Immigration and the Law of God

Toward the end of his speech last week on immigration, President Obama quoted from the Bible when he said:

Scripture tells us that we shall not oppress a stranger, for we know the heart of a stranger — we were strangers once, too.

My fellow Americans, we are and always will be a nation of immigrants. We were strangers once, too. And whether our forebears were strangers who crossed the Atlantic, or the Pacific, or the Rio Grande, we are here only because this country welcomed them in, and taught them that to be an American is about something more than what we look like, or what our last names are, or how we worship. What makes us Americans is our shared commitment to an ideal — that all of us are created equal, and all of us have the chance to make of our lives what we will.

The outcry about the president using Scripture has been loud.  Some debated which Scripture he was quoting.  Conservatives appeared to be angry he used a Scripture quote, noting his failure to apply it in other situations such as same-sex marriages.  Predictably, liberals laughed more at the conservative reaction than questioning the president’s judgment in bringing Holy Writ into the public arena.

Yet why not use this opportunity to answer an important question.  What does the Bible say about immigration?  Though there is much more that can be said, here are five starting principles.

1) The nation should seek wisdom from the Creator and Lord of nations.  The crisis the illegal immigrants issue has brought to the United States has revealed to all the limits of human wisdom.  We do need divine assistance to respond properly to this crisis.  God did form the nations of the earth with their unique boundaries.  As the Apostle Paul said:

He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation. (Acts 17:26)

The nations then should fear their Maker, recognizing this is where true wisdom begins (Proverbs 1:7). God has made known His righteous ways in the sight of all nations so they can learn from Him (Psalm 98:2).  Indeed, God gave His Son, Jesus Christ, upon His atoning work and resurrection from the dead, all authority in heaven and earth (Matthew 28:18-20). The Lord upon whose shoulders all government rests (Isaiah 9:6-7) cares about this nation which, upon its formation, at least acknowledged His sovereign rule by its dating: “the Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven.” We should encourage our president and Congress to seek God’s wisdom to maintain peace in our land, praying earnestly that they would find it (I Timothy 2:1-4).

2) The Bible does strongly encourage caring for aliens.  The Bible verse that it appears President Obama was quoting is from Exodus 23:9.

You shall not oppress a stranger, since you yourselves know the feelings of a stranger, for you also were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Though, as we shall see, the president needs to be encouraged to dig deeper into the Scriptures, this principle of treating foreigners kindly is repeated throughout the Bible, especially in the Law of God found in the first five chapters (Exodus 22:21; Leviticus 19:34; Deuteronomy 26:12).  Taking the principles of general equity found there, treating strangers kindly, providing for their needs, and giving opportunities for work are some of the basic laws the Bible teaches a host nation.  Indeed, the inscription on the Statue of Liberty promises our land will do this:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses, yearning to breath free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

As much as we may disagree with how foreign people have come into this country, the church especially must respond in love and kindness to them even as we work toward the following.

3) However, the same laws that apply to citizens of the land are to be applied to the stranger.  Here is where the president’s actions fall short of the Biblical standards for justice and mercy.  A little earlier in the Book of Exodus from which the president quoted, the Bible states:

The same law shall apply to the native as to the stranger who sojourns among you (Exodus 12:49).

Those wishing to come into our land need to be under the same laws as everyone else.  The president’s unilateral action of waiving legal requirements on millions of undocumented immigrants destroys the justice upon which our nation was founded.  Both citizens as well as the immigrants who have obeyed the law in order to dwell here have good reason to be upset.  Furthermore, the president’s action violates the very constitution he swore to uphold, for a simple reading tells us that it gives Congress the responsibility to “establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization” (Article I, Section 8).  With all due respect, President Obama needs to read and apply both the Bible and the Constitution more carefully.  He is acting unlawfully according to both of these standards. President Obama should be duly warned by preacher and representative alike.

4)  Citizenship needs to be defined, upheld, and protected; and our immigration laws do need to be reformed.

As seen in the references above, the Bible does recognize that nations have boundaries and inherent sovereignty over their own affairs.  Citizenship in a country and the rights that accompany it should be clearly understood by its people and protected by those in government representing them.  We see this in the Bible.  When Paul was being mistreated in the city of Philippi by being wrongly beaten and jailed, he appealed to his Roman citizenship to encourage fair treatment (Acts 16:37-40).  Under the great weight of this crisis, our leaders need to be encouraged and held accountable to uphold the rights of citizenship.

However, it is time for our leaders to re-examine our immigration policies and bring needed reform to them.  We have dear friends from Canada who have been here for nearly two decades to serve the poor and needy through a Christian ministry.  Because of the convoluted immigration laws, the ministry that employees them has spent thousands of dollars in legal fees just for a simple work visa, as well as such things as being mandated by the government to spend advertisement money in newspapers to see if they could find a U.S. citizen to do the job.  Again, we need to pray sincerely for our leaders to have the wisdom needed to be able to refine our policies!  It is a task few of us would envy.

5) Finally, we should all humbly recognize the Lord’s hand of judgment in this crisis.  When nations find their sovereignty crumbling, their borders challenged, aliens beginning to overrun them, and people entering who desire that nation’s downfall, it is a sign of divine displeasure.  The Lord uses other nations to chastise unfaithful ones, promising, “The alien who is among you shall rise above you higher and higher, but you will go down lower and lower” (Deuteronomy 28:43).  This is true not only for Old Testament Israel, but for any nation.  The prophets warned all the nations of their day regarding these things (see Isaiah 13-23; Amos 1-2; the books of Jonah and Nahum for just a few of many examples).

The lawless act of our president last week is just a further judgment on the United States of America for its gross lawlessness in so many ways.  Under God’s mighty hand of discipline, we need to humble ourselves and repent before more severe acts occur.


  1. Peter November 24, 2014 at 6:28 pm #

    As I understand it, Obama isn’t creating a law, he is prioritizing who gets deported. According to the PEW research center there are an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the USA.
    Obama’s job as president is to enforce law rather than create it. That being said, it is simply impossible to deport 11 million immigrants. Given the impossibility of the task, it only makes sense to prioritize deporting criminals and leaving otherwise law abiding individuals alone. Is it perfect? No. But cut the guy some slack. Congress is absolutely refusing to do anything about it. Lastly it is pretty easy to argue against Obama’s decisions without having read or watched his speech. Personally I found most of his reasoning to be rational, and compassionate. For those curious here is the full speech that you can read or watch as you like.

  2. Jon Held November 24, 2014 at 6:51 pm #

    Thank you Barry. Well balanced. I’d add that most of the folks that scream the loudest about how immigrants need to follow the law are the offspring of an immigrant who’s “documentation” was simple. Historically, immigrants to the US were asked “name? and Nation of origin?” Today these folks are given a telephone book sized “application” and shown a line that moves inches a year. It’s nearly impossible, and at the heart usually raciest.

  3. David Carr November 27, 2014 at 10:18 am #

    Barry, I read with great benefit and thankfulness to God your blog posts.
    This post was helpful and stimulating.
    I draw your attention to the definition and usage of three key words in this article: nation, law, and citizen.
    I encourage you to revisit your exegesis of Acts 17:26. The Greek word for nation, ethnos, refers to a group or multitude of people. (Thayer, Kittel) Paul’s point in this verse it the sovereignty of God in making all people groups from one source (Adam) and then determining their destiny. The diversity of people that we experience is a result of God’s singular purpose and plan that applies equally to all: repentance, faith and resulting obedience.
    The Scripture is not explicitly referring to the modern institution of a government controlling a specific geographical territory. Of course the Word must be the guide for how we operate in any environment.
    The only permanence of an ethnos is the purpose of God for that group of people, not the territory they occupy or the rules by which they live. In the OT the nation of Israel lived in Palestine as aliens until sojourning in Egypt 430 years, then in Palestine until deported by the Babylonians, then restored to Palestine. Now the spiritual descendants of that people (ethnos) are the ecclesia, the called out ones, spread across the globe and united in the family of God by the blood of the ONE, Jesus Christ.
    Further, the only infallible rule of faith and life is the Scripture. God commands us to respect and obey the civil magistrate, as unto Him Who created that authority, so long as the magistrate does not contradict or contravene the Word of God. The founding documents of our current government, going back to 1776, do NOT, as they should, mention Jesus Christ as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords and offer Him the recognition and obedience that He requires in Psalm 2 and many other places. At best, we have a mixture of truth and error as the basis for our government. The sandy portion of our foundation is becoming evident as the superstructure crumbles.
    Citizenship in OT Israel, as a governmental entity, was a function of faith and covenant primarily. Examples of inclusions of many ethnos include the Gibeonites, Rahab, and Ruth. Exclusion of ethnic Jews (physical descent from Abraham) is described by many of the prophets, ex. Hosea: Lo-Ammi. The government of the Jews was destroyed by God because of their unfaithfulness and they were sent into captivity. Those who will not rule themselves by the Word of God will be given over to the fallible rule of men. (Romans 1) Historical narrative of Paul’s experience is normative declaration of the Lord.
    I don’t have major disagreements with your conclusions, but the process by which you arrive at them should be more explicitly and consistently based on Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, Sola Christus and Soli Deo Gloria.

  4. David Carr November 27, 2014 at 10:29 am #

    Historical narrative is NOT normative.

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