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3 Reasons Christians Shouldn’t Call Immigrants ‘Illegal’

It is nearly impossible to talk about immigration in the church, especially in the South.

While speaking with a pastor about beginning immigrant legal ministries in churches, his comment to me was, “I don’t see you starting this kind of ministry in any typical white church without causing division.” For clarity, this was a white pastor who said this.

As I speak about immigrant ministries, one of the main differentiations people make is between “legal” and “illegal” immigrants.

Aside from the semantics and ethics of calling a human being “legal” or “illegal,” a Christian simply should not start here.

Whether or not someone has proper documentation should be irrelevant to our desire to fellowship with them, to share our abundant resources in love and to fight for and defend their dignity.

Let me share with you three reasons Christians should just stop talking about immigrants this way:

1. We’re Christians before we’re Americans.

My allegiance will always be to Christ and to God’s Kingdom before any worldly authority. Because that is the case, my citizenship extends beyond the borders of the United States.

In many ways, those very borders are antithetical to the gospel of Jesus. The imaginary lines that divide people from one another is one of the very things the good news of Jesus was supposed to erase.

Just look at Ephesians 2:14 where Paul writes to the Gentiles, the foreigners who were once kept at arms’ length. They were the others – the ones the Jews didn’t let come too close because they were too different.

To them Paul writes, “For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”

Proclaiming the gospel means proclaiming the truth that in God’s kingdom, whatever lines that divide us are to be done away with.

So to say I’m Christian before I’m an American means that the dividing line between me as American and them as immigrant is simply unimportant.

I am to love them, share life with them and defend them regardless of their status before the government.

2. The Bible is full of mandates to care for “aliens,” and it doesn’t tell us to ask for their papers first.

One can find exhaustive lists of Scriptures that speak about this, so there’s no need for me to put one here. Suffice it to say that the Bible is very clear on this matter.

We are to take care of the aliens, the strangers, the sojourners in our midst. And it is often rooted in this truth: because we too were strangers.

For the Israelites, they were to take care of the aliens because they too were aliens in Egypt. For the Christians in the New Testament, they are to take care of the outsider, the stranger, because we too were outsiders and strangers until the gospel brought us in.

What is lacking from this is any concern for how the governments viewed the outsiders.

First of all, controlling immigration as we do now is an extremely recent phenomenon in world history.

For those who claim, “Well, my ancestors came here legally,” it’s probably because the only requirement to immigrate legally was to have your name written down in an entry log.

That aside, the Bible simply doesn’t talk about this.

As a matter of fact, to bring this into the debate is to lose the argument altogether because the Bible mandates that we care for the alien and the stranger, and the minute we start drawing lines between which alien we can care for, we’ve begun drawing lines that Jesus himself will work vigorously to erase.

3. Romans 13 does not apply, at least not the way you think it does.

Almost always this passage is brought up to say, “Well, Paul says we should obey governments and their laws. Immigrants should come here legally or not come here at all.”

Let me point out first that Paul wrote that to the church in Rome, the same Rome that later killed him. Empires generally don’t kill people who refuse to make waves. Your interpretation of that passage may need a little more nuance.

For space, however, let it suffice here to point out that in the Gospels, when there was a conflict between being faithful to the law and helping our fellow humans thrive, helping others thrive always wins.

Whether it’s the disciples plucking grain or Jesus healing someone on the Sabbath, what was best for people won out over the law.

Fast forward to us today, and the vast majority of those who are here without proper documentation are being harmed by the law. In most instances, they came here because life was unbearable if not impossible in their home countries.

Our immigration laws would not allow them to come here with documents so they risked their lives to get here, and still they suffer under unjust laws that deny them their dignity, that deny them work and that deny them proper education.

So which is more important, my faithfulness to a law or to the human beings who are trying to put food on the table for their families?

So please, Christians, stop talking about whether an immigrant has or does not have documentation to be in this country.

We’re to love them, fellowship with them and help them regardless. To talk about it is to simply give credence to the false narrative that the world is trying to sell us – that there is something intrinsically different between us and them.

Blake Hart is missions coordinator at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of South Carolina. A version of this article first appeared on his blog and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @blake_hart.