Biblical Borders: National Sovereignty & Immigration
Updated: Feb 3
Compassion is a biblical virtue and command for individuals, but when it comes to government, scriptural instruction is decidedly more focused on justice and security. When we conflate the role of government with the individual or the church, we arrive at rather unbiblical conclusions which often result from reading passages very divorced from their textual and historical contexts. Such is the case with the modern debate about national borders—biblical texts are trotted out which supposedly support unlimited immigration without any regard to the historical reality of ancient Israel. The argument implies that enforcing borders and limiting immigration is immoral, as well as anyone who argues otherwise. The truth however, is that scripture argues no such thing.
The Biblical Texts
When the issue of national sovereignty and border enforcement arise, many in the church immediately point to Old Testament passages which seem to indicate that borders are evil and anyone who wants to enforce them at best lack compassion, and at worst are racists. Before we get into the merit and logic of the arguments however, let us first simply cover the relevant texts. There are several descriptive texts such as Gen 12:1, Gen 12:10, Deut 10:18, Deut 26:5, Psa 146:9, and Mat 2:13-15, but they don't necessarily prescribe what attitudes or behavior should be practiced. Some of them certainly describe God's heart for strangers or foreigners, but of course these sentiments apply to all people, not just immigrants. However, other passages are much more clear commands, so let's move on to those.
1. Legal Justice These passages prescribe certain legal protections for foreigners (often translated as strangers) living in Israel, in that they are subject to the same law that citizens are.
The same law shall apply to the native as to the stranger who sojourns among you. -Exo 12:49
There shall be one standard for you; it shall be for the stranger as well as the native, for I am the Lord your God. -Lev 24:22
Cursed is he who distorts the justice due an alien, orphan, and widow. And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’ -Deut 27:19 NASB*
You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. -Exo 22:21 (and 23:9)
When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God. -Lev 19:33-34
For if you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly practice justice between a man and his neighbor, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place, nor walk after other gods to your own ruin, then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers forever and ever. -Jer 7:5-7
Thus has the Lord of hosts said, ‘Dispense true justice and practice kindness and compassion each to his brother; and do not oppress the widow or the orphan, the stranger or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another. -Zec 7:9-10
2. General Attitude
These passages instruct what personal attitude we should have toward the foreigner living among us.
So show your love for the alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. -Deut 10:19
Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it. -Heb 13:2
3. Personal Charity
These passages treat foreigners the same as poor citizens as both were often in need of charity to get established and on their feet.
When you reap the harvest of your land, moreover, you shall not reap to the very corners of your field nor gather the gleaning of your harvest; you are to leave them for the needy and the alien. I am the Lord your God. -Lev 23:22 (and Deut 24:19-22)
For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in... -Mat 25:35
The problem is that while scripture does indeed have passages which are aimed at instructing individuals in their treatment of foreigners, there are not corresponding clear or obvious passages which dictate governmental immigration policy. We know foreigners who have immigrated are supposed to be treated fairly and kindly, but there are only hints and clues of what ancient Israel's border enforcement looked like or what their immigration policy was. So to understand the context of these passages, we have to turn to history to fill in the gaps of scripture.
The Historical Context
Thankfully Saint Thomas Aquinas did most of the historical heavy lifting for us. In his enormously influential treatise, Summa Theologica (~1270 AD), he describes ancient Israel's immigration policy in question 105, article 3. There Aquinas states that man's relationship with foreigners are twofold—peaceful and hostile—and therefore borders are necessary in order to protect citizens from the latter and be able to be selective from the former. Of the peaceful nations, Aquinas identifies three types of foreigners allowed in Israel: travelers, residents, and citizens.
The first type identified were “the foreigners who passed through their land as travelers,” much like modern day visitors with a travel visa.
The second type were those who “came to dwell in their land as newcomers,” living in the land but without the full benefits or rights of citizenship, like today’s permanent residents or "green card" holders.
The third type Aquinas identified is a critical one to understand—foreign citizens. While Israel was very selective of who it allowed to be residents, complete assimilation was required to become a legal citizen, including adherence to the Jewish religion, culture, customs, and language.
However, not just anyone could become a citizen. Foreigners from hostile nations were strictly forbidden from ever becoming citizens (such as the Ammonites and Amalekites, see Exo 17:16). Other nations who had been hostile toward Israel in past history were also typically excluded from consideration unless the applicant was found particularly noteworthy. An example of such a special exception would be Ruth, who was a Moabite (who were also restricted from citizenship and worship, see Deut 23:3) but was permitted due to her virtue (Ruth 3:11). Samaritans were a mongrel breed of Jewish and Assyrian blood who were both culturally and religiously separate from Jews, therefore they were treated as heretics and pariahs, not citizens. Ancient Israel was also engaged in border disputes and expansions via military conquest throughout much of its history, so an armed military presence at its borders would have been the norm. Nations who were both peaceful toward Israel as well as sharing some aspect of brotherhood (similar culture) were admitted as residents more freely (such as Egyptians and Idumeans), but even then were not allowed to become citizens until the second or third generation (alluded to in Eze 47:22). From the writings of Aristotle (Politics, Book III, Part I) we know that this practice of generational citizenship requirements was actually quite common in antiquity.
This stipulation ensured all who could worship, be drafted, engage in politics, and otherwise enjoy all the rights of a citizen were of a single heart and mind—culturally homogeneous. As Aquinas stated, "The reason for this was that if foreigners were allowed to meddle with the affairs of a nation as soon as they settled down in its midst, many dangers might occur, since the foreigners not yet having the common good firmly at heart might attempt something hurtful to the people." In other words, Aquinas noted that Israel carefully avoided the error into which many well-meaning Christians have fallen—which is focusing solely on the rights of immigrants without taking into account the common good and safety of the host nation and its citizens. To Aquinas, it was absolutely clear that the host nation itself had the right and the duty to legislate immigration in such a way that it was of benefit not only to the strangers seeking admittance, but to the receiving nation as well. It is within this context of strict immigration policy which we must read the biblical passages regarding treatment of foreigners. Those foreigners had already been filtered and selected as compatible and worthy—which is true of modern Israel's immigration policy as well.
The Founding Fathers of the United States also held this truth to be self-evident. George Washington wrote of immigration, "My opinion, with respect to emigration, is that except of useful mechanics and some particular descriptions of men or professions, there is no need of encouragement, while the policy or advantage of its taking place in a body... may be much questioned; for, by so doing, they retain the language, habits, and principles (good or bad) which they bring with them."
Thomas Jefferson wrote, "Yet from such [absolute monarchies], we are to expect the greatest number of emigrants. They will bring with them the principles of the governments they leave, imbibed in their early youth; or if able to throw them off, it will be in exchange for an unbounded licentiousness, passing as is usual, from one extreme to another. It would be a miracle were they to stop precisely at the point of temperate liberty."
Alexander Hamilton agreed, saying, "The opinion advanced [by Jefferson] is undoubtedly correct, that foreigners will generally be apt to bring with them attachments to the persons they have left behind; to the country of their nativity, and to its particular customs and manners. They will also entertain opinions on government congenial with those under which they have lived; or, if they should be led hither from a preference to ours, how extremely unlikely is it that they will bring with them that temperate love of liberty, so essential to real republicanism? There may, as to particular individuals, and at particular times, be occasional exceptions to these remarks, yet such is the general rule. The influx of foreigners must, therefore, tend to produce a heterogeneous compound; to complicate and confound public opinion; to introduce foreign propensities. In the composition of society, the harmony of the ingredients is all-important, and whatever tends to a discordant intermixture must have an injurious tendency." Hamilton's conclusion was that, "To admit foreigners indiscriminately to the rights of citizens the moment they put foot in our country would be nothing less than to admit the Grecian Horse into the Citadel of our Liberty and Sovereignty."
Despite this historical reality and context, many have a skewed view of the biblical texts and Israel's practices. But the idea that a small nation like Old Testament Israel could exist on some of the most coveted real estate of the ancient world while allowing anyone and everyone who so desired to immigrate into their lands is a bit absurd—they would quickly be overrun. Israel had to fight their way into the Promised Land and had to fight tooth and nail to keep it throughout their entire history. They were surrounded then—as they are now—by enemies who were ethno-linguistically and culturally distinct from them while Levitical law prohibited intermarriage, prohibited outside cultural or religious influence, and specifically and officially deeded every square inch of the land available to specific tribes and families of Israel. If by chance any of that land was lost from its original owner, every Jubilee year it would be returned to the original tribe and family to ensure that their God-given inheritance remained in the intended hands (Lev 25:10-13). This constant enmity with neighboring tribes and sacred sense of ethnic identity, culture, and land ownership would have made it very difficult for foreign immigrants to casually move in at will without the express permission and regulation of either the government or the citizens. This was not the wild West where you could stroll in and stake a claim.
Nowhere in the Old Testament is there any indication that Israel was a vibrant multicultural state with a large immigrant population. We see small pockets here and there, but overall the impression scripture gives is that ancient Israel was an extremely cloistered community which sought to guard itself against the outside Gentile populations. This "us vs. them" mentality was so strong in the Jewish mindset that it was insulting and offensive to Jonah to be sent to Nineveh, shocking that Jesus would speak to a Samaritan, and unthinkable that Gentiles could enter their fellowship as believers in the Messiah. The biblical texts as a whole do not paint a picture of the Jewish nation as being particularly open to outsiders.
The Logical Fallacy
Without this context however, many in the church have interpreted these passages about foreigners as a call for open borders, unending immigration, instant and unmerited citizenship, and unlimited charity. According to these ahistoric views, to do anything less would be unbiblical and unChristian. But while these passages are clear in the quality of behavior within a certain historical context, they give no command regarding the quantity. Scripture also contains many commands to be fruitful and multiply and speaks at length of the benefits and blessing of children, but Christians have not read those texts to imply parents should have an unlimited numbers of kids. Each family varies in size according to their capacity. The reality is that not only is unregulated immigration difficult to reconcile with biblical history, it is also impossible to reconcile with world history as over and over such practices have proven to be both damaging and dangerous. A nation cannot accept unlimited immigrants without overwhelming the culture, collapsing the economy, and therefore destroying the lives of both citizen and immigrant. Every nation will have a different capacity to absorb foreigners based on many factors, but the limits are real and should not be tested—a cavalier approach to immigration is exceedingly unwise.
Not only should a nation restrict immigration from potentially dangerous or culturally incompatible states, it must limit immigration overall in order to maintain its own culture. While multiculturalism has been a celebrated concept recently, the truth is while having people of different cultural backgrounds and ethnicities is fine, you must have a unifying set of customs or culture in order to bind those peoples together to create a stable nation. This is why Israel required complete assimilation into their religion, customs, culture, and language to become a citizen and why they didn't grant that status until the second or third generation. The reason there are hundreds of nations in the world rather than a small handful is because all those little differences between beliefs, customs, language, and culture matter and unifying them is extraordinarily difficult. Even in loose economic and political marriages like the European Union where the cultures are very similar, you still have tenuous ties which are prone to Brexit-like behavior. Many nations have likewise gone through civil wars as a result of these differences in beliefs, values, and culture and every empire which has been built has eventually succumbed to disintegration. In fact, academics who have studied empires throughout history have identified that each and every one go through about 7 stages, beginning with their birth and rise to power and ending with their collapse. The 6th stage of an empire's life-cycle is called "decadence" and has several distinguishing features—one of which is the influx of foreigners which dilute the host nation's culture, breaks down unifying customs, and causes division, weakening it internally to the point where it enters the final stage—collapse (a decent summary of this cycle can be found here). Doug Casey summarized the situation in a recent (rather blunt and unflinching) interview titled America's Late Stage Decadence with the Strategic Culture Foundation saying, "The decadence we see all around us is arising from every source. Cultural, economic, and political. Cultural decline is the most basic area. Massive immigration of people with different cultures, languages, and religions guarantee it." Simply put, fractionalization of peoples is the default outcome, not unification—a pattern which began at the tower of Babel. Even the biblical words translated as "nation" in English communicate a strong link between cultural ethno-linguistic identity and geopolitical borders. The Hebrew word goyim means nation, people, Gentiles, or country, while the Greek New Testament counterpart ethnos, means a multitude, people, or race belonging and living together. It takes a strong set of unifying customs (or strong martial force) to create and maintain a nation which is not defined by or limited to a singular ethnic identity. Everything is downstream of culture, but without a strong unifying culture, disintegration into warring tribalism is inevitable.
Given this, immigration must be practiced with caution to ensure proper assimilation into the host culture. As some cultures are more similar than others, higher numbers of immigrants can be absorbed safely from those nations, but a proper process must still take place—either via time (as with Israel) allowing a natural pace, or via systems and programs designed to expedite that process. Immigrants from cultures not as similar as the host nation take longer to assimilate while some nations simply do not have compatible cultures or are openly hostile and should not be allowed to immigrate at all (barring special circumstances or merit as was the case with Ruth). As the following short video shows, prior to 1970 America practiced sustainable immigration from primarily near-culture nations (Europe), but in the early 70's numbers began to explode and shift dramatically to favor nations which were culturally very different from our own.
Outside of the cultural ability to absorb and assimilate a given number of immigrants over time, there is of course the economic realities. Foreign immigrants often are immigrating due to economic reasons, which usually requires the host nation to spend resources on their transition. This is why Levitical law required land owners to leave a small portion of their harvest in the fields for the poor and the foreigners. After a generation or two, those foreigners would have become established, gained citizenship, and could largely take care of themselves and contribute to society, but that transition period can be rather long and difficult. In modern societies where social welfare programs are the norm, the drain on the host tax base can be considerable—to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars per year in the U.S. Due to this economic reality, wise immigration policy would limit the number of low-income applicants and ensure there was an appropriate ratio between them and middle or high income immigrants. A nation's primary responsibility is to the welfare of its citizenry, not foreigners, and if the latter happen to overwhelm the system and cause economic collapse, that government can help no one at all.
But it is precisely the low income, economic refugee type of immigrant which Christians and non-Christians alike feel morally obligated to take in. The sentiment is noble, but the reality is it is impossible for the U.S. to absorb all the world's poor and lift them out of poverty. It's even impossible for the U.S. to reduce world poverty through immigration. As Numbers USA spokesman Roy Beck brilliantly demonstrated in a viral video back in 2010 (stats are therefore a bit dated), the World Bank estimated that there were roughly 3 billion people in the world at that time who made less than $2 per day—categorized as extreme poverty. But those people are actually too desperately poor and too disconnected to even attempt to immigrate to the United States. Mexicans constitute the plurality of our immigrants and as poor as they often are, there were actually 5.6 billion people on the planet at the time who lived in nations making less than the average income of a Mexican. And while we absorb about 1 million immigrants per year, another 80 million are born into the extreme poverty category over the same time frame. This is a losing strategy which can never make any meaningful difference, but can destroy our economy if left unchecked. Watch Roy Beck make sense of the global situation with gumballs:
The Moral Solution
As Roy Beck states, the solution to world poverty isn't immigration, but rather encouraging potential immigrants to stay in their home nations and be agents of change. One way of doing this is to host foreigners on student visas, educating them and giving them the tools necessary to take back to their native country. While foreign aid is a standard line item on federal budgets, it is usually a waste of money unless carefully directed at transformation and often is abused or simply embezzled by corrupt politicians rather than being put to use in building up the infrastructure of the nation. Likewise, regime changes and encouragement to adopt democracy rarely produce the development necessary to see true change in a nation. So what is the secret ingredient which made the West so successful?
First of all, we should probably establish that the West has been enormously successful. The media has a tendency to focus on bad news, which gives a lot of Westerners the impression that life is miserable, unjust, and getting worse by the day. This simply isn't true. A pair of articles recently came out which show just how amazing the world is right now. One was titled, "We've Just Had the Best Decade in Human History," and the other published in the New York Times was titled, "This Has Been the Best Year Ever." Both are fantastic and conclusive articles. Now, progress isn't strictly linear as empires rise and fall, usually marked by long seasons of regional and global war which can reduce progress to a heap of ashes, but certainly once the dust settles and empires rebuild, new heights are attained. This has certainly been the case after WWII and the Cold War. World progress has been astounding since the collapse of communism and America began its watch as the world superpower just 30 years ago.
But the success of the West wasn't by chance. Indian scholar Vishal Mangalwadi's book "The Book that Made Your World" demonstrates how the Bible created the soul of Western civilization and was the cornerstone of its success. YWAM founder Loren Cunningham wrote a similar book titled, "The Book that Transforms Nations" which shows wherever the Gospel has gone, progress and success follows. But probably the most significant work on this subject was the groundbreaking and meticulously researched paper by Robert Woodberry of the National University of Singapore, "The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy," which conclusively demonstrates historically and statistically that Protestant missionaries were the primary factor in the rise and spread of stable democracy around the world. It argues that these missionaries were a crucial catalyst initiating the development and spread of religious liberty, mass education, mass printing, newspapers, voluntary organizations, colonial reforms, and equal rights thereby creating the conditions that made stable democracy more likely (a short summary can be read here).
All this research points to a clear and effective solution to immigration—plant the Gospel where it is not, rather than attempt the impossible task of moving everyone to where its effects have already blossomed. Viewed in this light, immigration is actually the least moral option—it reduces the poverty of an insignificant few while ignoring the chronic conditions of the many. But fighting for open borders, unlimited immigration, and immigrant rights is very alluring. It requires very little of us as the responsibility is shifted to a faceless government entity while the individual gets to sit back and enjoy a sense of self-righteousness for being nothing more than an armchair activist. I don't mean to sound harsh, but talk is cheap and politics and the government are not the prescribed solutions to the world's problems according to the Bible—the church is.
I admit that the biblical solution is much more difficult and requires much more self-sacrifice, but it is also entirely more effective and beneficial for all parties involved. Just think what the world would look like right now if the West had spent the last fifty years using the hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars per year used on immigration to instead send missionaries to all the nations where immigrants were coming from. Fifty years ago the National University of Singapore was barely a university—in fact fifty years ago Singapore was barely on the geopolitical or economic map. Now it ranks as the second richest nation on earth, has the highest concentration of millionaires anywhere in the world, and consistently ranks as one of the best places to live. Robert Woodberry's explanation of this dramatic transformation? Protestant missionaries (and a lot of hard work).
The Problem on the Horizon
Of course this solution is not an anti-immigration position. Immigration, when done biblically and responsibly, can be beneficial for both the immigrant and the host nation. I am not advocating a moratorium on immigration, nor am I arguing that scripture or ancient Israel believed in a strict ethno-linguistic separation via borders. But the current political discussion happening in the West regarding immigration seems to increasingly ignore the historical reality of Israel being a largely ethnically and culturally homogeneous nation state and pursue nationally suicidal policies which have been proven over and over again in history to be detrimental. In the U.S. there are about 50 million legal immigrants in the country and the newest study from Yale University estimates around 22 million illegal immigrants. This puts foreign immigrants at roughly 22% of the U.S. population. With more than 1 in 5 people in America being foreigners and a huge chunk of them from Latin American and Asian nations culturally very different than our own, without significant efforts and resources devoted to assimilation and the brakes being pumped on further immigration, cultural and societal disintegration is a serious concern. Historically, the U.S. has remained stable with an immigrant population as high as 15%, but those immigrants were also primarily from culturally similar nations in Europe. We're in uncharted territory now.
Europe may be in even worse shape however. With their birth rates plummeting and immigration coming primarily from culturally polar-opposite Muslim nations, the groundwork is being laid for a dramatic social and political shift which will probably not be without significant upheaval and conflict. The German Federal Statistics Office went on record over a decade ago saying at then current rates, Germany would be a Muslim state by the year 2050—and that was before the refugee crisis which they opened their doors to. Before he was assassinated, Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi summarized the situation by saying, "There are signs that Allah will grant victory to Islam in Europe without swords, without guns, without conquest. We don't need terrorists, we don't need homicide bombers. The 50 plus million Muslims [in Europe] will turn it into a Muslim continent within a few decades." Note that Germany's immigrants make up only 12.5% of its total population as of 2019—about half that found in the U.S. Yet this rapid demographic and cultural transformation is all but guaranteed due to the native, versus Muslim immigrant, birthrate (for the importance of the family and birthrates, see the article Generational Genocide).
So for a nation to remain both sovereign and socially and economically stable, borders, strict border enforcement, and shrewd immigration policy are necessary. This reality is not incompatible with compassion, but rather true compassion would be to develop the same beneficial and attractive conditions which immigrants seek, in their own home countries. By planting the seeds of the Gospel abroad, every nation can blossom and develop—and now at an even faster rate than the West did. This not only benefits far more people and has a stabilizing effect on the world, but is actually what most refugees want—to be able to live in their homeland. God's covenant with the church is the same as it was with Abraham:
I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and so you shall be a blessing; and I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed. -Gen 12:2-3
Let us go and bless all the families of the earth. It was God's intention and design from the beginning and we now have the tools and resources to finish the task.