poll

        Yah, this. I think Dr. Clauson is similarly concerned about something like this happening in the States, and his concerns are not without cause. Now, two things: 1) We’re a lot bigger than Sweden, so we can take more punishment just because of our size, 2) our social welfare net is nothing like Sweden’s. But the problem is still there. Note in particular the rise of the anti-immigrant parties and the emerging talk about protecting “Swedish values.” Sound familiar?

      5. https://www.pri.org/stories/2017-09-11/sweden-was-among-best-countries-immigrants-thats-changing
        https://www.reuters.com/article/us-sweden-immigration-crackdown/sweden-intensifies-crackdown-on-illegal-immigrants-idUSKBN19Y0G8
        https://www.usnews.com/news/best-countries/articles/2017-07-10/immigration-forces-sweden-to-re-evaluate-its-welfare-state
        https://www.economist.com/news/europe/21723123-more-needs-be-done-ensure-it-survives-immigration-changing-swedish-welfare
        https://www.thelocal.se/20170601/anti-immigration-sweden-democrats-overtake-moderates-as-swedens-second-largest-party-poll

        Yah, this. I think Dr. Clauson is similarly concerned about something like this happening in the States, and his concerns are not without cause. Now, two things: 1) We’re a lot bigger than Sweden, so we can take more punishment just because of our size, 2) our social welfare net is nothing like Sweden’s. But the problem is still there. Note in particular the rise of the anti-immigrant parties and the emerging talk about protecting “Swedish values.” Sound familiar?

  10. I understand your claims concerning undocumented immigrants and resonate with those, however my question concerns preventing such a problem in the future. Why can’t we just streamline the screening process and make it easier for legal immigrants to enter the nation without an open borders policy? Further, why can’t we value someones personhood while also focusing on streamlining the legal process and giving them an economic opportunity in that regard? It seems to me that we could be inclusive and treat those outside our borders as equals by giving them a more dignified opportunity to become a citizen but not by simply giving a free pass.

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