BIBLICAL PERSPECTIVES ON IMMIGRATION
FEBRUARY 19, 2012
I. How Did We Get Here? A Brief History of Immigration Patterns and Laws in America
We are a nation of immigrants. Since the early 16th century, people have immigrated to America for
the same reasons, which are essentially three. First, they come for economic opportunity, usually because of a
situation of poverty in the land of their birth. Second, there is some family connection that immigration
reestablishes. Third, there is political or religious oppression in their homeland.
Though immigration has been steady throughout our nation’s history, there have been periods when
the numbers of immigrants have rapidly increased. The first great wave of immigration was from Europe as
people fled a potato famine (1840’s in Ireland) and a German government denying its citizens freedom and
democracy (also in the 1840’s). When large numbers of immigrants come to our shores, it commonly produces
a “nativist” response, resentment at growing numbers of people who don’t share our language and culture. The
first significant federal legislation limiting immigration was the Chinese Exclusion Act. Passed in 1882, it
prohibited the entry of any new Chinese laborers in the country. Chinese immigrants had come to America in
large numbers beginning in the 1840’s, being actively recruited to provide labor needed following the
California Gold Rush (1840’s). But following the completion of the Union Central Pacific Railroad in 1869,
their labor was no longer needed, leading to resentment at their presence.
The second great wave of European immigration took place from 1880-1920, particularly among
Italians, Poles and people of Jewish descent fleeing Russia. A nativist backlash led eventually to the
Immigration Act of 1924. This act set a strict quota system for new immigrants, allowing “the admittance into
the United States of no more than 2 percent of the foreign population from a given country that existed in the
United States in 1890.”1 The year 1890 was deliberately chosen, though census statistics from 1920 were
available, specifically to limit new immigrants from southern and eastern Europe and Asia, while those from
England, Germany and France were largely unaffected. “Notably, the quota system did not apply to immigrants
from the Western Hemisphere, so Mexican and Canadian immigrants were still allowed to immigrate outside
of numerical restrictions.”2 This 1924 legislation also introduced for the first time the requirement of a visa to
enter the country.
The next significant immigration legislation took place in the 1960’s, when President Kennedy began
to call into question the justice of the quota system established by the 1924 legislation. He encouraged new
legislation that would remove the racially-based quota system in favor of “a system based on a series of
preferences, based primarily on family relationships and job skills.”3 After Kennedy’s assassination, President
Johnson moved forward this legislation, which was signed in 1965. It is largely the system we still have in place
today, though many modifications have been made to it. It was also the first time there was a numerical limit
placed on immigrants from western hemisphere nations.
II. Where Are We Now? What Are the Facts about Current Immigration Law and the Undocumented
Immigrants in Violation of It?
Matthew Soerens and Jenny Hwang, Welcoming the Stranger (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2009), p. 57-58.
Ibid., p. 58
Ibid., p. 62
A foreigner can reside legally in the United States in one of three ways.
(1). A legal nonimmigrant is someone planning on residing in the U.S. temporarily, with no plans
to immigrate to this country. This is usually either as a tourist, a business traveler, or temporary worker
or student. “Approximately 45 percent of the estimated 11 to 12 million people who are
undocumented came on a valid visitor visa but overstayed.”4 These visas are acquired at the U.S.
consulate in a foreign country. But because so many have overstayed their visa, they can be very
difficult to get if a person is judged likely to overstay. For that reason, the poor are almost never
granted these temporary visas, because they are judged likely to overstay the visa and become
undocumented. For those with a job and money and coming from a nation with a high standard of
living, visas are not hard to come by. It is possible to adjust one’s status from temporary to permanent
under certain conditions, without leaving the country. The most common circumstance for this is
when a foreigner marries a U.S. citizen.
(2). Lawful Permanent Residents possess a “green card” authorizing them to live permanently in
the U.S. They have the right to live and work here, but need to renew their card every ten years.
“Lawful Permanent Residents have the right to petition for certain family members—spouses or
unmarried children of any age—to immigrate to the United States as Lawful Permanent Residents,
although they will need to wait—sometimes for a very long time—for a visa to become available.”5
“Lawful Permanent Residents can apply to become U.S. citizens after having resided in the U.S.
lawfully for four years and nine months, if they meet all other requirements for naturalization,
including passing a test in English of U.S. history, civics and government, and pay a fee, currently
$675. Lawful Permanent Residents married to a U.S. citizen may apply earlier, after two years and nine
(3). U.S. Citizens, either naturalized or born in the U.S. In recent years, about 650,000 Lawful
Permanent Residents per year have become naturalized citizens. The 14th amendment to the U.S.
Constitution grants citizenship to any baby born in the U.S., no matter the status of their parents.
Those who desire to live in the U.S. permanently must begin with a Green Card. There are four ways
to obtain one.
(1) Employment-based, which must be initiated by an employer. These positions involve some
work for the employer, and so are normally reserved for highly-skilled workers. This is also available to
any foreign investor willing to invest at least $1 million in the U.S. and employ U.S. citizens.
(2) Family-based, when someone is the spouse or child of a citizen or Lawful Permanent Resident.
Some of these visas are readily obtainable (though still requiring a wait of six months to two years), but
others require waiting for many years (in some cases up to 22 years). One of the reasons for these long
delays is the number of applications for visas and the lack of resources for handling this volume in the
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service. This branch of the Department of Homeland Security is
funded almost exclusively by fees for visa and naturalization applications. “The number of pending
applications has risen exponentially from 540,688 in 1990 to about 6.08 million in 2003.”7
(3) Diversity immigration, based on being from an underrepresented country. If someone meets
the qualifications, they can make application and if selected in a lottery will be given a green card.
Ibid., p. 67
Ibid., p. 68
Ibid., p. 68-69
Ibid., p. 76
Though in recent years 50,000 visas annually have been issued under this provision, any single
applicant’s chances of winning this lottery were 1 in 182 in 2009.
(4) Refugees and Asylum Seekers
An important fact to recognize from this brief summary is that for the vast majority of undocumented
immigrants, there is no path available to them for obtaining legal status. Most have come to our country
because of extreme poverty in their homeland, and current immigration law allows the poor to get on the path
to legal status in very limited numbers and circumstances. Imagine yourself being given the opportunity to lead
an Hispanic man to faith in Christ. He is serious about following Christ, and reads in his Bible that he needs
to obey the law of the land. He has had children born in the U.S. and their citizenship is here, as well as their
home. What would you advise him to do? He only has two choices: he can remain undocumented or he can
return to his country of origin. If he returns to his country of origin, he is returning to a place where he will
have even less resources than he had when he first crossed the border illegally into the U.S. He would be facing
possible starvation. Should he expose his children to that danger, or permanently sever his relationship with
There are many widely accepted myths about undocumented immigrants. The following are some of
facts that will help correct these, presented in no particular order. 8
• There are “an estimated 11 to 12 million people with no valid immigration status living and, usually,
working in the United States.” p. 12
• “In reality, about 6 percent of prisoners in federal and state prisons are noncitizens, which includes
both documented and undocumented immigrants. The crime rate among immigrants is actually lower
than among native-born U.S. citizens.” pp. 27-28
• “Of an estimated 37 million people born outside but living inside the United States, about 35 percent
are already naturalized U.S. citizens and 33 percent are Lawful Permanent Residents. An additional 2
percent of immigrants have temporary resident status; many of them will adjust their status to
permanent resident status eventually. Thus, most foreign-born individuals—about seven out of every
ten—are entirely legal. The rest of the immigrants currently in the United States—about 31 percent—
have no legal status, meaning either that they entered the country without inspection or overstayed a
temporary visa.” p. 29
• The federal government “receives about $6 to $7 billion each year in no-match Social Security
contributions, which it acknowledges come primarily from unauthorized immigrants.” p. 34
• “While the perception persists that undocumented immigrants are paid ‘under the table,’ in cash, with
their income unreported and untaxed—and indeed some are—the majority of undocumented
immigrants (the Social Security Administration estimates three out of four) do have Social Security,
Medicare and income taxes deducted from their payroll—though, under current law, they are ineligible
for any Social Security or Medicare benefits and for almost all federal- or state-government benefits
funded through their income taxes. Of course, just as do all consumers, all undocumented immigrants
also pay sales tax, and whether directly as homeowners or indirectly through their monthly rent
payments, property taxes.” p. 34
• “About 2.5 million people—an estimated 22 percent of all undocumented workers—come from Latin
American countries other than Mexico, particularly from Central America.” p. 36
• “While many undocumented immigrants cross the border illegally, nearly half—between 40 percent
and 50 percent—enter the United States legally, on a valid visa, and then overstay or otherwise violate
the terms of that visa.” p. 37
• About 56 percent of undocumented immigrants come from Mexico. p. 37
All quotes are from Welcoming the Stranger.
• “At least one in three undocumented families has one or more household members who are U.S.
citizens.” p. 39
• “Although public benefit eligibility varies somewhat from one state to another, the only benefits for
which an undocumented immigrant might be eligible in most states are emergency and prenatal
healthcare, immunizations and treatment for communicable diseases, certain nutritional programs
aimed primarily at children, and noncash emergency disaster relief. Also, because of the Supreme
Court’s 1982 decision in Plyler v. Doe, children, regardless of immigration status, are allowed to attend
public schools. No undocumented immigrant, though, can legally receive any cash benefit from the
government.” p. 42
• “The employment rate for adult male undocumented immigrants is an estimated 96 percent,
significantly higher than for either work-authorized immigrants or for U.S.-citizen males.” p. 42
• “About seventy percent of Hispanics living in the United States in 2000 were U.S. citizens, most of
them by birth.” p. 53
III. What Are the Biblical Principles that Should Inform Christians in Responding to our Current
(1). The gift of God in living under the rule of civil law. In light of the fact that the civil
government in the early days of the church was unfriendly to Christianity, the New Testament is
surprisingly positive toward the role of government. Paul taught, “Let every person be subject to the
governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been
instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those
who resist will incur judgment” (Rom. 13:1-2).
To live under the rule of law provides us with two great benefits. First, it acts to restrain sinful
human nature. Even the redeemed still have a powerful sin nature, and all humankind need the
restraining effect of a threat of punishment upon wrongdoers. Second, it acts to restrain human
despots from ruling arbitrarily. The most powerful in our land are also under law. So one thing we can
say in the immigration debate is that Christians should not seek to place themselves outside the law. In
our democracy, we can call for the change of unjust laws, but we cannot break those laws or encourage
others to do so, except when keeping these laws would mean the breaking of God’s higher laws.
Immigration law serves to protect us from a variety of dangers, especially in this age when numerous
terrorists would love to bring harm to our nation. To lose control of our national borders would bring
harm to our nation. Are the undocumented wrong to cross the border unlawfully or to overstay a visa?
The clear answer of the Bible is “Yes”. However, it is important to recognize that the law that has been
violated by undocumented immigrants is a civil law, not a moral law of God. There is no law from
God that says people should not cross national borders. God’s law does say that we are to obey civil
laws, so this is a secondary violation of God’s law, not a primary.
There is an easily missed implication of this. If the civil law is good, then one way we can love
others is by doing all we can to make it easy for them to obey that law. We have not done so in this
area of immigration law (see page three above). As a matter of fact, for a person without financial
resources, it is not only difficult, but almost impossible. A pastor in our area who ministers to many
Hispanics, both documented and undocumented, told me recently that all the undocumented
immigrants in his congregation would like nothing more than to have a legal immigration status. A
parallel example might help us to understand this. We are required to pay state sales taxes for all our
purchases. Whenever we make a purchase in a store in our state, the store has made it easy for us to
obey that law, charging us for it at the point of sale. One area where that is not done is when we make
internet purchases. Most internet merchants do not charge this tax at the point of sale, but the
purchaser is still supposed to pay that. If we had a show of hands of how many keep careful track of
this so as to make sure you are paying all the taxes you owe, I would imagine very few hands would go
up. Yet God tells us to pay our taxes. Most of you would be glad to do so, but internet sales have not
made it easy. Are you therefore to be termed a “tax evader”?
(2). The explicit command of Scripture to welcome the stranger. The Hebrew word for stranger,
ger, occurs 92 times in the Old Testament. This word refers to someone who has crossed a border into
a land not his own. Typical of the commands related to the stranger is 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.” This passage cites the sojourn of Israel in Egypt as the
basis for treating foreigners kindly. It could have cited numerous other examples of immigration in the
Bible. The father of the nation, Abraham, was an immigrant, traveling from Ur to a land not his own.
He had numerous problems with the native born of that land. He also had to leave that land when it
suffered several famines. Naomi and Ruth were immigrants, and the latter was the great-grandmother
of King David. Daniel was an immigrant in Babylon, as were thousands of his countrymen. Jesus
himself was forced to travel outside of the nation of his birth, traveling to Egypt when Herod wanted
to kill him as an infant.
This idea of welcoming the stranger is reflected in the New Testament commands to show
hospitality. Hospitality means literally “love of strangers.” It is a requirement in the New Testament
(Romans 12:13; Hebrews 13:2). It is particularly required of church leaders (1 Timothy 3:2).
Does the fact that many immigrants in America today are undocumented nullify the
command to welcome the stranger? Is it similar to harboring a fugitive so that the one providing help
shares in the guilt? I think not, for several reasons. First, we must remember that it is our duty both to
encourage obedience to the law and to show mercy. The line between these, I think, would disallow us
to aid someone in crossing the border illegally. But once a person is here, it is our duty to extend
mercy to that person. It needs to be pointed out that their violation of civil law is a single one, not a
serial one. So bringing aid to an undocumented immigrant is not helping them to violate civil law
repeatedly. Second, the law of love requires that we do to others as we would have them do to us. Our
love is to be substitutionary, just as God’s love for us is substitutionary. Would you want to be loved by
having people turn their backs on you because you violated one law? If not, we also should not turn
our backs on undocumented immigrants.
(3). The prohibition against unjust wages. In very strong language, James warns those who are rich
about depriving the poor of their wages. “Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields,
which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached
the ears of the Lord of hosts” (James 5:4). It is obvious that many undocumented immigrants work in
low-wage jobs. But this verse doesn’t speak against low-wage jobs. In most cases immigrants are glad to
have these jobs, allowing them to feed, clothe and house not only themselves but to have some money
to send back to family members in their home country. In many cases, the funds sent back home are
also able to deliver that family from extreme poverty. This verse speaks against defrauding people of
their wages. The current laws of our land could do more to discourage such fraud. The reality today is
that we have 11-12 million undocumented immigrants in America. Most of these work in a variety of
jobs on the lower end of the wage scale. It lies within the ability of the federal government to find
these individuals and, with a massive law enforcement effort, they could be deported. As we noted
above, 75% of them pay Social Security taxes under a false Social Security number. But our
government does not enforce its own laws. Why not? Though we can’t know for certain another’s
motives, it seems that the most likely reason is that our federal government knows that our economy
would falter badly were these nearly 12 million immigrants to be deported. The current practice
regarding enforcement of immigration law is only to deport those judged to be a danger or threat to
our nation. This results in a sizable shadow economy, filled with workers who make a real contribution
to our nation but who lack the protection afforded those here legally. This situation creates a climate
where fraud can and does occur repeatedly. Unscrupulous employers can simply refuse to pay a worker
his wages, knowing that the worker is here illegally and will therefore not contact the authorities about
(4). The Old Testament Year of Jubilee. The Year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25) was a year that took
place every 50th year. Israel observed not only a Sabbath day every week, but a Sabbath year every seven
years. In this Sabbath year, the land was to be given a year of rest, with no crops planted on it, and
those enslaved were to be released. The Year of Jubilee was a Sabbath year of Sabbath years, after every
7th sabbatical year, or the 50th year. The notable thing about this year was the requirement that any
land bought and sold during the previous 49 years was to be returned to the family originally owning
it. The effect of this would be to disallow the permanent buying and selling of property. At the most,
land could only be rented for however many years remained until the next Jubilee. This is an
important economic principle. Unlike our modern American economy, Israel’s economy was an
agrarian economy. Capital was in the form of land, not stocks and bonds or educational training. So
the result of the land ownership restrictions of the Year of Jubilee would be to protect a family’s ability
to earn a living. It was a way of insuring a large middle class, while shrinking the other two ends of the
economic spectrum, the rich and the poor. Those made temporarily poor, whether through bad
business decisions or through some misfortune, would be able to start afresh at the Year of Jubilee.
Those who had been able to acquire some of this land would have to return it, thus limiting the ability
to accumulate vast sums of wealth through land acquisition. It seems to me that much of the
discussion about economics today is polarized between two options that both fail to achieve the
outcomes the Old Testament property laws would have achieved. Some want more government
intervention and others want less government, leading to fewer regulations and less taxation. A more
biblical model would want policies encouraging a larger middle class. It would seek to distribute wealth
as widely as possible, while continuing to incentivize hard work, honesty and innovation.9
What does this have to do with our current immigration issue? If the biblical model of
economics seeks to build a middle class, then that should be our goal as well. We don’t want an
economy where the poor have a ceiling imposed upon them that they cannot break through. That is
exactly what we have now with undocumented immigrants. If someone is here without
documentation, he or she will find it almost impossible, no matter how smart or hard-working they
may be, to break into the middle class. Financial aid for attending college would be unavailable to
them. Ownership privileges would be severely limited. The kind of documentation required for basic
life (driver’s licenses, birth certificates, authentic social security numbers, etc.) is impossible to obtain.
The result is a group of individuals permanently fixed as members of the lower class.
IV. Are There Conclusions We Can Draw from these Principles that Should Shape Public Policy on
Though this is a very complex problem, I believe the Scriptures give us helpful guidance in drawing
some conclusions about what will help resolve these problems. I can think of four.
(1). As Christians, we should do all in our power to help ease the poverty that has given rise to
large-scale migration to the United States. One of the most significant things we could do along these
For a Distributist view of economics, see John Medaille, Toward a Truly Free Market: A Distributist Perspective on the Role of
Government, Taxes, Health Care, Deficits, and More
lines is to send missionaries able to help evangelize and disciple. Strong churches help stabilize a
community more than anything else. This approach takes time, but it brings lasting change. These
missionaries should also help indigenous churches reach out in the kind of community transformation
that strengthens a local economy.
(2). We need to work for the reform of current federal immigration law in the area of family-based
immigration to reduce backlogs. Current practices are resulting in long family separations, which is
harmful on multiple levels. Christians know that God has instituted the family for the welfare of all
the family members as well as for the strengthening of society. Yet our current federal immigration
results in separating families for long stretches of time. This happens both with those who are
documented and undocumented. If you were to marry a non-citizen who was here legally on a
temporary visa, you would often not be able to get permanent lawful status for that person before the
temporary visa expired. If you were to marry an undocumented immigrant, the situation would be
even worse. Your spouse would have to first leave the country before being able to apply for lawful
permanent status (a green card), then wait for a lengthy period of time (often more than a year). Then
there is the situation of undocumented immigrants having children in the United States, who as a
result of being born here are automatically U.S. citizens.
(3). Creation of legal avenues for workers and their families. For the vast majority of the 11-12
million undocumented immigrants in our nation today, no path exists for them to work legally. This
harms both our economy and immigrant workers. Current guest worker programs are slanted toward
the wealthy or highly-skilled immigrant. This program should be expanded to allow the low-paid, poor,
unskilled worker to participate. “By creating a system in which employers in the United States who
need foreign workers can hire them legally, we provide viable options for both the employer and
employee to gain the benefits of migration and significantly reduce the motivation for migrants to
cross borders illegally.”10
(4). Earned legalization of undocumented immigrants. “Immigration reform thus must include an
opportunity for immigrants who are already contributing to this country to get right with the law by
regularizing their status after satisfying reasonable criteria, and over time to pursue an option to
become Lawful Permanent Residents and eventually U.S. citizens. A path to legal status would provide
undocumented immigrants with a chance to admit their infraction against the law, pay an appropriate
fine as a consequence, and proceed to become fully restored, integrated members of our society if they
wish to stay here. This would not be an ‘amnesty’ because immigrants would have to earn their right to
stay in the United States.”11
Welcoming the Stranger, p. 141.
Ibid., p. 142