Immigration & the Bible (w John Cavanaugh-O’Keefe)

Immigration & the Bible (w John Cavanaugh-O’Keefe) September 18, 2017


John Cavanaugh O’Keefe’s words will be in blue.  Patti Sheffield’s words will be in green. They are both Catholics.


[replying to the article I shared, which reported that a wall in Hungary reduced illegal immigration by over 99 per cent] Which refugees did Hungary exclude? Where are they now? What is Hungary doing to help them? And have you read Matthew 25?

I have no idea. I’ve read the whole Bible. My view on refugees and legal immigration (which is a different thing from illegal immigrants) has been made clear, several timesMost recently I opined that the Dreamers should be allowed to stay. Readers may wish to learn about my views on social justice in general, as well.

Tell me if I am wrong. The Church reaches that there is an inalienable right to migrate. And that nation’s have a right and even a duty to controltheir borders. And these two rights must be balanced justly.

But you have quoted several passages affirming the second item. You include the first, barely. And the third seems to have disappeared.

Is it possible to balance two rights while displaying total disregard for the claims of one party?

I’m all for legal migration and helping innocent refugees. And I’m for a nation’s “right and even a duty to control their borders”. The Church speaks to both things (as you just affirmed above). It seems, then, that we agree, so where’s the beef? 

I didn’t intend to write a doctoral dissertation with this link. I was simply noting that the wall in Hungary has been 99% effective. It would be here, too. Liberals say they agree with a nation monitoring its borders, but when it comes time to actually do something about that, they retreat every time. There’s no “balance” there at all.

A more conservative position like my own, is, I would contend, perfectly in line with the Church, whereas Catholic liberals almost totally ignore the “enforcement of border and immigration laws” aspects.

Let me try again, if you would be so kind. But perhaps while we figure each other out, it might be best to go one question at a time.

So I have questions pending, and so do you. I suggest we focus, rather than sprawl.

So let’s try this. You ask one, and answer one. I’ll state my understanding of your assertion, answer your question, and ask one question.

Would that work for you?

Yes, that works, as it is actual dialogue. Thanks. Perhaps my last comment can kick things off in this vein.

Thanks, Dave.

[435 words, more than I wanted. grump.]

You said, if I understood: We have agreed that Church teaching has three key elements. You noted that some people, whom you identified as liberals, ignore the right/duty to control borders. But you said that you and I agree that want a policy that is consonant with the Church’s teaching. If I misunderstood, please let me know.

You asked: so what’s the beef?

The problem with your position, as I understand it, is that you agree there’s a right to migrate, but then persist in treating that right as a privilege.

No; one must differentiate between a right to migrate and the right to citizenship; also between legal and illegal migration. No one has an inherent “right” to violate another country’s laws. Romans 13 (since we’re quoting Scripture) says that the government functions as an agent of God. Laws mean something. Some are unjust, true (like Roe v. Wade), but we must overturn them through due process of law (and that includes also the civil disobedience that you and I have both been part of). We don’t just thumb our noses at the law and systematically break it (illegal immigration / sanctuary cities, etc.), and encourage many thousands of others to do so as well.

That is, you are content to think about how to craft a just law without reference to the claims of the migrants. You agree they have right – and then respond to that right by permitting some immigration.

I’m “permitting” legal immigration. To make an analogy: the illegal immigrant is the one who breaks into your house (your front door and its lock being the analogy to border security) and then demands not only that he is able to stay in your house, but to do so indefinitely, whatever you may think of it, including the demand that you provide for all his needs, and that of his or her family as well!

The legal immigrant is the one who knocks on your door, asks if it is okay if he or she can stay with you and get some food, etc., until they can get on their feet financially. If you say no, they accept that graciously and move on.

The refugee may (and usually does) have perfectly just reason and cause to migrate, but they also make a choice to go about it legally or illegally. My father was a legal immigrant. He was born and raised in Ontario, Canada.

America loves immigrants. It’s a fundamental part of our heritage. I love the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island as much as you or any other liberal who ever lived. We as Americans don’t (historically) go back that far. We all come from somewhere else, if we trace our ancestors back to 400 years or more (in most cases, far fewer years). Mine are from the UK and Ireland: some via Canada first. My wife has ancestors from France, Germany, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. That blood is in my children. I love different world cultures. I’m proud that we value such cultural diversity in America.

But I don’t see a hint of how you would weigh their rights. I don’t see any room for considering what claims they make, or why they are moving, or how to prioritize, or anything about them – except an agreement that we should let some of them in. That approach sounds more like almsgiving than justice.

That’s because you haven’t read what I have already written about it. I provided you the links. In my “Social Justice” paper above I cited earlier comments of mine about refugees, from two years ago:

Bring the refugees in by the multiple thousands . . . but they must be vetted, just as immigrants have always been. . . . If people think vetting and checking documentation is so terrible, why don’t they also go after Ellis Island and the old (highly idealized) days of mass immigration, where this was always done? Everyone can cite stories of their ancestors coming through Ellis Island (some of mine came through Canada, just a few miles from where I sit, where my dad was from). 

What we never hear about, however, are how many were refused entrance. It was relatively few, but of course, this is what we are saying now: only a few should be disallowed. Of 12 million who came through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1954, about 2% were deemed unfit and now allowed into the country. You know how many people that is? 240,000 (about the population of Madison, Wisconsin). . . .

We can still be humanitarian, by offering resources for food and shelter (as we always have), while we figure out a sensible solution to the refugee crisis. We can put these poor people up in some halfway decent facilities, paid for by our generosity, if needs be; proceed to methodically check out their backgrounds, and if they are fine, let them come here.

This is not an either/or situation. It’s not “totally uncontrolled [including illegal] immigration” vs “evil nativist conservative bigots and fear-mongers” who oppose all immigration, legal or illegal.

That is not the case. Most of us who have legitimate concerns are quite as compassionate as the bleeding-heart liberals. . . . There is a sensible middle here on the refugee crisis, that is quite consistent with Catholic teaching and traditional (and singular) American compassion and willingness to take in the “huddled masses”, and also legitimate vigilance in order to avoid terrorist tragedies in America.


After this, I added the provocative challenge: “Does that sound like I “hate” all immigrants: as the outrageous stereotype of President Trump and his supporters goes?”

Without some notion of how to understand and weigh the claims of the second party in this search for justice, I don’t know how to move on to a search for a balanced approach. To clarify that: I don’t think it makes sense to talk about a border policy without some understanding of recent history in Mexico and Honduras and El Salvador, etc. We don’t need a complete and total understanding of every riot in Tegucigalpa, but we need enough to understand the claims put forward by an immigrant. That is, some immigrants are in fact refugees, or are close to being refugees – leaving behind violence and extreme poverty. Let me exaggerate for clarity: there’s a difference between a dozen people leaving a factory where the boss is a jerk, and a million people leaving a region controlled by drug lords. These are different claims.

I agree wholeheartedly. I wrote, after all: “Bring the refugees in by the multiple thousands.” All I’m saying is let that be a legal process, not an illegal one, and let everyone be properly vetted, just as they would be, for example, in applying for any important job, where character is a prime factor. You give lip service to border security. I’d like to see you wholeheartedly acknowledge that it is absolutely required, just as I agree with you about the plight of poor exploited, desperate refugees.

Without a clear approach to the rights of migrants, I don’t see how to move on to balancing those rights against legitimate American claims.

I agree again. But both “sides” have to be willing to accept legitimate arguments form the other “side.” We don’t seem to be able to talk about anything intelligently, anymore, by way of social or governmental policy, because everything is now so polemicized, politicized, and polarized. We need to get past that, and yesterday. 

My question: in Matthew 25:35, Jesus talks about welcoming strangers. Are immigrants “strangers” in the meaning of that text?

Here it is (RSV): “for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,”

I need only go back to my analogy of the person breaking into your house. If Jesus was an open borders and illegal immigrant advocate, the verse would have to be re-written as follows:

for I was hungry and broke into your house and demanded that you give me food, I was thirsty and broke into your house and demanded that you give me drink, I was a stranger and forced my way into your house against your will and you ‘welcomed’ me, because you were compelled to by no one enforcing the laws regarding illegal entry onto private property in your nation.”

That’s obviously not what Jesus said or meant. He was talking about voluntarily helping the poor and destitute. I’ve done that on an individual level, as I talked about in my “Social Justice” paper. We have helped a homeless person who was a friend of my sons. My three sons have done much charitable missionary work. We had a heroin addict with a criminal record renting our old house and we did everything under the sun to help her. She wound up stealing three months’ rent and taking us for $2000. Now her responsibility (she’s actually straightening out her life now) is to pay restitution: to restore the money she stole from us. 

You wanna talk Bible? That is quite biblical, as is the command to not steal from others. It’s not all one-way. Both parties have responsibilities and rights. The illegal immigrant is essentially stealing and manipulating the collective good heart of the American people. We want to help; we’re generous (the whole world knows this, which is why they flock to come here: legally and illegally), but that does not extend to deliberate lawbreakers, breaking into our house (i.e., our border).

Procedurally, Dave: it’s fine with me if you deal with clarity about your last assertion or re-stating my claim and responding or responding to the question about Matthew 25. I don’t mean to shift the topic totally; the question about Matthew 25 is real, not rhetorical; I understand it as a question about the urgency of weighing an immigrant’s rights carefully.

I’ve done my best, according to my usual way of dialoguing. I have directly replied point-by-point to you. That seems to me to be the main way anything is constructively accomplished in a discussion where two people disagree.

Matthew 25:35 is directed at individuals, not nations. Read it in its context and it’s clear that people as individuals are being judged in the Last Judgment in a particular way for how they lived or didn’t live the Gospel message entrusted to them. The way to transform nations is for individuals to transform and then they will transform their societies and make them more just.

Hi, Patti. Thanks for your clear assertion.

It seems to me that our tradition includes at least four different approaches to the matter of how to welcome strangers. They do not exclude each other; they are complementary. But there are four approaches, not just one.

First, Moses taught that the nation of Israel was supposed to welcome strangers. “Welcome strangers, because – remember! – you too were once a stranger in a strange land.” This command was addressed to individuals, but mostly to the nation. The nation of Egypt mistreated the nation of Israel, and so God intervened on behalf of his people (a collective), and punished the Egyptians (a collective). The Prophets warned the Hebrew people (collectively) that they had to avoid idolatry and do justice and care for strangers, or be punished. The nation failed, so Israel went into exile in Babylon.

Second, as you point out, Jesus described the judgment of individuals, commanding that we feed the hungry and clothe the naked and welcome strangers. It seems clear – to you and to me both – that Jesus was talking to individuals about individual responsibility. So it would make sense, if we stopped right there, to say that the command of Jesus superseded the command of Moses and the Prophets.

But then there’s a third. In the life of the Church for 12-15 centuries, the Church embraced what Moses taught (national responsibility) and what Jesus taught (personal responsibility), but developed a third response. The six precepts of the Lord describing the Last Judgment were indeed understood to be serious and binding – but it was the Church as a whole that fulfilled the commands. In general, the monks or parish priests fed the hungry and welcomed strangers – and the laity supported the clergy in their work. It’s simply not possible that the Church misinterpreted the words of Jesus badly for centuries. Their approach to hospitality was an obedient response to the teaching of Moses and Jesus.

I think it’s critical to see this third approach, because then you can see a fourth without feeling that you are somehow walking away from Jesus. 

Since the time of Pope Leo XIII at least, the Church has taught that there are some problems that are global, and that demand a global response. These problems include the challenge of the Industrial Revolution, which threatened (still threatens) to reduce human workers to the status of replaceable cogs in a machine; the Church supports the right of workers to organize and strike. Other global problems are plague and drought, which don’t notice national boundaries. And for a century, the Church has taught that migration is among the new challenges of our time. And the Catholic Church (among others) has called firmly and repeatedly for a global response to this global challenge. The Catholic Church, in the modern world, has made a commitment to work with all people of goodwill to serve the needs of all people – a community response to a community problem, a global response to a global problem.

For a century, the Catholic Church has understood the words of the Lord about welcoming strangers to include a call to all people of goodwill to serve all migrants.

I don’t disagree with anything in your response to Patti, so I need not respond, except to reiterate the crucial distinction between legal and illegal immigration. We’re not obliged (morally or legally) to help anyone who wantonly disobeys our laws. We willingly help innocent refugees and those who go through proper legal immigration processes.

The present discussion on DACA presupposes these same premises. It’s said that it’s not the Dreamers’ fault that they are here, so we shouldn’t deport them. I agree! But the converse to that is, if there is legal fault, that we have no such obligation. We may still decide to help anyway, but we’re not morally obligated to.

We may also choose to help refugees or destitute would-be immigrants where they are rather than necessarily taking them in, if there are any legitimate impediments. It was proposed, for example, to create a guarded zone in Syria where refugees there could be helped and provided with all kinds of needs. 

They don’t have to all come to America. That’s not the only solution to every problem in the world. If the world would better emulate our government system and way of life, they wouldn’t have to come here, because where they are would be a good place to live, too. People are the same everywhere.

It’s been pointed out that Vatican City is surrounded by a wall. There is such a thing as the Swiss Guards, too. Are they there for nothing? Can anyone just climb the wall or find sneaky ways to bribe or bypass the Swiss Guards, to get in?

No, of course not. But when it comes to our borders, all of a sudden, common sense and biblical sense fly out the window.

I found some very interesting comments on ancient Israel and illegal immigration on a Protestant site, in an article entitled, “What the Bible Says About Our Illegal Immigration Problem” (Ralph Drollinger, 9-27-16; italics added for Hebrew words):


In numerous OT passages the student of Scripture learns that the God of Israel distinguished among three types of people in the land; . . . An Israelite citizen is referred to as a countryman (ach) in Scripture, whereas a legal immigrant is referred to as a sojourner (ger) or toshab, and a foreigner is called an illegal (nokri) or zar. Important to this study, and evident from the OT, is that an illegal did not possess the same benefits or privileges as a sojourner or countryman. This fact can be illustrated from many passages. Notice for instance the words of Ruth the Moabite, and her response to Boaz the Israelite in Ruth 2:10:

Then she fell on her face, bowing to the ground and said to him, “Why have I found favor in your sight that you should take notice of me, since I am a foreigner?” 

Not only was Ruth a foreigner (nokri), an illegal immigrant, she was a Moabite illegal, who according to Deuteronomy 23:3 was forbidden to migrate into Israel altogether! For Citizen Boaz to entertain Ruth at all was remarkably generous and gracious, and possibly even against the law of the land. (Perhaps Boaz already had in mind legitimizing her status by marriage.) The point is that Ruth’s self-declaration serves to underscore the classification of people in and by ancient Israel.

Furthermore, a citizen/countryman was expressly forbidden to take advantage of or mistreat a legal immigrant, known as a sojourner, per Exodus 22:21 and Deuteronomy 10:19 respectively:

You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt (ESV).

Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt (ESV).

In forming an immigration theology, a sojourner could be likened to a legal immigrant and a foreigner could be likened to an illegal immigrant today. Note Hoffmeier, a biblical expert on this subject:

A sojourner (sometimes translated as stranger) was a person who entered Israel and followed legal procedures to obtain recognized standing as a resident alien.

Hoffmeier goes on to say, that on the other hand, Israel treated illegal immigrants differently:

Illegal immigrants should not expect these same privileges from the state whose laws they disregard by virtue of their undocumented status.

These standard categories of one’s standing in a given nation, and the differentiation between citizens, immigrants and foreigners are representative of the will of God.


Here are similar thoughts from another article: “A Biblical Perspective on Immigration Policy” (James R. Edwards, Jr., 9-16-09):


Old Testament Principles. 

Even the passages of Scripture most often cited by religious advocates of mass immigration and amnesty plainly do not argue for open borders. Rather, these writings generally reflect “equal justice under law” principles.

Consider 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.” Similarly reads Exodus 22:21: “You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.”

Dr. Stephen Steinlight has noted that the Hebrew term for “sojourn” means temporary stay.5 A related term used in some scriptural translations is “stranger.” One Bible dictionary says, “This word generally denotes a person from a foreign land residing in Palestine. Such persons enjoyed many privileges in common with the Jews, but still were separate from them. The relation of the Jews to strangers was regulated by special laws (Deut. 23:3; 24:14-21; 25:5; 26:10-13).”6 This Bible dictionary defines “two classes of aliens: 1) those who were temporary visitors, who owned no landed property; and 2) those who held permanent residence without becoming citizens (Lev. 22:10; Ps. 19:12).

Both of these classes were to enjoy, under certain conditions, the same rights as other citizens (Lev. 19:33, 34; Deut. 10:19).”7 Again, those rights amounted to equal standing under the law, or having the benefit of the rule of law. Therefore, it is biblically inaccurate to incorporate, automatically and dogmatically, permanent immigration into every such term.

Nor is it reasonable to jump to the conclusions many on the open borders side do about related passages. These activists claim that such passages mandate that a society welcome any and all foreigners presenting themselves. No such passages state or imply overlooking illegality committed on the part of the alien in his entry. Nor is there any requirement of unlimited or uncontrolled admittance of those who are members of another nation or society. Assertions like those are, at a minimum, a wrong reading. Such verses actually indicate nothing about the grounds for alien admission to ancient Israel.

In fact, as Steinlight and others have noted, a fair reading of the relevant Old Testament passages makes clear that foreign residents were to comply with Israelite laws, such as Sabbath observance (e.g., Deut. 16:9-15). Furthermore, the law God laid down for Israel allowed legal distinctions to be drawn between native Jews and resident aliens. For instance, Deuteronomy 15 commands the remission of the debts of fellow Israelites every seven years, but “[o]f a foreigner you may exact” his debts (v. 3). A chapter before, Hebrews receive permission to sell or give foreigners “unclean”food (see Deut. 14:21).

Another theme stands out in the Bible. God regards borders as meaningful and important (see, for instance, Prov. 22:28 and Prov. 23:10-11). Consider Deuteronomy 32:8: “When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God.” Ezekiel 47:13-23 details the Promised Land’s boundaries. Numbers 34:1-15 describes the borders the Lord established for each tribe of Israel. Deuteronomy 19:14 commands against moving a neighboring tribe’s boundary stone marking a given tribe of Israel’s inheritance in the Promised Land. Another example appears three months after the Israelites left Egypt. The base of Mount Sinai was made off-limits (see Exodus 19:12ff), under penalty of death, until the people had been consecrated. Resident aliens who had children and settled in Israel (largely because of Israel’s failure to complete the mandate to remove them) were allowed private property in Israel (Ezek. 47:21-23). However, numerous times Israelites are warned against letting the aliens’ pagan practices corrupt God-given moral standards.

[ . . . ]

In short, the Old Testament teaches fair treatment of resident foreigners, with certain requirements of the aliens related to religious and civil legal standards. It also instructs that aliens were to assimilate to the Hebrew culture. Boundaries are meaningful, as well, and foreign presence among the Hebrews on several occasions was a curse. Few details of immigration procedures, standards, or other policy prescriptions appear. To infer some open-borders or mass-amnesty mandate from what actually appears in Scripture is wrong.


See also:

“Stranger and Sojourner (in the Old Testament)” (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia Online)

“Theft and Thieves in the Bible” (Nave’s Topical Bible Concordance Online)


Photo credit: Parable of the Good Samaritan (1670), by Jan Wijnants (1632-1684) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

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