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Immigration: Aliens & Jesus

by David Jordan

When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with 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 (Leviticus 19:33-34).

Someone said to me recently, “I am tired of all these illegal immigrants sneaking into our country, spreading crime, taking our jobs, freeloading on our schools and welfare system, and draining our economy…”

I can understand how it feels that way. Our current president likes to remind us often how beneficial a wall would be to keep “them” out and keep “us” safe. Yet, as with so much in our world, the issues are not that simple. The following facts from the Church World Service and Lutheran and Refugee Services (both very reputable sources you should check out) can help to broaden our perspectives.

  1. All immigrants pay taxes; even undocumented immigrants pay sales taxes and real estate taxes (either directly as homeowners or indirectly through rent) just like the rest of us. In addition, the Social Security Administration estimates that fifty to seventy-five percent of unauthorized immigrants pay federal, state, and local taxes, including Medicare. In 2005 alone, undocumented immigrants contributed more than six billion dollars in Social Security taxes that they can never benefit from, nor their families.[1] In other words, we benefit from their labor.
  2. Twenty-six million immigrants currently residing in the United States arrived after the age of eighteen and are in prime working age. They represent more than two and a half trillion dollars to the rest of us as U.S. taxpayers. Again, we receive the benefit of their labor without the cost of their education.[2]
  3. Undocumented immigrants can get emergency medical care for their children but cannot receive welfare, food stamps, or Social Security.[3]

From these statistics alone, we can see the complexities of this tough issue; we can deduce how unfair generalizations and angry finger pointing do little good and possibly, much harm. There are well-meaning people on both sides of this complicated conundrum. But, beyond the facts, there are biblical ramifications.

Just after the passage in Leviticus 19:18 that is so familiar—“Love your neighbor as you love yourself”—comes this: “Love the alien as you love yourself; for you were once aliens in the land of Egypt…” (Leviticus 19:34). The “alien” Leviticus refers to is one beyond the children of Israel.  They were, indeed, aliens, undocumented and probably considered illegal. Also, there is the undocumented immigrant that crops up at various times throughout scripture, both in the Hebrew scriptures (Old Testament) and then again, pointedly, in the New Testament. Here are just three examples:

  1. Jesus begins his life as an infant whose parents are fleeing a localized holocaust in Judea perpetrated by Herod the Great (Matthew 2). They leave Bethlehem and rush into Egypt without documentation where they are at the mercy of the Egyptians. Fortunately, the locals are willing to overlook the illegality of their presence, the drain on the local resources, and the illegitimacy of whatever employment Joseph, Jesus’ father, would find over the next two years.
  2. Later, in the midst of Jesus’ ministry, he tells one of his most famous parables about the hero who is an alien, hated, despised, and understood by many to be the suspected equivalent of a modern-day terrorist. The question is asked of Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life” (Luke 10:25). Jesus’ deft merging of Leviticus 19:18 (love neighbor) and 19:34 (love alien) in this story reveals that how we treat others—all others—carries much weight in the eyes of God.
  3. Finally, at the other end of Jesus’ life, there are some who conclude he died as an undocumented immigrant. Though Jewish and arrested in the Jewish capital of Jerusalem, his home was in Galilee, not officially a Roman province[4], as was Judea, though still a part of the Roman imperial system. Jesus wasn’t a Roman citizen and not legally a citizen of Judea. Consequently, it is said that he was killed outside of the walls of Jerusalem in a fashion and place reserved for criminals, outcasts—and aliens.

There are clearly problems with our current U.S. immigration system and the methods or lack thereof. But, in the ongoing debate, may we all seek to maintain a sense of decency and better perspective. Immigrants, documented and otherwise, have, do and will continue to contribute much to the richness of this land, its bounty, and its people. God cares tremendously about those who, like Jesus in Egypt at his beginning and Jerusalem at his death, are strangers in the land.

Charge yourself this week to gain understanding, sympathy, and empathy for those you would deem “aliens.”


PRAYER FOR THE WEEK: Help us, Lord, when issues are less clear than we would like; when tensions are high and patience is low, give us wisdom. Allow the vision to see through the haze of anger. and resentment. Let us seek your will and to stand for what is right, not simply what is convenient. Amen.


[1]Eduardo Porter, “Illegal Immigrants Are Bolstering Social Security with Billions,” New York Times, April 5, 2005.

[2]“It’s Tax Time! Immigrants and Taxes: Contributions to State and Federal Coffers,” Immigration Fact Check (Immigration Policy Center of the American Immigration Law Foundation, April 2008).

[3]“Separating Fact from Fiction: Refugees, Immigrants, and Public Benefits,” Immigration Fact Check (Immigration Policy Center of the American Immigration Law Foundation, September 8, 2008).

[4]Galilee was under the reign of the puppet Jewish king, Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great. Judea, on the other hand, was under the control of the Roman Prefect, Pontius Pilate.

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