Tales of crimes committed by undocumented Hispanics. Painful stories of death from dehydration and exposure in the hot Arizona desert. Raids on meat-packing plants to check documentation. Children separated from parents when their mom and dad are taken by immigration officials. Jails filling with criminals awaiting deportation. A woman cleaning houses to provide for a family that dreams of a better life.
The stories are endless. . . and complicated. Complicated because there are always different sides to be told. Complicated because Hispanic immigration is about people of a different culture and language. Complicated because the legislation is a labyrinth that no one truly understands and that is terribly inefficient. Complicated even more in these days because of partisan politics, where sound bites rule and over-simplification is the order of the day. Votes are at stake; careers in government are in the balance.
The demographics are huge: 12 to 20 million without proper documentation. It will not do to ignore the many issues related to immigration, though some would like to do so. Hispanics, when these undocumented are added to the 40-45 million of Hispanic descent who are citizens or residents, now are the largest minority in the country. In light of all of this, what is a Christian to think?
It is not uncommon for discussions among Christians to be not very Christian. By that I mean that what often dominates conversations about Hispanic immigration are debates over economic cost-benefits, bilingual education, health care, job loss, national identity and the country’s security in an era of terrorism. Indeed, all of these rightly are items of fundamental concern. The problem from a Christian perspective is that there is little—if any—appeal to the Bible in these discussions. From the Right and immigration opponents, Romans 13 might get mentioned, along with a call to uphold the law. From the Left and immigration defenders, one usually is given a couple of verses from the Law that speak of the need to care for the sojourner and then reminded of Jesus’ words in Matthew 25 about taking care of the stranger. Positions appear to be determined primarily by ideological convictions, and the Bible is brought in as a secondary resource to substantiate an already settled stance. This kind of reasoning, though, contradicts the claim that the Bible is the Christian’s final authority for faith and practice.
There is an additional challenge for those who say that they follow Christ, which few know about. There is a large and fast-growing Christian presence among Hispanics. Millions of Hispanic Christians worship in this country every week, and a huge percentage of those that are arriving come with some Christian background and influence. Many denominations recognize this new opportunity for ministry and have started church planting efforts across the country. The National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (the Hispanic equivalent to the National Association of Evangelicals) asserts that it represents some 18,000 churches. Hispanic Christian radio stations, publishing efforts, and conferences of all kinds are multiplying; training programs at various educational levels are appearing in churches, Bible colleges, and seminaries. Non-Hispanic Christians must appreciate that Hispanic immigration is not about some faceless mass of workers; millions are brothers and sisters in the Lord.
What Can the Bible Offer?
Christians, both of the majority culture and Hispanic, stand at a crossroads at this moment in the national debate. They can default to the more one-dimensional views of the political parties, media pundits, and the activists—or, they can make a concerted effort to mine the Bible for what it might be able to contribute to a perspective on the issues that is truly informed by Christian faith. In what follows, I will briefly explore some of what the Old and New Testament can teach us for such a time as this.
Image of God
The place to start is with the image of God in Genesis 1. There is disagreement over the exact meaning of the image. Some believe that it is what humans have that echoes certain attributes of God: a will, intellect, emotions, and a spiritual component. Others cite 1:26-28 and argue that the image entails the authority to rule on the earth as God’s vice-regents; still others hold that it deals with a proper relationship with God that is possible only in Christ.
Whatever the option, the primary lesson is indisputable. Every person has supreme value and potential. Immigrants, too, are created in the image of God and so are worthy of respect. They also have the potential to contribute much to society because of their God-given gifts; at the same time, they should live responsibly as image-bearers in their new context.
Accounts of migration abound in the Old Testament. In Genesis, the patriarchs go to Egypt for food. Joseph is sold into slavery, but he becomes second to Pharaoh in Egypt. His is a case of the positive impact of an immigrant ‘made good.’ Joseph saves the nation from starvation, and due to his stellar character Pharaoh allows Jacob and his descendents to move to the Nile Delta and settle in Goshen.
Naomi and her family move to Moab during a famine, but years later, now widowed, she returns to Bethlehem with Ruth her daughter-in-law. Naomi, who had been the immigrant for a time, has returned home; now Ruth is the immigrant. Her hard work and family loyalty get Boaz’s attention and affections.
Centuries later, many thousands were taken into exile when Israel was conquered by Assyria and Judah by Babylon. Life in those other lands could be hard, and some ached for home. We learn from Assyrian inscriptions that some became domestic servants; others toiled on farms or construction projects.
In contrast, when Daniel was exiled, the authorities prepare him to work for the empire. One can see the wrestling with assimilation: he and his friends have to learn the language and ways of Babylon, but they seek to maintain their identity (their religion and food), even at great cost—and their service was stellar. Esther became queen of the Persian Empire. Nehemiah was cupbearer to Artaxerxes, while the scribe-priest Ezra ministered among his people in exile. Some of those exiles returned home; others remained in their new lands and never gave a thought to going back.
Old Testament Law
Immigration requires legislation to deal with wages, legal standing and rights, and degrees of integration. It is true today, and it was a need, too, in the ancient world. The law codes of Israel were no exception.
Sojourners in Israel were excluded from the land tenure system, as the land had been assigned to Israelite families and was inherited through the male line. In such a peasant agricultural society, foreigners were at the mercy of others for work and sustenance. Their migration to the Land also meant that they were separated from kinship networks that could help them in times of want. They were a vulnerable group (the Law classifies them with widows and orphans as those most at risk).
The laws of Israel responded to the needs of sojourners in at least three areas: food (the gleaning law and the triennial tithe), just labor arrangements (rest on the Sabbath and timely pay, and protection from legal bias). Israel also opened up its religious life—the most precious part of its identity—to these outsiders. Sojourners could participate in the Sabbath, the Day of Atonement, Passover and the Feasts of Weeks, First Fruits, and Tabernacles. Of course, Israel would have had expectations of these people: hard work, submission to the laws, and the necessity of learning Hebrew to work and attend the festivals.
In the Law God reminds the Israelites that once they had been foreigners. They had been redeemed at the Exodus, and that experience as immigrants given a new start in a new land was to mark them as a people for all time. Their compassion toward those who moved to their land was to be an indicator of their faith in God. Israel’s Law was to be a testimony of what God desired in a people, and the laws for the sojourner were part of that exemplary legislation.
Jesus was a refugee as a child. He and his family fled to Egypt when he was a child to escape the slaughter ordered by Herod. Jesus does not address immigration explicitly in his teaching, but he does speak of those who were different, specifically the Samaritans who were despised by the Jews. He spoke with a Samaritan woman and used a Samaritan as a model to be followed in his response to the question “Who is my neighbor?”.
The epistles teach that all Christians are sojourners and that our citizenship lies elsewhere. Christians are to be hospitable to others, and this virtue of welcoming the stranger is to characterize the leadership of the church.
The Bible, Christians, and the National Debate
From this brief survey, we learn that immigrants are made in God’s image and are worthy of respect and that migration and life in a foreign country were part of the experience of some biblical heroes. The laws of Israel responded to the needs of these vulnerable people in multiple ways, and the nation’s experience was to be a reminder of their past and a call to charitable action. Jesus points to those who are different as the very ones that can exemplify a deeper faith, and the epistles tell us to care for the outsider since every Christian is a stranger in this world.
If Christians take this biblical material seriously (and there is more!), then this divine revelation should shape attitudes and inform the convictions that we take into the public square. Christians, in other words, need to engage the national discourse self-consciously as Christians, who are biblically informed and Spirit guided. Then the tone of the debate might be changed in more healthy directions and whatever solutions that might be proposed might be more constructive and pleasing to the One who loves the powerless.
 Psalm 137
 Leviticus 19:10; Deuteronomy 24:19-22
 Deuteronomy 14:28-29
 Exodus 20:10; Deuteronomy 5:14
 Deuteronomy 24:15
 Deuteronomy 1:16-17; 27:19
 Leviticus 19:34; Deuteronomy 10:17-19
 Deuteronomy 4:5-8
 Matthew 2
 John 4
 Luke 10
 1 Peter 2:11
 Philippians 3:20; Hebrews 13:14
 Romans 12:13; Hebrews 13:2; 1 Peter 4:9
 1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:8