Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on efcatoday.org as part of a series of articles on this issue. Permission was given by the moderator to repost.
In dealing with undocumented immigrants, some contend that the only proper policy is to abide by the letter of the law—simply send them back to their home country—because anything we do to help them remain here undermines the God-given authority of the state. On the other side are those who contend that because of its checkered history and its inconsistent application, the law itself is inherently unjust. Also, because of the strong biblical injunction to minister to the needy, Christians ought to actively resist the law by giving sanctuary to the undocumented. Without addressing the broader topic of U.S. immigration policy or the question of whether current immigration law is fair or even coherent, let me suggest how I have wrestled with this difficult and complex issue in the context of local church ministry.
In suburban Washington, D.C., our local public high school serves students from homes where more than 50 different languages are spoken. So I have significant contact with immigrants to this country. I assume many do not have proper documentation.
In fact, three years ago our church hosted a conference in conjunction with the African Immigration Resource Center and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. It focused on informing those in the immigrant community of their rights and responsibilities. The chief CIS officer in the Washington area spoke, and with his support, both documented and undocumented immigrants were encouraged to attend.
I am familiar with the law and with the real needs of many who have undocumented status, and I struggle with how to respect both. I have concluded that in ministering to these people, it is not my duty to report any undocumented immigrants to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, nor, in most cases, do I feel compelled to urge them to turn themselves in to authorities or to return to their home country.
As a primary consideration for this position, I contend that the commands of Scripture to care for those in need are strong and clear. In fact, specific mention is made of the immigrant or alien: The Lord “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” (Deuteronomy 10:18-19; cf. also, e.g., Exodus 22:21; 23:9; Leviticus 19:34; Zechariah 7:10; Malachi 3:5).
Jesus Himself urges us to care for “His brothers” when they appear to us as the hungry, the naked, the stranger and the imprisoned (Matthew 25:31-46). The Good Samaritan serves as our example: He asked no questions about the identity or status of the half-dead man he encountered on the road (Luke 10:25-37).
Moreover, Jesus was critical of those whose strict interpretation of the law prevented them from acting mercifully toward those in need (cf., e.g., Luke 13:10-17). The biblical command is to love your neighbor–whoever that may be–as yourself.
But does Paul’s admonition to obey the governing authorities–and by extension, U.S. immigration law–provide a prohibition overriding this biblical mandate? Does caring for the undocumented immigrant show a disregard for the law of the land?
I don’t think so. I say that because of both what the law actually says and how it actually functions. First, the law specifies that no individual citizen, hospital, or school has a duty to report someone known to be an undocumented immigrant. In most jurisdictions, even law-enforcement officers cannot inquire about immigration status unless a person has been stopped or arrested for some other cause. Further, the state has declared that undocumented immigrants have a right to a minimal level of health care and to a public education. These are seen by the state as more important than preventing undocumented immigrants from living in this country. Shouldn’t the church’s ministry of the gospel to such people also fall under this same rubric?
It is also important to consider several mitigating factors related to the law. First, living as an immigrant without the permission of the state is not in itself contrary to some divine law (In legal terms, it is not an intrinsically evil act, a malum in se.). It is wrong only because the state has prohibited it (That is, it is amalum prohibitum). In that sense, it is like a speed limit, and like speeding, living as an undocumented immigrant is only a civil and not a criminal offense.
Second, our understanding of exactly what the state prohibits in a law must also be related to the way the state chooses to enforce that law. So, for example, the law may prohibit driving over 55 mph, but many of us feel free to drive 58 mph—first, because we find nothing intrinsically wrong with driving at that speed; and second, because we know that we will not get a ticket if we do so. The law is defined, in practice, by the boundaries of its enforcement.
In our present context, the Department of Homeland Security does not commonly deport those who are undocumented unless they commit some crime. Though legally subject to deportation, law-abiding undocumented immigrants are, de facto, allowed to stay, even though not all benefits of citizenship are available to them. It is significant that the IRS will give tax identification numbers to undocumented immigrants so they can pay taxes, while not sharing that information with the Department of Homeland Security.
Yes, Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon, but that tells us nothing about Paul’s attitude toward Roman law on the subject of returning runaway slaves. Paul treats this as a matter of restoring a broken relationship between believers. Moreover, for Paul, this was more than a merely legal issue. He injected himself into the situation to mitigate any hardship that Onesimus may encounter.
Such compassion for the human element is also essential as we deal with undocumented immigrants. Our paramount concern must be with immigrants as persons—those who are created in the divine image and often come to this country in great need and at great personal cost. If we simply demand that the letter of law be enforced, we may find ourselves to be the object of Jesus’ rebuke toward those who give a tenth of their spices but neglect the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness (Matthew 23:23).
In sum, the Bible clearly calls us to act with compassion—a compassion that includes ministering to the physical and spiritual needs of the most vulnerable among us—unless prohibited from doing so by some explicit and overriding biblical mandate. Yes, we should obey the laws of the state, but in my mind, the current U.S. law rightly understood—appreciating its actual implementation—does not provide such a clear prohibition. Paul’s admonition obligates us to submit to the law, including immigration law, as the government defines and enforces it, but we do not have an obligation (or even a right) to enlarge the law or its enforcement beyond what the government prescribes and models.
I will respect the law, and I will also continue to seek to imitate my Father in heaven, who “loves the foreigner residing among you, giving [him] food and clothing” (Deuteronomy 10:18; cf. Matthew 5:43-48; Ephesians 5:1).
Bill Kynes is pastor of Cornerstone EFC in Annandale, Va. Bill’s interest in ministering to the immigrant community began when a Sudanese pastor became a part of his church almost 15 years ago.
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