The Next Big Religion Issue: Immigration

Judging by the number of items on the subject carried by Faith in Public Life’s news reel, immigration is the next item on the progressive faith agenda. Personally, I’d rather we kept an eye on financial reform as it shapes up in Congress, but nobody asks me.

All the the churches are excited about immigration: you can’t go over to Sojourners without stumbling across at least one immigration-related story. Leaders of the Disciples of Christ and the Episcopal church are behind immigration reform; so are the Methodists, and various Catholics and Jews and Presbyterians and Evangelicals. The United Church of Christ, too, but nobody asks them, either. Leaders of the ecumenical immigration reform movement even scored a coveted White House meeting, so you have to know somebody in the corridors of power thinks a religious blessing is important here.

The last time we tried immigration reform, religious activists were heavily involved, too. Somebody asked me back then why immigration appealed to such a broad range of religious voices.

The answer is relatively straightforward. Working from cynical up, it’s in most denominations’ interest to appeal to immigrants, given current demographic realities. But there are also scriptural imperatives to do justice or to practice hospitality.

Most of all, though, immigration is one subject on which the Bible is very, very clear. As Anthony Robinson says,

The overall theme of the Bible’s teaching is summed up in Exodus 22:21, “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”

That’s pretty much it. Being an “alien” (the Bible’s term for a migrant) is a part of the Israelite identity. Abraham was a migrant, Joseph was a migrant (albeit unwillingly), Moses was a political refugee, Ruth was an economic refugee, virtually the entire nation was sent off into exile in Babylon, and so on and so forth. Because of all these experiences, the law became quite clear: treat immigrants well, because you used to be one.

In the New Testament, Jesus’ family flee to Egypt to escape Herod’s persecution, Paul spends most of his time shuttling from country to country within the Roman empire, and the Gospels are chock-full of characters from foreign lands who come to meet or be healed by Jesus. Some epistle texts go so far as to address Christians as exiles or temporary guests in the foreign land of the world. Like the Old Testament, there’s an element in Greek scripture of fulfilling God’s commandments, but there is also an element of identity at work. Christians ought to treat immigrants well because God tells them to do so, but also because they are citizens of the heavenly city sojourning on Earth for the time being.

What you won’t find in scripture are calls for migrants to go home or stop taking the job of real Israelites or calls to build bigger and better fences to keep them out. Security and indeed abiding by law in modern senses don’t seem to enter into the equation. Scripture generally takes migration for granted, and encourages hospitality, about what you’d expect from the holy text of a tribal, semi-settled culture.

According to a new poll from Public Religion Research Institute, a surprising number of religious Americans are behind immigration reform. With that broad support and a progressive base that seems reenergized by the success of health care reform, this really might be the best shot for new immigration policy in a long while.

I suspect that the question will turn on whether opponents can appeal to a certain xenophobic, authoritarian streak in voters. To put things bluntly, if immigration reform is about fair play and equal treatment under the law, it will succeed. If it’s about brown skin, it has much less of a chance, scriptural warrant or not. I don’t know if anti-immigration activists will succeed in making the debate a referendum on race, but recent history suggests they’ll try.

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