What Does the Bible Say about Immigrants?
A plaque on The Statue of Liberty reads:
"'Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!’ cries she
With silent lips. ‘Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!’"
This poem on Lady Liberty became a rallying cry for the numerous immigrants coming upon land at Ellis Island. As John T. Cunningham wrote:
“The Statue of Liberty was not conceived and sculpted as a symbol of immigration, but it quickly became so as immigrant ships passed under the torch and the shining face, heading toward Ellis Island. However, it was [Lazarus's poem] that permanently stamped on Miss Liberty the role of unofficial greeter of incoming immigrants.”
Today, that beacon seems to be a point of controversy rather than a torch of invitation. Debate is raging about the soul of America. Who are we? While American Christians may ask that question, and rightly soul, there is another question which motivates us even more — what does the Bible say?
Defining Terms: Migrants, Asylum Seekers and Refugees
Before engaging in any conversation, it is good to define terms. This is especially true when entering into what might be a heated discussion. There are different categories which often fall under the category of immigration, but there are legal definitions which separate them.
Who is a refugee?
According to Amnesty International: “A refugee is a person who has fled their own country because they are at risk of serious human rights violations and persecution there.” When a person’s government cannot or will not provide protection for them, someone must flee. Often, they are fleeing war, violence, or persecution.
In order to be a refugee, one must meet certain criteria. And the determination is made on a case-by-case basis. According to the USCIS, “In making this determination we consider the conditions in the country of origin and evaluate the individual’s credibility. We also confirm that security checks have been completed and the results of the checks are reviewed and analyzed before approval."
As one might imagine, this process can take time. This is where another category is helpful, asylum seeker.
What is an asylum-seeker?
Every refugee was once an asylum-seeker. According to Amnesty International:
“An asylum seeker is a person who has left their country and is seeking protection from persecution and serious human rights violations in another country, but who hasn’t yet been legally recognized as a refugee and is waiting to receive a decision on their asylum claim. Seeking asylum is a human right. This means everyone should be allowed to enter another country to seek asylum.”
The right to seek asylum is enshrined in not only US but also international law. The qualifications are similar but an asylum seeker follows a different process. It’s a complicated process that involves many different federal agencies. Current wait times are about four years long and asylum seekers can stay in the country while their application is pending.”
What is a migrant?
There is no accepted definition of a migrant. But we know that a migrant is not an asylum seeker or a refugee. They are people who have left their home country seeking work, study, joining family, or simply starting a new life. Some leave because of difficult circumstances in their home country — but not those which would arise to the level of seeking asylum or refuge (like being devastated by a natural disaster).
A migrant holds a different legal status than one who is seeking asylum or refuge. Though they all seem to fall under the umbrella of discussions about immigration, technically an immigrant is one who chooses to leave their country of origin (again it could be for reasons of great difficulty) and a refugee is compelled to leave their country of origin.
For this article, we will be discussing the biblical response to migrants, not asylum-seekers or refugees. Those are important, but slightly different discussions.
Does the Bible Talk about Immigrants?
It’s somewhat difficult to parse these distinctions in the Scriptures though. In some instances, it is clear that a person is seeking asylum. But in many instances the Bible seems to use words like “stranger, sojourner, foreigner” somewhat interchangeably. It can mean those seeking asylum and it can simply mean someone migrating to another country to move away from hardship.
If one considers the story of the Israelites in Genesis and Exodus, they were not leaving their homeland because of persecution or the threat of war. They left because they were starving. This would not meet the criteria of asylum seeking, so we would consider them as migrants. Keep this in mind as we consider Leviticus 19:34. There it says, "The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God." The Bible repeatedly emphasizes the importance of welcoming and showing kindness to strangers or immigrants.
It could potentially be argued that Deuteronomy 10 is talking about asylum-seekers. But again, the LORD connects it to their identity in Egypt. Deut. 10:18-19 says, “He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.” A similar statement is made in Exodus 22:21 about not mistreating foreigners “residing among you.”
The Bible also has many examples of immigrants in the Scriptures.
Who Were Some Immigrants in the Bible?
Ruth’s story is one of immigration. Again, she’s seeking to leave hardship, not necessarily any sort of persecution or war. She is a Moabite woman who came to Israel with her mother-in-law Naomi. She became part of the community of Israel, though a foreigner.
Often referred to as the "father of faith," Abraham is a significant biblical figure who left his homeland, Ur of the Chaldeans, and became an immigrant in the land of Canaan. God made a covenant with Abraham, promising to give his descendants the land they were dwelling in.
Moses spent a significant part of his life as an immigrant in Midian after fleeing from Egypt. It was during this time that he encountered God at the burning bush and received his call to lead the Israelites out of Egypt.
Some like to mention that Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were immigrants. Technically, they would fall under the category of an asylum-seeker. The same would be true of David seeking asylum with the Philistines. The same could be said of the early Christians who scattered because of persecution.
How Does the Bible Say Christians Should Treat Immigrants?
We can debate laws and such within our nation when it comes to the receiving of immigrants, how to handle asylum-seekers, and whether or not to provide refuge as a nation. But the Scriptures call us to a certain response as individuals engaging flesh and blood immigrants.
First, we are called to compassion and empathy. The Bible calls Christians to treat immigrants and foreigners with compassion and empathy. Leviticus 19:24 is a reflection of God's heart for all people, regardless of their nationality or background.
Secondly, we are to respond with both justice and fair treatment. God is just, and His desire is for His people to act justly as well. Again, Deut. 10:18-19 shows us God’s fatherly care. This does call us to be people of truth as well. There ought to be structures for providing legal immigration. The system should be both just for those seeking to migrate to a country and just for the citizens who already reside there.
It is also important for Christians to remember our own history. God called the Israelites to remember their own history of being migrants to Egypt who were eventually enslaved. Their freedom was bought for a price and they ought to reflect this in their interaction with others. This call is extended in the New Testament in Ephesians 2:12, when Paul reminds the believers of their previous history. God’s plan of redemption extends to the entire world, and His love knows no national boundaries. We must reflect this in our love and care for all humanity.
Next, we should consider the Great Commission. I remember as a student in seminary at Louisville, marveling at the number of people groups represented in our apartment complex. We found that many of these were from unreached people groups — places where we cannot at present get the gospel. Yet, God had graciously brought these people to us. The Great Commission calls us to think missionally about this question of immigration. This commission underscores the global scope of the Gospel message and the importance of reaching out to people from every background.
Lastly, we must consider our unity in Christ. In Christ, believers from various nations and backgrounds are brought together as one body (1 Corinthians 12:13, Galatians 3:28). The unity of believers transcends cultural and national differences, emphasizing the interconnectedness of all who belong to Christ.
What Can I Do to Show the Love of Christ to Immigrants in My Area?
Regardless of your political opinions on this issue, we know that we are to show the love of Christ to immigrants in our area. That is not up for debate. How do we do this, though?
We can start by extending a warm welcome and practicing hospitality, inviting them into our community through social events and meals. What a great honor it would also be for us to take the time to learn about their culture and traditions, and listen to their stories with genuine interest. They have likely been through an awful season. A listening ear could be balm to their soul.
We can also offer practical assistance with navigating local services, job searches, as well as language learning. Most immigrants desire to be part of the community in which they are living. Can you imagine coming to a new place where you do not speak the language, you have very little (if any) possessions, you don’t know anyone, and now you’re supposed to start a life? We can assist with some of those difficulties and show the love of Christ.
As we show the love of Christ, we should also pray for opportunities to share the Gospel. If we aren’t living the gospel before them, though, our words will be empty and perhaps even harmful. We can pray for them and love them well. Ultimately, your compassionate acts of kindness and friendship can make a significant impact on the lives of immigrants in your community, reflecting the love of Christ.
Yes, this is a heated topic within our nation. But the love of Christ is never optional.
Cunningham, John T (2003), Ellis Island: Immigration's Shining Center, Arcadia Publishing, pp. 46–48,
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God commands us to show love to our neighbors and all people. Read more here.
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