Immigrants, Aliens, and Exiles

The debate over illegal immigration in the United States has clear demographic, political, economic, and moral implications. The strongest proponents of hardline immigration reform are self-identified Christians, many of whom are Evangelicals. With that audience in mind, I would like to take a moment to reflect upon a biblical view of immigration.

Aliens and strangers, the historical equivalent of our undocumented immigrants, fill the pages of scripture. Beginning with Adam and Eve’s exile from the Garden and continuing through Cain’s banishment, the Israelites’ wandering forty years in the wilderness, and the Babylonian Captivity, there is a tradition of people alienated from their true homes as a result of sin or disobedience to God. There is also the tradition of the stranger-in-a-strange-land, the sojourner, the one, like Abraham, Joseph, or Daniel, who is led or compelled by faith to fulfill God’s purposes in a new land.

The Torah (the books of Genesis through Numbers) has a lot to say about the alien. (All quotes below are from the New King James Version of the Bible.)

In Deuteronomy 24, the people of Israel are told, “You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy, whether one of your brethren or one of the aliens who is in your land within your gates.” Moreover, wrote Moses, leave some of the produce of the field and the fruit of your trees behind “for the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.” For those who questioned the practice, Moses urged them to remember that they were once slaves and strangers in the land of Egypt.

Going back to Genesis 15, God had told Abram, “Know certainly that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs.” The promised 400 years of captivity in Egypt and the exodus from that oppression would become the point of reference for everything in Hebrew culture.

In Exodus 22, Moses instructed the Israelites, “You shall neither mistreat a stranger nor oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” In Leviticus 24, God commanded the people of Israel to judge citizens and non-citizens alike, “You shall have the same law for the stranger and for one from your own country; for I am the LORD your God.” Moreover, a few chapters earlier in Leviticus 19, the Lord told the people, “The stranger who dwells among you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.” Again in Deuteronomy 10, in a powerful passage on God’s heart for justice, the Bible says,  “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality nor takes a bribe. He administers justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing. Therefore love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

You shall not just tolerate the stranger, you shall love the stranger as yourself, the Lord was saying, because he loved you when you were yet a stranger.

The Lord, we learn in Psalm 146, “watches over the strangers,” and he hates those, as it says in Jeremiah 7 and Zechariah 7, who “oppress the stranger.”

Lest this sound like an exclusively Old Testament mandate, Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats, in Matthew 25, says that God the Father expects true believers to demonstrate their faith by caring for those forgotten by society:  “When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You?” Those who took in the stranger (among other acts of compassion) were the exalted sheep, while those who neglected to see Jesus in the faces of the stranger, were the condemned goats.

In Hebrews 13, Christians are encouraged “to entertain strangers, for by so doing some have unwittingly entertained angels.” In this context, the word “strangers” did not only mean “someone you don’t know,” it meant, as Paul wrote in Ephesians 2, “foreigners.”

The Bible makes it patently clear that one of the markers of God’s chosen people is their attitude and actions toward the alien, the stranger, the immigrant. The wicked, by contrast, exploit and oppress the immigrant in their midst.

Having dispensed with our quick biblical theology of the alien, I’d like to pivot to a brief historical perspective on immigration in the United States. As you are aware, unless you are 100% Native American, your forebears left their homes and families and journeyed to America in pursuit of opportunity and freedom. Most of our brave ancestors were not leaving wealth at home to buy one of our ample McMansions. Rather, they came from hardship and endured danger and discrimination and anonymity and suffering for the chance that they and their families might eke out a better life. The penniless pauper, doomed to his station in so many countries, could in this country embrace a hardscrabble ethic and rise to unimaginable heights. It was almost never easy for Irish Catholics, Vietnamese refugees, or any of the others. If they talked, they talked funny. Their skin and their food smelled funny. But they were strong, and they could take a punch, dust themselves off, and go back to work.

The iconic image of immigration in America is the Statue of Liberty. Its original intent was as a symbol of republican solidarity between France and the United States, but that intent was overwhelmed by the image of the immigrants who overwhelmed Ellis Island in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For many of those immigrants, the Statue of Liberty was their first image of America, a powerful symbol welcoming them to their new land.

The poet Emma Lazarus famously captured the significance of the Statue of Liberty in “The New Colossus.” The Statue of Liberty, wrote Lazarus, was no “brazen giant of Greek fame”; she was named simply, “Mother of Exiles.” The statue’s towering “beacon-hand glows world-wide welcome,” and she announces to the “ancient lands” across the ocean that they can keep their “storied pomp.” Instead, the statue implores, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” She invites “these, the homeless, tempest-tost” to America to walk through “the golden door.”

The America that Lazarus described could take the detritus of other societies and, by saturating them in our unique marinade of democratic freedoms and entrepreneurial capitalism, turn those old-world cast-offs into middle-class proprietors and upper-class titans. Those first- and second-generation immigrants were hungry and dedicated. They had not cowered at the prospect of peril or failure on the journey or at the destination. They worked, and they made it work, because they had no other option. They provided for their families, for their children. Their children had opportunities they never would have had in their mother countries, opportunities to go to the best schools, to get the best jobs, to change the world. And those children, those American children, believed they could do anything, because America had welcomed them and never put limits on what they could achieve.

My, my, how far we have come.

The “papers-please” laws in Arizona, Alabama, and South Carolina are intended to “scare off” illegal aliens from their Sun Belt states like, we might presume, they were raccoons in a trash can or cockroaches on the leftovers. On the rare occasion where “tough anti-immigration policy” is denounced, the argument is forwarded on the basis of political expediency (losing Latino votes) or of economic risk (losing Latino labor). In this essay, I will not attempt to offer a series of concrete policy solutions to the “problem” of immigration. More to come on that topic. What I will ask now, though, is that we reflect as a nation upon what is the godly response, what is the American response, to the aliens, strangers, and exiles in our midst.

About Ben Ponder, Editor-at-Large

Ben Ponder, PhD, is Editor-at-Large at Media Rostra. Ben has received decorative pieces of paper conferring upon him an unnamed set of “rights and privileges accorded thereto” from the University of Arkansas, Regent College, and Northwestern University (where he was a Presidential Fellow). He studied (in alphabetical order) architecture, classics, communication, history, political science, rhetoric, and theology. He is the author of American Independence: From Common Sense to the Declaration (“Sizzling.” – TMZ) and the co-editor of Making the Case: Advocacy and Judgment in Public Argument (“Six-pack abs-olutely great!” – US Weekly). Ben is currently an executive in the educational software industry. He and his organic wife, Amy, live with their four free-range kids in a farmhouse Ben designed and built. His personal site on the Interweb is benponder.com, and he can be reached on Twitter @ponderben.

Comments

  1. Nick TaylorNo Gravatar says:

    I’ll have to say you are causing me to rethink that issue and submit it to scripture.

    An Alabama Baptist article on the issue that makes a similar point to yours.  It explores the church’s role in the Alabama law

    http://www.thealabamabaptist.org/print-edition-article-detail.php?id_art=19333&pricat_art=10At least from a personal/church standpoint we should love the alien.  But is the case that simple for a nation or a state within a nation?I do think the federal government has failed both states and business owners by having a large population that could be called “illegal aliens.”  It puts those individuals, those that hire them and those that provide benefits to them (the states) in a precarious position.  I believe a sovereign nation does have the right to regulate immigration and commerce.  If they do not then they are no longer a sovereign nation.  I think we could all agree that large groups of violent militants from Mexico crossing the border would violate that sovereignty and ignored would pose danger to the families within this country.  An wide open border policy could not stop that from occurring.But current policy ignores the current situation.  There is a large economic draw across the border.  We do have is a very porous border.  Both good families with criminals cross it daily with no regulation.  Some could add to our population and over generations become a part of it.  Others commit violent crimes, and statistically do so more often.I think in mercy we should open the legal immigration door wider.  This country has prosperity and work to share.  We could seek mercy for the alien here, and we should.  We should also seek to decriminalize those that just want to make a better life for themselves, but in a way that doesn’t encourage another generation of illegal immigration.  For far too long it has not been worthwhile to come in the proper door and too easy too go around it.  That is a failing of the federal government.In defense of the state laws you mentioned, some of the intention in those is to force the federal government to deal with the problem it has allowed and ignored.

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