Our news headlines are often filled with reports about immigrants and immigration. But a key perspective is missing—what the Bible says on the subject!
Immigration has been a hot-button political issue in the United States dating back to the nation’s founding. America, like all other countries, controls and limits who may enter its territory, for how long, and on what terms, and these restrictions are a part of the laws of the nation.
In recent decades, millions of people from Latin America have bypassed this legal process, earning them the controversial designation of “illegal aliens.” Over the last year, the legal immigration of Muslims from Arab nations has come to the forefront due to the large number of refugees from the prolonged Syrian civil war and terror attacks by Islamic extremists in many Western nations.
Many are concerned that potential terrorists could infiltrate America or other Western nations under the guise of being refugees, while others are moved by compassion for those legitimately seeking to build a new life.
Advances in communication technologies make it possible for us to see the plight of people in other countries as never before. It’s natural to empathize with people and to want to help them when we’re daily bombarded with videos of starving children.
Having this reality brought so vividly to life in the minds of the average person is a driving factor in the attitudinal shift on immigration policy today. Many people praised President Obama’s 2008 statement that he considers himself a “citizen of the world,” and this idea was the premise of the immigration policy he pursued.
These and other immigration issues have led some to question the legitimacy of immigration law altogether. What gives nations the right to deny entry to people who are trying to make a better life for themselves? Should nations have laws limiting people from crossing their borders? Should anyone have the right to become a citizen of another nation if he or she wants to? Nations face a delicate balance between having compassion, maintaining the rule of law and protecting their citizens.
But what’s missing in the immigration debate is a true biblical perspective. The Word of God is a vital resource in informing our opinion on the topic of immigration. The Bible explains the source of our modern troubles, shows how nations have struggled with these same issues from ancient times, and provides insight into God’s expectations today.
We presented some of what it says on the matter in a previous article (see “The Immigration Threat” in our September–October 2016 issue). Now we’ll look at more of what Scripture reveals.
Different types of immigrants in the Bible
The law of God does not give a comprehensive set of immigration guidelines, but it does include some specific commandments that can guide our understanding of God’s view on immigrants and immigration.
In simple terms, an immigrant is a person who moves to another country with the intention of living there indefinitely. Most English Bible translations do not include the word “immigrant,” but typically use a combination of the words “stranger,” “alien,” “sojourner“ and “foreigner.”
Jacob’s family immigrated to Egypt as refugees from famine, but they sought permission from the pharaoh to do so first.
Leviticus 24:22 states, “You shall have the same law for the stranger and for one from your own country” (emphasis added throughout). While some take this to mean that we should strive for a borderless world, a careful study reveals a distinction that is obscured by modern Bible translations.
Consider the following verse in light of the command to have the same law for the stranger and the native born: “At the end of seven years, you shall have a release of debts ... Of a foreigner you may require it; but you shall give up your claim to what is owed by your brother” (Deuteronomy 15:1-3).
Simple logic dictates that there must be a difference between the “stranger” of Leviticus 24:22 and the “foreigner” of Deuteronomy 15:3, despite the fact that the two English words seem indistinguishable.
The “stranger” of Leviticus 24:22 is the Hebrew word ger, while the “foreigner” of Deuteronomy 15:3 is the Hebrew nokriy. Other passages show that the ger and the nokriy were held to different standards:
“You may not eat anything that dies of itself. You may give it to the alien [ger] who is within your gates, that he may eat it, or you may sell it to a foreigner [nokriy]” (Deuteronomy 14:21).
Recognizing the difference between the ger and nokriy, it becomes clear that this verse does not mean “either give it to an immigrant or sell it to an immigrant.” Rather, it delineates between two classifications of foreign people living in the land. This clearly shows that God’s law for Israel did not mandate a “citizen of the world” philosophy that treated citizens and non-citizens with equal status.
Different rights for different types
Any time a positive command is made in the Bible regarding the rights and privileges of an immigrant, the word ger is always involved—not nokriy. The ger had the same access to biblically mandated assistance as other poor social groups such as widows and orphans, including the right to gather what was left in the fields after the harvest (Deuteronomy 24:19-22) and to receive a portion of the tithe given to the poor every third year (Deuteronomy 26:12-13).
Numerous passages reiterate the command to show justice and mercy to the stranger (Leviticus 19:33-34, Exodus 23:9), and these are without exception directed toward the ger rather than the nokriy. On the other hand, any time the law restricts the rights of a foreigner, such as in Deuteronomy 14:21 and Deuteronomy 15:3, it is directed towards the nokriy, who did not have legal status in the land.
The Bible gives no explicit guidelines for how ger or nokriy status was defined and administered, although the distinctions in rights are clear.
Through examination of the Scriptures we find some actions associated with those who qualified for the rights of a ger. A stipulation for the ger is found in the Ten Commandments, where we see that the ger was expected to keep the Sabbath holy by not working (Exodus 20:10). Sabbath observance was one of the defining cultural hallmarks separating the people of Israel from the surrounding nations, as the Bible said it was to be (Exodus 31:12-17).
Those classified as ger or ger’im (plural) were also allowed to make offerings to God at the tabernacle, but only provided that they did so “just as you do”—that is, they could not introduce their own religious customs into their worship of God (Numbers 15:14).
A ger could even choose to celebrate the Passover (Exodus 12:48-49) on the condition that he circumcise himself and his sons. Like the Sabbath, circumcision set Israel apart from other nations, and for a ger to show such devotion to God’s way of life meant that he was fully abandoning identification with his previous home. Those willing to make the commitment to fully assimilate into Israel in this way were granted full citizenship and became “as a native of the land” (Exodus 12:48).
From these commands it’s clear that the ger enjoyed a special protected status that was not afforded to the nokriy, and this status required keeping the Sabbath as a minimum level of assimilation. The ger could achieve the full rights of citizenship by becoming circumcised and worshipping the God of Israel.
The bottom line is that under biblical law, only the ger was granted beneficial citizen rights, including the right to permanently live in the country, but with those rights came obligations to assimilate into Israelite society, culture and religion.
The exclusion of these rights from the nokriy did not mean that Israel could legally deny him or her basic standards of human decency. Rather, it shows that the Israelites were not obligated to grant equal status to every foreign person living among them.
Further, God sternly warned the people of Israel against approving, accepting and adopting the culture, religions and religious practices of the nations around them, knowing this would corrupt the nation (Leviticus 18:24-30; Deuteronomy 12:28-32; Deuteronomy 18:9).
The biblical origin of nations with borders
A shallow reading of the instruction in Leviticus 24:22 that there be one law for the stranger and Israelite alike could lead to the false conclusion that God’s will is for all nations to have open borders and the “same law” for everyone, admitting all people regardless of their background, beliefs or intentions.
We have shown that this was not the express command of God’s law, but the Bible also sheds light on other fundamental questions relevant to the discussion. How did immigration come to exist? What rights does a nation have to enforce its borders? Should countries have borders in the first place? For that matter, should we even have separate nations?
The Bible describes an ancient time when this modern vision of a borderless world was a reality. Prior to the events of Genesis 11, there were no nation states. The whole world was united as one people and one culture, and even spoke the same language. Those of that time infamously came together to build the Tower of Babel in defiance of God. Because of their disobedience, God miraculously intervened to alter the course of human history:
“Therefore its name is called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth” (Genesis 11:9).
The differentiation of humanity into separate language groups drove them to live in different places, and over time they grew apart culturally. Acts 17:26 confirms that God “has determined [mankind’s] preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord.”
Deuteronomy 32:8 states plainly that God “set the boundaries of the peoples.” God’s direct intervention precipitated the existence of multiple nations, and this reality persists to this day.
Every country has some form of government that exerts control over its territory, and immigration involves the movement of a person between two lands that are ruled by different political authorities. Paul outlined the attitude that God’s people should have toward world governments as follows: “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God” (Romans 13:1).
Continuing in Romans 13, Paul explained that these authorities have a God-given responsibility to uphold justice and enforce order by punishing evil within their jurisdiction.
But as we know, history is replete with examples of governments that pervert justice and commit unspeakable atrocities. In Paul’s time, the world-ruling Roman government was guilty of many such evils. Yet Paul still honored its rulers and officials as being set in place or appointed by God.
He taught that Christians should obey the laws of human governments except when these directly conflicted with the law of God (for example, Daniel was right in refusing to cease praying to God in Daniel 6).
Followers of God throughout history have shown respect for the laws of the land, including immigration laws.
Examples of immigration in biblical history
An instructive biblical case study on immigration is found in the family of Jacob, also called Israel, migrating to Egypt to escape a famine. In the ancient world, famines—usually caused by regional drought—were a somewhat regular natural occurrence that caused people to migrate to other areas. The family of Israel arrived in Egypt under circumstances similar to that of those seeking refugee status today, and the process they went through gives insight into the immigration customs of the time.
What’s relevant to today’s immigration debate is that Israel sought legal permission from Egypt’s ruler before entering the land: “And they said to Pharaoh, ‘We have come to dwell in the land, because your servants have no pasture for their flocks, for the famine is severe in the land of Canaan. Now therefore, please let your servants dwell in the land of Goshen’” (Genesis 47:4).
This exchange demonstrates that the accepted practice even in ancient times was to obtain legal permission from the government. Moreover, we observe in Genesis 47:6 that their stay came with terms specifying where they would live, what their profession would be, and that some of them would serve Pharaoh directly. The word for “dwell” in Genesis 47:4 is gor, from the same root as ger, discussed above, and this is how Israel became “strangers” or ger’im in Egypt.
The family of Israel at that time was large enough to be its own community, with a total of 70 people divided among 12 family units. They had no apparent intention of integrating into Egypt’s pagan culture, which developed into mistrust with eventual disastrous results.
Exodus 1 gives the cautionary tale of how the Israelites’ isolation from Egyptian society and continued population growth created friction with their hosts that reached a critical point when the politics of Egypt took a sudden turn and a new ruler came into power: “And he said to his people, ‘Look, the people of the children of Israel are more and mightier than we; come, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they multiply, and it happen, in the event of war, that they also join our enemies and fight against us’” (Exodus 1:9-10).
What followed was the harsh enslavement of the people of Israel. The indiscriminant killing of sons born to the Israelites was the turning point of oppression when God determined to intervene. He delivered Israel out of slavery in Egypt and thoroughly punished the Egyptians who had shown such malice toward an enclave of people descended from peaceful legal immigrants.
While nations do have authority that is appointed by God, that authority is limited by the command to uphold justice. The king of Egypt had the right to determine whether the family of Israel could enter and live in his land, and he could have refused Israel’s request to settle there if he chose. He also exercised the right to restrict where they could live and what their occupation would be, as well as to draft some of them into the service of his government.
By contrast, the later king of Egypt had no right to enslave the vast community descended from these people and murder its children. Rather than legally negotiating and giving them the choice of whether to stay on new terms, he bypassed any legitimate process out of fear and hardness of heart. This is the full context and weight of the command later given to Israel: “You shall not oppress the stranger ... because you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:21).
Still more on what the Bible says about immigration may be found by searching on the Internet for these recommended articles: Rick Lanser, “What Is God’s Perspective on Immigration?” biblearchaeology.org, Jan. 28, 2017; James Hoffmeier, “Jeff Sessions Got It Right on Immigrants and the Bible,” ReligionNews.com, Jan. 10, 2017 (Hoffmeier has also written a book on the subject: The Immigration Crisis: Immigrants, Aliens, and the Bible, 2009.)
Immigration in America today
Today the United States maintains three basic classifications—citizens, permanent residents who hold green cards, and temporary visitors who are granted visas. Green card holders may work and travel freely, and are allowed to apply for full citizenship after five years, granting them the privilege of voting among other rights.
Students, tourists and foreign workers are issued temporary visas that allow them to pursue preapproved activities. For example, someone with a tourist visa cannot enroll in a university, and a student visa does not confer the right to seek employment. Visas automatically expire after a predetermined period, after which one can apply for a new visa, leave the country, or else be in violation of the law.
It’s also illegal to enter the United States as a non-citizen without a visa. Those who do not follow the law put themselves at risk of being forcibly removed from the country or otherwise punished.
In 1986, President Ronald Reagan granted amnesty to more than 3 million people who had illegally entered the country from the border with Mexico. This allowed them an opportunity to obtain legal visas while absolving them of punishment for their unlawful entry.
However, illegal immigration has continued because of the ongoing lack of security at the nation’s southern border. According to data from the Pew Research Center, more than 11 million unauthorized immigrants live in the United States today, and many feel that another amnesty program is not the answer.
Even legal immigrants who have obtained citizenship can find themselves in jeopardy under extreme circumstances. The Japanese internment during World War II is a dark period in American history. By an executive order from President Franklin Roosevelt, 110,000 Japanese immigrants living in America were forced to relocate to prison camps out of fear that they would carry out attacks against America. Over half of these legal immigrants were United States citizens.
Eventually, it was ruled that the incarceration of American citizens without due process was unconstitutional, and the internment ended in 1945. It took decades of fallout for the injustice of the internment to be fully acknowledged. In 1976, President Gerald Ford issued a formal apology and vowed that such a mistake would never be repeated. Remaining survivors of the internment were granted $20,000 each in compensation in 1988.
Today, there are 3.3 million Muslims with U.S. citizenship, and there is mounting concern for what may happen if even a small percentage of them become violently hostile. Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, America has experienced more than 100 additional deaths and hundreds more injuries in attacks carried out by Muslim American citizens, converts or immigrants.
These practical fears are driving the current debate on immigration. How many people can—or should—Western nations safely provide refuge to? What level of scrutiny is appropriate when accepting refugees from countries known to harbor Islamic extremists?
The future of immigration
The coming Kingdom of God is the only true solution to today’s immigration and refugee crisis. When all nations have come under the glorious rule of Jesus Christ, having put away their foolish ambitions and turning from all false religions to worship the true God, there will be no more wars to force people from their homes.
Isaiah 19:19-25 indicates that the great diversity of peoples and cultures in the world today will continue to exist. Their customs must necessarily be changed to instill God’s value system and to eliminate any trace of the worship of other gods, but they will remain distinct peoples.
For today, the most important thing we can do as Christians is to pray for the coming of God’s Kingdom and that our current leaders will exercise sound moral judgment. America’s leaders must recognize the necessity of maintaining the rule of law if we expect to continue to provide a safe haven for anyone, and most people agree that major reform of the American immigration system is needed.
One hopes the debate will bear out an improved legal process that helps those truly in need without compromising the stability of the nation or the safety of its citizens.
Challenges Immigrants Face
The life of immigrants, whether by choice or by circumstances beyond their control, is difficult. In addition to the normal hardships of life, they are frequently met with exclusion and distrust in their new home, and this is why God commanded specific protections for them (Exodus 23:9).
My wife and I, both Americans, have been living in Tel Aviv, Israel, for more than a year while I continue postdoctoral studies. Given the temporary nature of our stay, we would fall under the biblical category of nokriy. Despite the heavy Western influences on Israeli culture, we have learned firsthand that life in a foreign land can be stressful.
Aside from dealing with the ordinary hassles of moving to a new place, culture shock creeps in. Everything is different—the money, the language, the food, the standards of politeness, and a million little things that take a cumulative toll on the psyche. With the looming presence of cryptic Hebrew and Arabic characters at every glance and the sound of numerous unintelligible spoken languages, a task as simple as buying groceries can become intimidating and time-consuming.
On a recent flight to Israel, I spoke with a young woman whose family fled from instability in Iraq during the mid-1990s. They sought refuge in neighboring Saudi Arabia, but found themselves in a hostile environment. Saudi officials took everything of value from them, including her mother’s jewelry. She recalled how several refugee women and young girls she knew were raped.
Eventually her family was extracted from Saudi Arabia by American human rights workers. Extended family members also resettled in America, but the resettlement program scattered them throughout the country. Her father had only $500 to his name when they arrived.
It is sobering to realize that they had a far better outcome than most refugees in the world. Refugees in America are eligible for citizenship after five years. She has become a ger in the United States (using the biblical Hebrew term explained in the main article here), and she enjoys the full rights and privileges afforded to every American citizen.
Her story is shared by hundreds of thousands of Americans today. According to estimates by the United Nations, more than 20 million people throughout the world have been forced from their homes by war, with 4.5 million refugees from the recent Syrian civil war alone.
Most Syrian refugees have found temporary homes in the neighboring Muslim states of Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq, sparking intense debate within those countries about whether to allow such massive numbers of them to permanently settle there.
About 1 million Syrian refugees have traveled through Turkey into Europe seeking permanent resettlement, having given up any hope of returning to their homes. Canada has taken in more than 40,000 of them, while the United States has absorbed more than 16,000.
With so much hardship in the world, many feel a moral obligation to admit as many refugees as possible, irrespective of the potential danger and long-term effects on a nation’s culture and stability. Every Western nation is currently undergoing its own internal debate as to how many refugees it is able and willing to take in and on what terms.