There are an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. Responding to this influx represents a challenge to our nation—but it’s also a challenge to the Church of Jesus Christ. And it’s important that we consider the implications of this challenge in the context of God’s history with His people, perceptions about immigration, the reasons for it, and the appropriate Christian responses.

God Moves People for a Purpose

Mass people movements are the essence of world history and a primary shaper of civilizations. Scripture teaches that the sovereign God determines “the times set for [the nations] and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek Him and perhaps reach out for Him and find Him” (Acts 17:26-27). It follows that God Himself oversees migrations of peoples and individuals so that they serve His purposes. Consider God’s hand in moving Abram from Ur, the Exodus, the Magi, and even Jesus’ earthly family. While migrants may have their own reasons for coming to the U.S., such as poverty or persecution, Christians should remember God’s hand in determining where people live, understanding that His interests and the migrants’ may be at odds.

Experience Shapes Perceptions

We, as American Christians, react in diverse ways to the undocumented immigrants in our country. Some call for generalized deportations and military help to secure our borders. Others believe that our welcoming attitude toward all immigrants comprises the essence of what makes us “America.”

My opinions regarding the issues of immigration were no doubt shaped by the 20 years I served as senior pastor of Oaklawn Church (PCA) in Houston, where our membership underwent a metamorphosis from almost 100 percent “Anglo” to almost 100 percent Hispanic. I am disheartened by negative and unfair portrayals of the undocumented as violent, drug trafficking, welfare abusing tax evaders.

The facts expose many of these false stereotypes. Consider that:

  • 96 percent of undocumented men are employed. This makes them the most highly employed demographic group in the U.S.
  • Studies show Hispanic immigrants are being assimilated at a rate comparable to previous generations of Dutch and Italian immigrants, and that cultural characteristics quickly disappear in the second generation. For example, fatalism becomes self-determinism and indirect communication through a mediator becomes direct.
  • Language preference changes quickly to English in the second generation because of a large assimilation machine—the public schools.

Interestingly, Hispanics are more conservative than the average American by almost 20 percentage points on issues like abortion, homosexuality, and divorce, which causes them discomfort even as they rapidly acculturate (Pew Hispanic Center).

In a survey report regarding nine different studies, the Rand Corporation concluded that the costs of immigrants are impossible to establish. Those who view immigrants as a burden on public schools should understand that they do generate sales and property taxes. And when they are employed with false documentation, they do pay income taxes and Social Security tax, from which they will never benefit. In fact, The New York Times reported that the undocumented contribute $7 billion annually to Social Security.

Reasons for Mass Immigration

There are many reasons that people migrate from one country to another. As we think about those reasons, we should always ask, “What is God’s reason?” Not that there are any easy answers, but it helps to consider what God’s purposes might be. I often wonder if it is part of God’s plan to bring to America immigrants from countries with “traditional cultures” where there is a higher regard for human life, family, and reproduction than in other parts of the world. The U.S. (at 2.08 children per female) is following Europe (at 1.47) in its falling birthrate. A rate of 2.1 is required to simply maintain the population. Some 50 million abortions since 1973 contribute to the decline of births in the U.S. The days of which Francis Schaeffer—and Scripture—warned are now upon us: “everyone pursues his own peace and security.” Marrying and having children has become far less important than economic pursuits and personal fulfillment.

Demographer Calvin Beale comments that a society choosing not to replace itself is an unprecedented social choice. Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard University put it this way: “An affluent society that does not welcome babies is going to have to learn to welcome immigrants if it is to maintain its economic vigor and its commitment to the health and welfare of its population. The issue is not who will do the jobs that Americans don’t want. The issue is who will fill the ranks of a labor force that the retiring generation failed to replenish.”

It is only reasonable to recognize that immigrants are making a much-needed contribution by bringing social values worthy of our emulation, such as extended family support, respect for the elderly, high morals regarding divorce and abortion, and a strong work ethic.

Ignoring God’s directive—as the “enlightened,” materially prosperous cultures of Western society have—that man reproduce has a consequence. Suddenly, God’s command to cultivate the garden, honoring the dignity of both communication gifts (white collar) and service gifts (blue collar), takes on new meaning. It seems appropriate to acknowledge the strong contribution these immigrants are making to our economy.

Looking at things this way, our disposition toward the undocumented should be welcoming and grateful. They have come to our aid, and we have become dependent on them. They raise our crops, chicken, and tomatoes. They cook our food, wash our dishes, and build our houses. How blessed we are. This next generation will treat our wounds, teach our children, represent us in court, and preach the gospel to us.

In a recent hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg testified, “New York City is home to more than three million immigrants, and 500,000 of them came to this country illegally. Although they broke the law by illegally crossing our borders … our city’s economy would be a shell of itself had they not, and it would collapse if they were deported,” he said. “The same holds true for the nation.” I’m confident that the mayor of every major city in the U.S. would say the same thing, as might the mayors of small towns like Dalton, Ga., which are increasingly becoming home to a large immigrant population.

The Law of Subjection

The biblical duty to obey governing authorities is usually the first point mentioned when the subject of undocumented immigrants surfaces. Honesty requires that we also consider the message the governing authorities are sending regarding laws that are on the books but enforced almost at random, it seems.

More than 485,000 unskilled, unauthorized migrants come to the U.S. every year to fill available jobs (Pew Hispanic Center). With only limited visas available, corruption follows. Businesses knowingly hire them and an underground network provides fraudulent documentation. Felony trafficking of human life is inevitable. To say that this is disconcerting to Americans, who historically pride themselves on respect for legal values, is a huge understatement.

Clearly, the law must be obeyed. Just as clearly a law which is mostly ignored—the violations of which are not only accepted but institutionalized—must be changed. The deportation of 11 million people, equivalent to the populations of Chicago and New York combined, is not feasible. Nor would it be humane. Yet in the interest of national security the borders must be monitored more effectively. The technology to do this is already available. It is fair to ask if walls are archaic, if they send the right messages, or if they are effective. Migrants seem to go around or under walls and even come via the seas, from north or south.

Legislation currently being considered by the U.S. Congress would greatly expand work visas to take pressure off of businesses and immigrants in hiding, while making the undocumented comply with much stricter rules during their stays in the U.S. This is not to say that immigrants are not responsible to do everything they can to pursue legal channels to legitimize their status: They are. Nor that leaders of our southern neighbors are not responsible to pursue economic policies and personal stewardship that would stimulate the creation of living-wage jobs for their citizens: They are also.

Mercy – The Law of Love

As Christians, we also have a duty to love our neighbors as ourselves. How else can this duty be fulfilled but by providing food, clothing, drink—and the gospel? By doing so, as we know, we express love to Christ Himself. “Whatsoever you do to least of my brothers … .” Scripture requires subjugation to authority and love to our neighbor, to strangers in particular (Exodus 22:21; Leviticus 19:9,10; Hebrews 13:2; 1 Peter 2:11 and Ephesians 2:14,19).

This tension opens up complex questions well beyond the scope of this essay. Yet, in brief, when we ask what parts of the Old Testament are binding for all time, all Christians and every nation, the following considerations are appropriate.

Motive. The motive given in Exodus 22:21 for showing love and compassion to aliens is that the Israelites were disadvantaged aliens in Egypt for 430 years and now enjoy a special status of grace. The standard and universal application made in the New Testament is this: that we were once “aliens” to grace. And that now, under grace, as aliens in this world, we should show compassion to any person who might be disadvantaged or marginalized.

General equity. This helpful principle, from the Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 19.4, considers the issue of the “expiration” of judicial laws given to Israel. When the distinction between moral and civil law is blurred so that it is difficult to distinguish between the two, it is fair to say that if the law in question is a matter of simple justice, then it meets the Christian standard. That is to say, a particular civil law is moral. See John Frame’s Doctrine of the Christian Life (not published).

The fact that the New Testament makes hospitality to strangers a mandate (Hebrews 13:2) implies that justice to (Deuteronomy 22:21 and Exodus 12:21) and compassion for (Leviticus 19:9,10) them are also Christian standards. All Christians and nations are subject to this law of compassion.

Priorities. In determining any standard, it is generally understood that within any system of laws some elements are more important, and more pressing, than others. Jesus speaks to weightier matters of the law, namely justice, mercy, and faithfulness (Matthew 23:23). John Frame emphasizes that in real life there are situational priorities or emergencies. This is not relativism, but a considering of God’s priorities within His own system of laws. For example, after Hurricane Katrina, parents who used fresh water and diapers from flood-damaged stores were not prosecuted as thieves.

Clear biblical principles emerge from this mandate to love because of the grace shown to us, and its specific application to the marginalized and disadvantaged throughout the Bible. Creative applications are being made by thousands of churches.

Justice. The weak and the helpless need special protection and care. People who by their position, status, and language are disadvantaged are potential victims of the established and powerful. Special care in Israel was to be taken to do the alien no judicial wrong (Deuteronomy 24:17; 27:19). In criminal law, the same rules protected aliens and natives alike (Leviticus 18:26). For example, it is fully Christian to advise an undocumented person to hire a lawyer, to recommend a lawyer, and to take him to a lawyer who provides pro bono immigration help, such as Catholic Charities.

Compassion. Aliens, as well as other disadvantaged people, should be shown acts of kindness and physical provision as a reflection of the character of God—Who shows no partiality. One purpose of the tithe in the Old Testament was to aid the alien (Deuteronomy 26:12). Provision was also made for the alien to participate in gleanings and forgotten sheaves (Leviticus 19:10; 23:22). For example, in our churches the same diaconal services—food, clothing, language instructions, etc.—can be offered to undocumented immigrants without legal concern. Our neighboring Catholic church offers medical assistance to more than 100 undocumented persons every week. PCA churches seem to struggle unnecessarily with the appropriateness of this kindness.

The poor deserve special consideration. Numerous directives are given in Scripture to care for and defend the poor (Psalm 72:12-14). Since many immigrants live in abject poverty in their home countries, and even minimum wage jobs here allow them to live like kings by comparison, this makes them a special concern for Christian compassion. At our church in Key Biscayne we hosted a Cinco de Mayo celebration to assist children of migrant farm workers.

Evangelism. God longs to reach the alien with His love and grace. In Israel, if the alien was willing, he was extended full religious privilege (Exodus 12:43-45). He was to rest on the Sabbath (Exodus 20:10), observe the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:29), keep the Passover if he underwent circumcision (Leviticus 12:48), and offer sacrifices (Leviticus 17:8). So in our age of the gospel and grace, every opportunity should be taken to befriend, love, and bring the undocumented into a living relationship with Jesus Christ. It is noteworthy and applicable that the apostle Paul discipled to maturity runaway slave Onesimus before sending him to his owner Philemon with his status upgraded from slave to brother. Our duty to evangelize is not impacted by the legal status of the persons we are trying to reach for Christ.

In summary, it is not un-Christian to say that immigration laws should be changed and enforced consistent with today’s realities. It can be argued—as I do—that this would be the “most Christian” response to the legal aspects of this issue. Our disposition should be one of hospitality to the new immigrants—appreciating their contributions to our society and serving them with Christ’s mercy and protection. Rather than being threatened by their presence, we should maximize the opportunity God has provided. It’s hard to imagine a more strategic disciple-making opportunity.

ByFaith asked four pastors and missionaries, all of them with years of experience with Hispanic immigrants this question: How should the fact that illegal immigrants have knowing broken the law affect our attitudes toward them?  Read their answers here.

David Moran pastored in a nearly 100% Latin community in Houston, TX for nearly 20 years, establishing congregations in both Spanish and English. He currently pastors Key Biscayne Presbyterian Church, and assists in equipping Latin American pastoral leadership through Miami International Seminary.