A Discussion of a Theology of Immigration for the Contemporary North American Situation
How to respond to the immigration “problem” is a question that can certainly be answered by seeking truth in scripture. The Bible is clear when it comes to the moral issues relating to immigration. Both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament contain ample references to how to treat strangers righteously. “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God,” (Leviticus 19:33-34). How to apply Biblical law to contemporary North America is a more difficult proposition. The cultural and historical context of the Bible does not necessarily or always apply to modern situations and contingencies. Furthermore, as Sider and Snippers point out, “the complex and evolving issue of the church’s role in public policy is among the most challenging for twenty-first century American evangelical leaders,” (5).
If the Bible is clear on matters related to how to properly care for our fellow human beings, then why is immigration a contentious political issue in the United States? The politics of immigration policy are divisive. Immigration policy is an issue that has caused many Christians to politically fight one another, in the quest for an answer. The United States is a nation founded firmly on an immigration policy that reflects Biblical truths. Even some of the more insidious chapters in American immigration history — such as the decimation of the native population by the original settlers, and the forced immigration of countless slaves — have been underwritten by misguided Christians. The time is ripe for a new, theologically informed immigration policy that transcends differences and unites Americans. Even those who, like the author, are temporary residents or guests of the great nation, are in the position to offer guidance and support that is rooted in religion.
One of the main reasons why immigration is a controversial issue in both Western Europe and the United States is economics. In a stagnant economy, immigrants are viewed as potential threats. Likewise, many Americans have vocally expressed fear and concern that immigrants are leaching public services. Another reason why immigration is a controversial issue is xenophobia. Xenophobic reactions to immigration are paradoxical in a nation founded by immigrants, but the fact remains that the dominant culture is white, Christian, and European. Non-whites, non-Europeans, and non-Christians are viewed as outsiders by a substantial enough number of the American population to cause a political controversy. The dominant culture is not necessarily the majority culture, either; dominant culture simply refers to the culture that possesses the greatest amount of political power. As the United States stands poised for a massive demographic shift in which whites might become the literal minority, discourse on the topic of immigration is likely to change.
For now, Ramachandra notes that opposition to immigration is “generally far more prominent than supports for it,” (157). It is no small mystery why this is true, given that anti-immigration policy is linked to the conservative political agenda, which is in turn linked to the evangelical mission. It would seem more logical for Christians to avidly support open borders in keeping with scripture. Americans pride themselves on being a nation of tolerance, equality, liberty, and justice for all. Yet the current immigration debate presents Americans in a poor light and makes American consciousness seem woefully hypocritical. “And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others?” (Matthew 5:47). When they build walls and fences around the border, Americans are not “doing more than others” as they often profess to do. The same was true during World War Two, for, as Ramachandra points out, American immigration policy then put quotas on Eastern Europeans and denied entry to countless Holocaust refugees. Then, and now, Americans are risking losing their moral character by “greeting only their own people.”
America needs a theology of immigration that begins with the Bible and ends with public policy. In their policy proposals, Sider and Snippers suggest as one of the top goals to “extend the same rights and protections to vulnerable immigrants and refugees as citizens,” (242). This would appear to be the more authentic evangelical immigration policy than the anti-immigrant stance often voiced by the right wing in America. Christians should “be united in sharing God’s love and care for all gerim” that is, all immigrants, documented or not (Sider and Snippers 242). The Jews of the Biblical era know, and modern Jews know well the importance of a theology of immigration as it says in the Pentateuch, “Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt,” (Exodus 22:21). The Jews were one of the most notable immigrant groups in all human history, and the diaspora has shaped Jewish consciousness even after the creation of the modern state of Israel.
A theology of immigration asks Americans to be honest about what is moral and ethical about current policy, and how to change that policy so that it creates a “more perfect nation.” The Bible, both Old and New Testaments, testify as to the importance of loving all human beings regardless of place of origin, nationality, or background. Contemporary immigration policy is more complex than just loving our neighbors, though. Immigration policy in the United States has been historically framed from a self-centered perspective that asks what immigrants can do for us, rather than what Americans can do for immigrants. This is why it would be far, far easier for an Italian or Saudi Arabian billionaire to receive permanent residency status than a hard-working Mexican or Chinese farmer. American immigration policy is not so much biased against non-whites as it is against the poor. This is the greatest shame of contemporary American immigration policy; and it goes against Biblical truth as well as common sense ethical guidelines.
Industrial Revolution immigration reform was practically the opposite, as the United States was a growing nation determined to have a huge pool of cheap laborers that would foster rapid economic growth via the expansion of the industrial and manufacturing sectors. Now that the economy must shift to a more service-oriented one, America faces some major challenges with devising a moral and ethical immigration policy. Outsourcing, for example, is a modern form of immigration policy that creates a virtual quasi-workforce: laborers on contract for American companies that are doing work that Americans might be able to do instead.
A theological solution to immigration reform is one that is balanced as well as Biblically sound. The policy needs to be humanistic, rather than economically expedient. Moreover, the policy needs to be economically viable. The United States needs a diverse labor pool comprised of those in the unskilled and skilled sectors. Americans need also to recognize opportunities for economic advancement in their own population migrations, and perhaps then, more Americans might understand better what it feels like to be a stranger in a strange land. For “if you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your ancestors for ever and ever,” (Jeremiah 7:5-7).
Ramachandra, Vinoth. Subverting Global Myths. InterVarsity, 2008
Sider, Ronald .J. & Snippers, Diane. Toward an Evangelical Public Policy. Baker, 2005