No Human Is Illegal


This third phrase of the Secular Creed, No Human Is Illegal, is concerned with the ethics of immigration and, particularly, the ethical treatment of immigrants. This is a topic that is dear to my heart. Although I am not an immigrant, I do know the experience of being a foreigner in a country not my own who is dependent upon the hospitality of strangers, but more significantly, my wife is now a naturalized citizen of the United States, having immigrated from Colombia. My daughter is Colombian-American in the truest sense of the word, passing between English and Spanish far better than any of us adults and truly being at home in both Colombian and American cultures. My family by marriage are those who have made their new home in a land foreign to them, and my home has lodged sojourners from across the globe. Thus, the discussion of immigration, for me, is not theoretical but actual. Nevertheless, like Black Lives Matter and Women’s Rights Are Human Rights, while I am more than able to affirm the statement No Human Is Illegal, it is often rooted in ideologies that have only the appearance of godliness rather than the substance.

WHAT CAN WE AFFIRM?

As we begin to discuss the biblical stance on immigration, we will need to address at least three points: the origin and end of nations, their sovereignty and authority, and showing hospitality to the sojourner and foreigner.

Because immigration is traveling from one nation to another nation, our study must be rooted in the biblical understanding of nation-states. For this, Genesis 10-11 are foundational texts. Genesis 10 is often called the Table of Nations as it discusses how the nations of the earth originated from the lineage of Noah’s three sons: Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Genesis 11, however, is the origin story for how those divisions came to be. There, as we have already briefly discussed, all of humanity were together and spoke the same language, and rather than filling the earth as they were commanded to do (Genesis 1:28), they built a mighty tower as both a monument to their greatness and as a point of unity to keep them from dispersing across the earth. God responded to their blatant rebellion by confusing their languages and dispersing them upon the earth. Thus, nations were born, and humanity has never been truly united ever since.

However, as we mentioned when discussing ethnicities, God’s plan is not to erase the nations of the earth in the end. Instead, He will be glorified through uniting the nations together in diverse community under the rule and reign of Jesus Christ as King and Lord. In John’s vision of the new earth (which is the eternal state for God’s people), he sees the nations as walking in the visible glory of God (Revelation 21:24). Thus, even upon the new earth, nations will still exist and be distinguished from one another, but they will be united together under the banner of Christ the King.

 With this understanding in mind, we should now consider the role that God has for the nations, namely the sovereignty and authority that He gives to them. Of course, whenever we speak of sovereignty and authority, we must first be reminded that God alone is the absolute sovereign authority. However, from this ontological reality, Paul teaches the following in Romans 13:1-7:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.

God, as the Authority, has granted authority to the governments of the earth to enact justice and to maintain order. Indeed, when Paul remarks that God has given the sword to governing authorities, he is affirming that governments have the right to enforce law and order, even through lethal action if necessary. The question then naturally arises: But what about evil and corrupt governments, especially since Paul and most the apostles were executed by the “sword” of Rome? I agree with R. C. Sproul that even wicked governments are better than pure anarchy:

Pure anarchy is the law of the jungle that God abhors. God Himself stands behind world governments, using them for His ends and for His glory. He uses them primarily as instruments to restrain the power of evil. No matter how evil that government may be, things could conceivably be worse. If God removed all human restraints, our lives would become intolerable. Therefore, He has instituted government and given that government the sword of force to which we are called to righteously submit whenever possible.[1]

Putting these things together, we can certainly conclude that both forming and enforcing immigration policies are within the divinely instituted authority of every nation. We may certainly debate the nature of those policies and of their enforcement, especially within a nation “of the people” as the United States is; however, as Christians, we must acknowledge that both are well within the authority which God has granted to the nations of the earth for enacting the good of their people.

Finally, we must briefly consider what the Bible has to say about our treatment of immigrants. The language that Scripture uses for an immigrant is typically either sojourner or stranger (or foreigner). Both describe a person who is in a nation that is not their own; however, the term sojourner implies only a temporary stay, whereas stranger or foreigner connotes one who takes up permanent residence in a foreign land. The laws of the Old Testament have much to say about how God’s people were to treat the sojourner and the stranger, almost always reminding them that they were once sojourners in Egypt (i.e., Exodus 22:21, 23:9; Leviticus 19:33-34). Furthermore, the Scriptures often place the sojourner into the same category as widows and orphans as being among the most vulnerable in society and, therefore, needing the most intentional care (i.e., Deuteronomy 27:19; Jeremiah 7:5-7; Zechariah 7:9-10; Malachi 3:5). The New Testament also commands us to show hospitality (even making it a qualification for church elders).

Therefore, the biblical response to immigration is that national governments have the authority to create and enforce immigration policies for the good of their people, while as Christians, we must be ready to show hospitality and to care for sojourners and foreigners around us. All of this means that we can affirm that no human is illegal, yet it is still possible for humans to perform illegal actions.

WHAT MUST WE DENY?

Without diving into particulars of immigration policies upon which we may freely disagree with one another, let us address some general cultural sentiments that seem to frequently attach themselves onto phrases like this one, which we must deny.

First, there is an increasingly popular view that the best solution to resolve injustices committed against immigrants is to have open borders between countries. Like the Black Lives Matter organization’s demand for the defunding of the police, this view demands the abolition of immigration policies altogether. While both may sound noble, they both depend upon a devastatingly unrealistic optimism of humanity. Such actions are essentially attempting to remove the government’s “sword” entirely, which inevitably must result in anarchy. Unfiltered and unhindered immigration will never lead to the security and betterment of that government’s own people.

An often-used analogy is helpful here. I lock my home at night and while no one is home to prevent strangers from coming in and helping themselves to our things. Such a policy of security, however, does not mean that my family is against anyone entering our house at all. Not at all! As I mentioned at the beginning, we have happily had many people stay in our house for extended periods of time throughout the years. In other words, I lock my house door because I want to know and control who I let into my home and near my wife and child, and I do so because it is my responsibility as a husband and a father to care first and foremost for my own family. Governments have a similar responsibility to protect their people, and immigration policies and enforcement (when working properly) act as a sort of door lock for the country as a whole.

More importantly, however, the notion of open borders runs contrary to the biblical presentation of nation-states. Such a view presumes the inherent goodness of humanity and desires a united world without the division of nations, but as we have seen, there will still be nations in some fashion under Christ’s reign upon the new earth. Indeed, any attempt to unite humanity together under anything other than the gospel is only following the pattern of Babel. Unity itself is not an inherent good, and the presumption that peace and unity can ever be globally achieved apart from the gospel is prideful rejection of God’s design.

Second, the phrase before us attempts to convert an ethical and legal issue into an ontological issue. Allow me to explain. To enter a country illegally is, returning to our previous analogy, like breaking into someone’s house. The trespasser may have no intent to harm anyone and only a desperation for a glass of water and morsel of bread. Upon arriving at home, I may have sympathy upon the intruder and help him further. However, the fact remains the same that breaking-and-entering is an illegal activity, whether one actually faces a penalty for the crime or not. Illegal immigration functions in much the same way. Entering or staying in a country illegally is morally a sin and legally a crime, which a person may commit. Yet by saying no human is illegal, the discussion moves into the ontological domain, which is the study of being. The discussion is no longer about what someone does but rather what that person is. This raises the stakes a great deal. To declare openly your belief that illegal immigration does not make the human being illegal who committed the action is an implicit confession that you believe a sizable portion of society does view immigrants themselves as illegal. Of course, there are likely people who would view illegal immigration as the defining characteristic of that person; however, I believe that the vast majority would feel very similarly to how Proverbs 6:30-31 describes a thief who steals out of hunger. Nearly everyone can sympathize with such a situation, understanding the desperation of the thief, yet he still must pay back what he stole if he is caught. In the same way, it is more than possible to understand and sympathize with the desperation that causes many to cross borders illegally, while still clearly calling the action illegal. This issue is legal and ethical, not ontological; therefore, it does not need to be treated as though it is the predominate characteristic of an individual.

Finally, piggybacking onto the previous two points, appeals for immigration reform seem to generally go hand-in-hand with the belief (whether conscious or subconscious) that the empowering the state will enhance society. Such a belief is quite unhelpful.[2] You see, if only radical changes to and from the government can truly effect changes in society, then the most valuable good work is activism, calling for policy changes and the like. Rather than actually serving the poor and helping the needy, time is spent telling the government to do so, which is the far easier thing to do. Opening your home and providing for others is messy business; demanding the government to care for them is less intrusive to our personal lives while still feeling as if we have done something. Yet when have governments ever been mighty engines of compassion and efficiency? Indeed, the greatest changes almost never come from politicians; they come from ordinary people showing extraordinary compassion. Thus, we should only expect the state to protect its people and enforce justice; it is our responsibility as citizens to show compassion to the foreigner and sojourner.

As Christians, we must both pray for and submit to the authority our nation, which means that we aim to obey its laws so far as they do not oppose God’s commands. We, likewise, recognize the authority of all nations to fence who is able to pass into and, especially, become a citizen. As we honor these authorities that God has established, we must also actively show love and compassion to the sojourners among us, reflecting the heart of Christ to those nearby. This is the beauty how the gospel transforms. Let us forsake the mere appearance of godliness and actually imitate our Lord.  


[1] R. C. Sproul, Making a Difference: Impacting Culture and Society as a Christian, 214.

[2] It also runs far deeper than simply pertaining to immigration.

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