Millions of people living in the United States are illegal immigrants. The vast majority have come from Mexico and Central America. States like Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas have all been seriously impacted by legal and illegal immigration. It has effected education, health care, crime, and even language. The majority of the illegal and legal immigrants who come to the United States come for jobs and we can see these immigrants working in the restaurants, construction, and service industry, childcare and as domestics. The majority of the immigrants have strong Christian values and are active in the Church. Statistics show that the growth in the American Roman Catholic Church is primarily a result of immigration both legal and illegal.
Recently the discussion of illegal immigration has focused on a piece of legislation that allows local law enforcement officers who have suspicion that a crime has been committed and suspect that the alleged violator is an illegal immigrant to check their citizenship or immigration status. This piece of legislation has caused a great deal of controversy. Even Christians are divided as to where they stand on the issue. Some see it as an incredible injustice and denial of basic civil rights, while others have suggested it is merely an enforcement of Federal Law and a protection of the rights of Arizona citizens.
The issue of immigration and the migration of peoples across national boarders is not merely an American issue as nations around the world are struggling with the issue. Europeans nations have been as conflicted as the United States. Countries in areas where there are civil wars and persecution are dealing with ever growing refugee camps, as people flee their homelands merely to survive.
As Christians our response must always be on the side of justice and respect for the dignity of every person. We must always remember that the immigrant, legal or illegal, is a victim of a failed system both of the country they fled and their new dwelling. Most immigrants, legal or illegal, are searching out the basic human needs of food, shelter, medical care, and education. Immigration, whether legal or illegal, is a story of hope – hope for a better future for themselves and their families. Most often immigration is about hope for the lives of children.
The governments have often failed at addressing immigration because the issues are complex. But too often they fail to respond because of underlying political realities, either seeing the immigrants as a new voting block or fearing the loss of re-election because of disenfranchising those who want to halt illegal immigration.
The entire story of Old Testament from Abraham to Moses is a story of immigration of a people seeking the promise of a better life. Our Lord Jesus was in a sense an immigrant to Egypt for a period of time. People around the world today are fleeing persecution, violence, genocide, unspeakable poverty, and oppression. All around the world are refugee camps where there are hungry, thirst and disease yet those in the camps live there because they cannot return to their own homeland for fear of death.
The best summary of the Biblical view of immigration is found in Exodus 22.21, “You shall no wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” Leviticus 19.34, reads, “the alien who resides among you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.” Hebrews 13.2, says, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so some have entertained angels unawares” And, our Lord Jesus tells us in ministering to strangers we have done ministry to Him – Matthew 25.35
The charge of Scripture to the people of God was to show justice to immigrant peoples because they were once immigrants in Egypt. This could apply certainly to Americans who must remember that the vast majority of Americans come from immigrant families. The city where I live history is significantly tied to the history of immigrant people – the Irish, the Italians and now the Asians and peoples from Central America.
The history of immigration has never been an easy one. In America immigrant groups have often been met with violence and protests. Often the immigrant group is forced to live in poverty. The story of the immigrants of the early 1900’s is also the story of the lower east side of York and the poverty of tenant housing. The story of Brooklyn is a story of immigrants leaving the lower east side for a better life. Most of the members of my congregation are descendants of these immigrants – they are the grandchild and sometimes the children of the immigrant community.
The fact is that most of these immigrants came to the United States legally through places like Ellis Island in the New York Harbor. These immigrants came to become Americans and almost all of them spent years learning English so that they could pass the citizenship exam and be sworn in as American citizens.
The story of the Hebrew people in Egypt is a story of legal immigration. Joseph asks permission of Pharaoh for his family to move to Egypt (Genesis 45.16-18). When they arrived, the brothers asked Pharaoh if they could sojourn in the land (Genesis 47.1-4) and Pharaoh allotted them a section of the land of Goshen/Rameses (Genesis 47.5-7).
The story goes on that though the Hebrew people labored and prospered often to the benefit of the Pharaoh, the government began to oppress the people as slaves and eventually enforced genocide on the Hebrews.
The study would teach us that we are to show justice and equality to legal immigrants. The legal immigrants are not to be oppressed or discriminated against but rather have full access to the social networks of the country. The laws of the land were equally applied to both Israelites and legal immigrants.
Justice is a characteristic of our God. Where there is injustice the Church must speak clearly and profoundly for if injustice for one group is allowed then there is injustice everywhere. If there is a group of people without basic human rights, without a voice in government, without legal resources and protection then it places all of us at risk.
The governments of the world have the right to establish boarders, to make immigration regulations, and establish guidelines for citizenship. These boarders must be honored and the governments have the right to enforce their own requirements. It is up to the governments to insure that the regulations and enforcement are just and non-discriminatory.
The debate is how does the government respond to illegal immigration or the plight of refugees. It is not the task of the Church to establish laws. It is the task of the Church to minister to the stranger among us for the Kingdom of God knows no earthly boundaries. The Church should advocate for just humane laws and treatment of all persons. Often the Church will be called to be the voice for those who have no voice. The Church is always called to show compassion and mercy.
The Church must pray for our governments and government officials. We must obey the laws of our nation and call for a change of law when the law is unjust or immoral. It is not the responsibility of the Church to support political campaigns, draft legislation, or enforce law. Christians in democratic nations have the responsibility to vote for persons who will work to ensure that the country is secure so we can live in peace. Persons who ensure equal opportunity. Persons who will protect the rights of all people groups. Persons who will be proponents of justice. Persons who will respect the dignity of every human from conception to natural death.
As individual Christians evaluating the complexity of immigration law or the securing of national boarders we must not be tempted by political expediency, fear, or our own prejudices. We must examine the issue in light of Scriptures and the call for justice, mercy, and grace.
As the Patriarch of the Charismatic Episcopal Church my call is an international call and not an national call. I am the Patriarch of dozens of national churches each facing their own unique set of issues. Some of the nations are involved in long term civil wars, others deal daily with thousands of refugees fleeing genocide or the rape of millions of women, some struggle with the issue of sex trade, slavery, and exploitation of children through kidnapping and forced service in the military. For many of our churches their ministry is to a people who live day to day merely to survive and have a meal or clean water. As the Patriarch I will refrain from making political statements for this reason. I encourage us as Christians to remain informed on the issue of legal immigration reform and illegal immigration. In all of this I remind us to seek the heart of God who is creator and father of all and remember that citizen, immigrant (legal or illegal), or refugee is created in His image not the image of a nation.
Under His mercy,
The Most Rev. Craig W. Bates,