We are in the closing days of National Migration Week (Jan. 8-14), the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ annual period focused on reflecting on the lives of immigrants and refugees. This year’s celebration is particularly timely because in only a matter of days, Donald Trump—who as a candidate proposed harsh measures for deporting undocumented immigrants, promised to cut back on the United States’ acceptance of refugees, and even vowed to restrict legal immigration to the U.S.—will be inaugurated as president.
One of the purposes of National Migration Week is to encourage Catholics to reflect on the issue of migration in light of our faith. Along those lines, John Gehring, the Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, recently wrote an op-ed for Religious News Service making the case that Attorney General nominee Senator Jeff Sessions’s use of his Christian faith to defend his restrictionist immigration views is unjustified, given the Scriptures’ call “to defend and protect the stranger.”
In response, James K. Hoffmeier, a professor of Old Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, wrote to defend Sessions’ views. The heart of Hoffmeier’s argument is that while the Bible does indeed call us to welcome the stranger, we must first understand what it means by the term “stranger.” He points out that the Old Testament in fact has three Hebrew terms for foreigners: ger, which is the word translated as “stranger” or “alien,” which refers to a foreigner seeking residence in Israel; nekhar, a foreigner passing through a foreign country without seeking residence; and zar, used to refer to a foreign enemy. He argues that “The ‘ger’ alone has obtained legal status to live in a different country and might be seen as a foreigner who has become a ‘protected citizen,’” whereas today’s undocumented immigrant is more like the nekhar, who did not have the same rights as the ger in Israelite law.
Hoffmeier is certainly right that we must carefully distinguish terms that could easily be confused. But his argument about undocumented immigrants falls apart, even on its own terms. For one, the distinction Hoffmeier draws between the ger and the nekhar—that the former seeks residence in Israel, while the latter are just passing through—has nothing to do with what distinguishes legal immigrants from undocumented immigrants. The overwhelming majority of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. came here to live and work, and were simply unable to do so either because of ineligibility for the visas available (which require either family connections or a work sponsor) or because of the costs involved.
As Hoffmeier notes, it is difficult to draw exact parallels between ancient Israelite society and our own, but that being said, U.S. law has several categories of people who much better fit the definition of a nekhar than do undocumented immigrants: tourists, business travelers, international students, and temporary workers. Each of these are clearly people just passing through, who do not have the same rights as legal residents or U.S. citizens. In fact, interestingly enough, United States law reserves the term “immigrant” for someone seeking to reside in the U.S., whereas these other classes of people come to the U.S. on “nonimmigrant visas.” On the other hand, the undocumented are referred to as “unauthorized immigrants” in Department of Homeland Security documents.
Second, the biblical distinction between the ger and the nekhar, despite Hoffmeier’s claim, also has nothing to do with whether the foreigner has “legal status” or is documented. As Hoffmeier himself admits, both the ger and the nekhar are legally recognized in Israelite law, despite having different rights under the law. The nekhar was not in violation of the law simply by being present in Israel, and the Bible never records anyone being deported from Israel simply for being a nekhar.
The only evidence Hoffmeier gives that in ancient Israel foreigners were expected to gain “legal status” before residing in the country is the story of when Jacob’s sons come to Egypt in the midst of a famine in Israel, seeking permission from the Pharaoh to settle in his land (Gen. 47:3-6). Yet this is an extremely odd argument. For one, just as a matter of logic, the Pharaoh, as ruler of Egypt, was not governed by the laws of Israel, so it is not clear how this could be an example of how Israelite law governed foreigners.
Second, as any student of the Bible should know, God designed his covenant with Israel so that its commandments were in explicit contrast with the ways of Egypt, and the temptations faced by the Israelites are often described as a return to idolatry and the ways of Egypt. This is exactly how God’s commandment regarding “strangers” puts it:
When a stranger [ger] sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. (Lv. 19:33-34, RSV)
The commandment is clearly contrasted with the ways of Egypt, and the last clause testifies that this is a matter of covenant loyalty, that disobedience is a form of idolatry. Perhaps not coincidentally, Hoffmeier cites this passage but leaves off the last two clauses. The Pharaoh’s decision to give refuge to Jacob’s family was certainly merciful, but the fact that their “legal status” depended on the arbitrary whims of the ruler is what opened the door for their later enslavement. As the passage cited above makes clear, the Israelites were “strangers” worthy of love and respect in God’s eyes regardless of their status according to Pharaoh. This commandment makes clear that God is sovereign, that vulnerable persons like the ger belong to God first all, and to determine their legal status based on the arbitrary dictates of a ruler is a form of idolatry, of putting human authority in the place of God’s authority.
Hoffmeier accuses the Catholic Church and other churches with similar views on immigration of promoting “open borders and amnesty.” But Catholic teaching (for example, in the U.S. bishops’ statement on immigration, Strangers No Longer) asserts the right of nations to control their borders. It also affirms, however, that they must do so in pursuit of the true common good, which must affirm the fundamental dignity of every human person. As my analysis above indicates, the biblical witness (as well as more recent Catholic teaching) is clear that this includes providing welcome for people seeking refuge from violence or economic deprivation. That is why the U.S. bishops have consistently advocated for expanding the opportunities for legal immigration to the U.S., which incidentally would decrease the incentives for illegally immigrating. They have also advocated for providing a path for undocumented immigrants to gain legal status while paying certain penalties such as back taxes or a fine, so the charge of supporting “amnesty” rings hollow.
Hoffmeier is right that as Christians, we must draw on the Scriptures as we reflect on public policy, but must read it carefully and contextually. As his argument on immigration shows, however, even a contextualized reading can be used as proof texting for a contemporary political position that the Bible itself describes as idolatrous.
Matthew A. Shadle is Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia. He has published The Origins of War: A Catholic Perspective (Georgetown, 2011). His work focuses on the development of Catholic social teaching and its intersection with both fundamental moral theology and the social sciences, with special focus on war and peace, the economy, and immigration.