The Immigration Debate: Two Christian Perspectives

Immigration reform has been a major topic of discussion for quite a while, but it seems to have gained a bit more attention lately. First I heard about InterVarsity Press’s release of Immigration: Tough Questions, Direct Answers by Dale Hanson Bourke, and then last week I read this interview of Bourke at Christianity Today. And then today, I read this post at The Gospel Coalition. In light of this increased interest in the subject of immigration, I decided to republish a comparative book review that I wrote on my personal blog last year. Here it is:

I’m new to the immigration debate. I’ve heard a few arguments on both sides before, but until recently I hadn’t done enough research to arrive at a well-informed opinion of my own. Over the past few days, I’ve sought to remedy that by reading two Christian books offering different perspectives on the question of immigration (and particularly illegal immigration in the U.S.). The more progressive perspective is presented in Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion and Truth in the Immigration Debate by World Relief staffers Matthew Soerens and Jenny Hwang (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2009). The more conservative perspective is presented in The Immigration Crisis: Immigrants, Aliens, and the Bible by James Hoffmeier (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009). Both books demonstrate a remarkable level of thoughtfulness and scholarship, but overall I am more persuaded of the progressive view presented in Welcoming the Stranger. Let me summarize both books and explain why.

Soerens and Hwang focus primarily on the history, policies, problems, and proposed solutions to immigration in the U.S. They present a wide array of statistics and figures, including the fact that there currently exist 11-12 million undocumented immigrants within our borders today (12). Most of these immigrants do not come to milk our social safety net or cause us harm; rather, they are simply trying to find work to support their families (48). Surprisingly, the employment rate for adult male undocumented immigrants is 96%, which is considerably higher than that of their native-born counterparts. Further, throughout his/her lifetime, the average immigrant (legal and illegal) pays $80,000 more in taxes than they receive in benefits . Soerens and Hwang devote one brief chapter to giving biblical support for their view (82-92), and I find their basic argument here to be convincing. According to Old Testament law, Israelites were commanded to show justice and compassion to the alien/sojourner, because they were once sojourners in Egypt, and God himself loves the sojourner (Ex. 23:9; Lev. 19:33-34; Deut. 10:18). Although the U.S. is not ancient Israel, we are under the lordship of the same God, whose character is unchanging. Therefore, our laws and practices should demonstrate the same care for the alien.

James Hoffmeier offers an alternative viewpoint. His strength is his vast knowledge of Ancient Near Eastern archaeology and biblical exegesis. He devotes comparatively little space to the subject of modern immigration, but presents a thorough account of how immigration was understood and practiced in biblical times. The main argument of his book is that the Bible distinguishes between the “alien/sojourner” (Hebrew gēr/toshav) on the one hand, and the “stranger/foreigner” (Hebrew zar/nekhar) on the other (50-52). He defines a biblical “alien/sojourner” as one who takes up permanent residence in a foreign country, with legal permission from a recognized authority in that country to do so. As such, an alien/sojourner was entitled to various rights, privileges, and responsibilities under Israelite law. By contrast, a “foreigner” did not have legal permission for residence and consequently did not enjoy the protections of Israelite law. According to Hoffmeier, this distinction carries over to the distinction between legal and illegal immigrants in the U.S. today. Since, he argues, illegal immigrants do not have permission from a recognized authority to be here, they do not have the same rights as the biblical alien/sojourner, but instead fall under the category of stranger/foreigner.

So does Hoffmeier’s distinction between alien/sojourner and stranger/foreigner hold water? After doing some exegetical and lexical research of my own, I am convinced that the distinction does indeed exist, but it does not correspond to the modern distinction between legal and illegal immigrants in the way that Hoffmeier argues. According to A.H. Konkel, “The sojourner [gēr] is distinguished from the foreigner [nekhar] in that he has settled in the land for some time and is recognized as having a special status” (NIDOTTE 1.837). The law further distinguishes between a  sojourner and a foreigner, in that only a sojourner may participate in the Passover and may not be charged interest (Ex. 12:43, 48; Lev. 25:35-36; Deut. 23:20).

However, contra Hoffmeier, the distinction between alien/sojourner and stranger/foreigner does not seem to be based on legal authorization to reside in the host country. Rather, it is based on 1) the circumstances that initially led an individual to immigrate, and/or 2) their intention to take up permanent residence in the host country. An alien/sojourner is one who has left their homeland for political or economic reasons and sought refuge elsewhere, while a foreigner is one who has taken up only temporary residence, often for financial or military gain (such as a merchant or invader). There is therefore no biblical reason to exclude undocumented immigrants in the U.S. from the biblical category of alien/sojourner. In fact, if anything, one could argue that the category of alien/sojourner applies especially to them. Throughout Scripture, aliens/sojourners are repeatedly characterized as being among the most socially and economically vulnerable, along with orphans and widows (Deut. 10:18; 14:29). The reader need only ask: who is in a more socially and economically vulnerable condition today, the legal immigrant or the illegal immigrant? (Don’t hear what I’m not saying; I still think legal immigrants fall under the biblical category of alien/sojourner!)

Of course, there’s still Romans 13. We as Christians should be subject to the governing authorities, and that means acknowledging that undocumented immigrants have violated the law. But there are a few caveats to that principle. First, God’s laws supersede man’s laws, and there may be times when Christians are called to engage in civil disobedience for the sake of social justice. Second, I’m not suggesting that we simply turn a blind eye to the 11-12 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. and let them stay here with impunity. They have broken the law, and they should pay an appropriate penalty. But I don’t think that that penalty should be deportation. As Soerens and Hwang propose, they should be given an opportunity to confess their crime, pay a fine, and earn the right to stay here legally (148). Third, since we live in a democratic society, we have the opportunity to reform our immigration laws. For example, we ought to allow more opportunities for unskilled foreign laborers to apply for work visas in certain job sectors, either by finding sponsor employers or by enrolling in job apprenticeships, which they can then pay for in installments once employed.

The U.S. immigration system as it currently stands is broken. We as Christians have a responsibility to engage in the political process in order to fix it. But in the meantime, we also have a responsibility to demonstrate justice and compassion to all immigrants within our borders.

About Kyle Dillon

A teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), assistant pastor of theological instruction at Riveroaks Reformed Presbyterian Church, and theology/languages teacher at Westminster Academy in Memphis, Tennessee.

5 Responses to “The Immigration Debate: Two Christian Perspectives”

  1. There are also unintended consequences involved. I’ve read that since 1994 when we signed NAFTA up to 3 to 4 million small farmers in Mexico have been displaced due to the inability to compete with government subsidized, industrial farming in the USA. This is one reason for the spike in undocumented workers making their way north since that time.

  2. Kyle,

    Though I disagree with your conclusion, I commend you for approaching this emotional topic with a fair mind. An additional contrary view from a Biblical perspective can be found here:

    • Thanks for sharing this link, Noah. This is a well-reasoned defense of a restrictionist view of immigration, and it deserves a well-reasoned response. I would humbly like to offer such a response here:

      • The article makes a rather hard and fast distinction between “justice” and “mercy.” While the civil government’s role in executing justice is unanimously agreed upon, the author tries to restrict the role of civil government in practicing mercy. However, in Scripture (especially the OT), the two concepts cannot be so easily divorced. OT laws commanded that farmers not reap to the corners of their fields, so that the poor and sojourners could glean from them (Lev. 19). This was not simply a matter of private mercy, but publicly enforced justice. And it’s worth pointing out that this law actually required private citizens to inconvenience themselves to show generosity toward non-citizens. I believe that the idea of national self-interest is unbiblical, as is the idea that a nation has the unmitigated right to set its own policies for entry. For more on the relationship of “justice” and “mercy,” I would highly recommend Tim Keller’s book Generous Justice.

      • The author claims, “It is biblically inaccurate to incorporate, automatically and dogmatically, permanent immigration into every such term [‘alien/stranger’ as used in the OT].” But progressives do not do this. The Hebrew terms are broad enough to encompass both temporary and permanent residence, and therefore the burden of proof rests on those who wish to restrict the term’s inclusion of permanent residents.

      • There is no biblical warrant for what the author calls an “assimilationist ethic.” The requirement imposed on OT sojourners to participate in Jewish feasts does not entail a blanket obligation for all immigrants to adopt the customs of their host country, since the Jewish feasts (unlike secular customs today) played a unique role in redemptive history. Now I certainly think that it is prudent for an immigrant to learn the host country’s language, but I believe there is an equally legitimate case to be made for the host country to make reasonable accommodations for the immigrant as well (meet them halfway, as it were).

      • I believe that the weight of biblical evidence supports a strong presumption in favor of liberality toward immigrants—even (especially) those who have little to contribute to our society. But that does not mean that there may not be other circumstantial factors that weigh against this presumption of liberality. For example, if a massive influx of unskilled laborers leads to depressed wages and overpopulation, then it might turn out to be the case that a more open-border policy is indeed less loving to them than a stricter border policy. However, at present I have not been convinced by the data that this is actually the case. From most sources I have read, undocumented workers in America have actually proven to be an overall boon to our economy.

      • Although I consider myself a progressive on this issue, I don’t advocate flouting civil laws, and I don’t advocate amnesty. Illegal immigrants committed a crime, and they need to pay an appropriate penalty. But it is possible to impose less severe penalties than deportation—at least for those immigrants willing to confess their crime and work toward restitution.

      One final point, and I would really like to drive this home: America does not belong to us. We don’t have more of a right to it than those born outside our borders. America, and indeed all the earth and all who inhabit it, belong to God.


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