The ongoing debate in the U.S. Congress over immigration reform has seen significant activism and commentary from evangelical Christians, indicating that evangelicals, like most Americans, favor broad immigration reform. The U.S. Senate passed an immigration bill at the end of June, and it is currently under consideration by the House of Representatives. The most prominent group of evangelical leaders and organizations to weigh in on immigration policy, the Evangelical Immigration Table, publicly supports S. 744 and has been all but publicly lobbying for its passage in the House, recently scheduling a Day of Prayer and Action in support of immigration reform just as the House considers the “Gang of Eight” bill.
However, not all evangelicals agree. Prominent author and blogger Eric Metaxas recently withdrew from the EIT, saying he didn’t know his support of the group would be used to endorse specific legislation. Metaxas has recently signed on to an open letter to Congress published by Evangelicals for Biblical Immigration, a group of evangelicals opposed to S. 744. The letter, which has been signed by over 1,200 people so far, expresses concern over “yet another massive tome of mysterious legislation that few have actually read” and alarm that the bill is supported by liberal politicians and activists like Harry Reid and George Soros. It calls for Congress to reject the Senate bill in favor of a replacement that is “short enough to read…clear enough to understand,” will secure the United States’ borders, and do so without adding to the already considerable national debt.
None of these concerns are, on their face, objectionable. The EBI have some worthwhile concerns, ones that are probably shared by most members of the EIT. Fiscal responsibility is good. So is legislative transparency. (Though anyone who thinks Congress can do anything clearly and concisely isn’t that familiar with U.S. laws.)
However, much more questionable is the EBI letter’s claims about what “biblical immigration” is.
The letter cites the work of James Hoffmeier, an Old Testament scholar who published The Immigration Crisis: Immigrants, Aliens, and the Bible in 2009. Evangelicals, including EIT members, have frequently called for compassionate policies toward illegal immigrants on the basis of the Bible’s repeated commands to show kindness to “sojourners,” an Old Testament category that included immigrants and resident aliens. Hoffmeier argues that these evangelicals are misinterpreting the Bible.
He contends that the Old Testament makes a distinction between “sojourners,” (the Hebrew word ger) who were protected by law and were supposed to be the object of Israelites’ compassion, and “foreigners,” (Hebrew nekhar) a non-Israelite who did not enjoy the same legal protections. He says that the distinction is that sojourners had permission from the rulers of a nation to dwell there legally, while foreigners did not. The modern-day equivalent of the sojourner, Hoffmeier says, is the legal immigrant who has gone through the legal procedure of obtaining a green card, representing the authorities’ permission for the immigrant to stay. Illegal immigrants who have not done so are more like nokhri, foreigners, and so the Bible’s expectation of protection and legal rights for sojourners don’t apply to them.
Hoffmeier is right that Old Testament law distinguishes between the two categories of aliens, but the terms aren’t defined in the biblical text as neatly as we might like them to be. The text certainly doesn’t make the legal-vs.-illegal distinction Hoffmeier argues for, based on the alien obtaining permission to settle. Hoffmeier points to some passages where biblical figures like Abraham and Moses obtain permission to pass through or settle in another territory, but these anecdotes don’t support his contention that this was normal practice for a foreigner to become a sojourner in Israel.
Not only are these stories narrative and not prescriptive, the ones he cites are all stories of Hebrews sojourning in other, pagan nations. The simple fact is, the Bible doesn’t make the distinction between legal and illegal immigrants that Hoffmeier and the EBI letter want to find. So acting as though the Bible only requires us to show compassion and acceptance toward legal immigrants is wrong and unloving.
And this is the biggest problem with the EBI letter. While it gives lip service to the idea that the Bible requires God’s people to act with justice, compassion, and kindness toward the aliens and strangers among us, the authors tie themselves in exegetical knots to avoid having to extend that kindness to illegal immigrants. The Bible exhorts Christians to have a spirit of love and generosity toward those who are not like us; the EBI seems animated by a spirit that prefers to protect Americans’ culture and economic resources from usurpation by others. The authors seem to believe the old lie that generations of Americans have told about generations of immigrants: the lie that they won’t assimilate, that they’ll hang onto their own culture, their own language, and their own values, that they’ll live off American resources and not contribute anything in return. All immigrant groups, including my own Irish and Italian ancestors, have faced that slander, and without exception, they have all proved it to be a lie by assimilating just fine within a generation or two and contributing more to America than they’ve taken from it. Have they changed American culture? Sure. But they’ve been changed too. That’s how the melting pot works. The current majority-Hispanic immigrant community will be no different.
There are some fine reasons to oppose S. 744 as a particular piece of legislation. Maybe it is too unwieldy. Maybe it’s too obscure. Maybe it doesn’t go far enough. But there are good reasons to support it too, not least of which is the hope it would offer to the aliens and strangers among us. For evangelicals to oppose immigration reform through spurious biblical arguments, liberal-conspiracy theories, and fear-mongering references to the Boston Marathon bombers (who weren’t illegals or resident aliens) is shameful. Applying the label “Biblical Immigration” to these arguments is even worse. As we weigh in on the immigration-reform debate, Christians should conduct ourselves so that it’s obvious to people on all sides of the debate that we are motivated by love and compassion.