Tearing Down Fences to Build Bridges

Tearing Down Fences to Build Bridges

“You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”
Leviticus 19:34


The poet Robert Frost once wrote, “good fences make good neighbors.” This maxim influences the beliefs and actions of many people when they consider the hot-button topic of immigration. This moral issue currently evokes visceral reactions, as well as intense political, legal, economic, social, and religious discussions.

Despite the often-heated rhetoric divide that surrounds the topic, I find that many Christians are weary of simplistic moral judgments to complex social issues. They are eager to examine and apply current ethical concerns thoughtfully through the lens of the Scriptures.

Sadly, their warm interest is dampened somewhat because they often do not know how to interpret and apply the Bible when it comes to complex social issues like immigration. So, we will conduct a bit of “fence inspection” today as we consider God’s command to love our neighbor as we love ourselves (Luke 19:34; Mark 12:31).
What do we mean when we speak of “immigration”?
The term immigrant means a person who comes to another country to take up permanent residence. [1] The United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS) defines the term as “any person lawfully in the United States who is not a U.S. citizen, U.S. national, or person admitted under a non-immigrant category as defined by the INA Section 101(a)(15).”

Alien is the statutory term for any person not a citizen or national of the United States (cf. common synonyms like “non-citizen” and “foreign national” are in use now). Over 1 million immigrants (non-citizens) to the U.S. arrived here between July 2021 and July 2022 (cf. 1.1 million immigrants in 2010). There are some key classifications of those who cross the United States borders.
Some migrants enter the country unlawfully. It is estimated that there was a 1.13 million person increase in unauthorized immigrants between 2021 and 2022. The total unauthorized immigrant population is currently estimated to be 11.46 million.

There were 12.9 million lawful permanent residents (LPR) in the United States in January 2022. Lawful Permanent Residents, also known as Green Card holders, are immigrants who have been granted lawful permanent residence, but who have not yet become U.S. citizens.

The United States foreign born population reached 47.9 million persons in 2022. The immigrant share of the population is 14.6 percent which is now slightly below the all-time highs reached in 1890 and 1910. We are a nation of immigrants. A right to permanent residency in the United States, however, like other nations, is governed by laws.
Past and present laws governing immigration
The Immigration policy in the US for most of the last century was determined by the 1924 Johnson-Reed Immigration Act, which set rigid quotas that favored western European nations. The Johnson-Reed Immigration Act (1924) reflected the influence of some activists who believed that the “Nordic” races of Northern Europe were superior, and who also claimed that biologically inferior people groups were weakening the American racial stock. Quotas for those admitted to the US were based upon “national origins,” meaning that the percentages of immigrants allowed were based upon the percentage of Americans from a particular nation already in the US in 1890. Surely, we may all see the racial undertones to this legislation.
The watershed for immigration changes occurred, however, in 1965 when Congress began phasing out the “national origins” formula and established totals for regions of the world that emphasized, for example, needed labor skills, scientific, artistic, or other professional abilities (cf. Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments of 1965). This Act established a set of preferences that has contributed to a dramatic rise in immigration numbers—both legal and illegal. The family preference criterion stood at ground zero of exploding immigration in the US. [2]

More recently, Title 42, a pandemic-era policy, permitted the United States Border Patrol to turn away hundreds of thousands of migrants who were seeking to enter the United States at the U.S.-Mexico border. Title 42 refers to a rarely-used portion of the United States Code that dates to 1944. The law empowers federal health authorities “to prohibit migrants from entering the country if it is determined that doing so could prevent the spread of contagious diseases.” [3] Admittedly, we need to know the laws that govern immigration, but there is so much more to consider. Christians and non-Christians alike are quite often divided over immigration.
Where is the conflict over immigration?
Those advocating limits to immigration view non-European immigrants as a threat to American culture, hold concerns for over-population growth, and have fears that immigrants will take jobs from US citizens and depress US wages.

The facts show, however, that unauthorized immigrant workers only represent 5% of the total workforce. Sixty-four percent (64%) of that number occupy jobs predominantly in the service, sales and administration, and construction industries. As will be noted in a moment, these laborers take jobs that many legal citizens do not want.

In states like California, for example, citizens cite the drain of social service resources and high expenditures, resulting in rising taxpayer unhappiness. This phenomenon repeats itself in other states where there has been a great influx of immigrants (Cf. Texas and Florida). It is not uncommon for legal residents to raise an outcry about this reality.
In contrast, opponents of limits to immigration cite the cost savings that immigrant labor brings to companies, ethnic lobbies see positive increases in their political bases, and religious activists, humanitarians and civil libertarians cite human rights concerns.

The circumstance of surging immigration and social welfare, compounded by an ongoing political and economic maelstrom, raises ethical concerns. Christians want to know what the Scriptures state about the topic.
Biblical principles for right action
Certainly, there are those who read the focal verse above and let out a sigh of relief. They know that we are not citizens of ancient Israel and are not bound by Old Testament law. Nevertheless, I believe that there are biblical principles of right behavior that transcend the Mosaic law. I hasten to note that Jesus did teach His disciples in the Sermon on the Mount that He did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17-21). So, we will need to examine how we may put into practice our reverence for God in our interpersonal relationships by loving our neighbor.
Such love for one’s neighbor may be framed morally with four key actions. First, respect all human life because of its inherent value (cf. Life's inherent sanctity and dignity; Genesis 1:26-28). Secondly, use one’s freedom wisely (cf. autonomy; Galatians 5:13). Thirdly, strive to do the right thing (cf. act rightly/beneficently or, at least, do not harm others; Galatians 5:14). Lastly, Christians will treat others fairly (cf. justice; Micah 6:6-8). Notice how both the Old and New Testaments support this principled approach to behaving in a neighborly fashion.
Therefore, we are bound to God’s law that He has written on our hearts (e.g. "Love your neighbor as yourself"). Our loving God calls us to be holy, even as He is holy, and this is an abiding principle that evidences itself in our treatment of others (cf. 1 Peter 1:15-16). Love leads us to provide for the poor (see 19:9-10; Matthew 6:2), practice justice (cf. 19:15; Matthew 7:12), respect the dignity of the aged (cf. 19:32; 1 Timothy 5:1-2), show genuine concern for the foreigner (cf. 19:9-10, 33-34; Mark 7:24-30), and treat others fairly in business (e.g., 19:13, 35-36; cf. Matthew 5:40-42). These practical ethical responsibilities stem from the second table of the law. Ethics? Indeed!
Reflecting on key ethical considerations
Several moral values run deeply beneath the issue of immigration. First, one obvious capitalistic value relates to increased business profits that result from utilizing cheap labor. As stated previously, many businesses desire such labor and poor residents of other nations immigrate to the US and often fill such jobs. This approach may raise questions of exploitation, and cause devout Christians concern.
Another value, that of providing for one’s family, figures prominently into the immigration issue from both sides. Some taxpayers see needed earnings taken away by government and given to support non-citizens. Consider the highly politicized Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals issue (DACA). [4] Yet, these DREAMers, as they are often termed, most often work hard, pay their taxes, and contribute to key business infrastructure, like the healthcare industry. The fact is that immigration is a highly complex moral and ethical concern that extends well beyond media soundbites.

Indeed the moral concern needs to be focused on the deeper issue of what enables people to lead flourishing lives and our Christian responsibility to help people to experience Christ's shalom, His holistic peace. Basic human rights to health and health care, to earn an equitable wage, and to provide for basic family well-being also form central features of both the citizen and immigration sides of the equation.

One of the key reasons that immigrants come to the United States is that immigrants are seeking a better life for their families. They come here with hopes of making a better living, not to rob American citizens of the same.
Attitudes that deny to other humans, regardless of their permanent domiciles, the core necessities of life, such as education, employment, housing, and health care, can also reflect a deeper disregard for the sanctity and dignity of each human life.

Bias-motivated roadblocks to equitable housing, education, and employment, political strategies, and some laws, all represent actions that can demonstrate personal and systemic injustice. The moral issue of immigration will prompt Christians to be and act in ways that represent Christ’s concern and care, despite these perennial obstacles to neighborliness.
Evaluating our current attitudes toward immigration
and charting a way forward
God created all men and women equal as beings fashioned in His image. As such, each human life possesses innate worth, regardless of ethnicity or economic standing. Even though the Old Testament provides examples where God protected Israel from outside attack by routing their foreign enemies, the scriptures also record God’s commands to care for the alien and stranger (Deuteronomy 26:11).
God’s people were to eliminate oppression and care for the needy, regardless of who they were (Psalm 72:4). The Lord revealed His love for all of humanity by the gift of His Son, our Savior (John 3:16). Jesus challenged racial prejudice by his parables (e.g., Good Samaritan, Luke 10:25-37), positive caring encounters with people of other ethnicities (e.g., Woman at the well, John 4), and the healing of a non-Jewish servant worker (Matthew 8:5-13).

The apostle Paul’s Gentile mission and his teaching on equality in Christ further demonstrate positive Christian attitudes and actions toward those who are strangers (Galatians 3:28). Paul's actions with Onesimus the slave, for example, illustrates the principled Christian social standard that served as a catalyst toward the eradication of slavery in the Roman empire (see Philemon).
Christians bear a responsibility to work to eliminate hateful and hurtful attitudes, as well as discriminatory practices, in the Body of Christ and society (cf. Martin Luther King, Jr.). Genuine Christian social welfare provides for the needs of aliens, widows, and orphans (cf. Acts 6 and Greek-speaking widows; 2 Corinthians 8:1-6, Gentile Christian famine relief of Jerusalem Christians; James 1:28, support of widows and orphans). There is too much destructive systemic change that is currently being fueled by hatred. Christian love, in contrast, permeates systems to bring about positive structural change.


Beneficence of this order cannot be coerced, but the Holy Spirit energizes heartfelt concern for the needs of others and empowers effective Christian social action (Acts 2:45-47; 6:1-6). Christians, as they are guided by the Word of God and the Spirit, will work actively and tirelessly to seek positive solutions to this moral dilemma of immigration. Jesus’ actions demonstrated that good neighbors remove fences that support attitudes and actions that rob people of their God-given dignity.

Larry C. Ashlock
1. The United States Department of Homeland Security lists a glossary of terms that provides a clear picture of the etymological root system for immigration.
2. A student could enter the US on a student visa, obtain a degree, and take a job, thus granting him or her legal resident status. He later could bring his wife, then his entire family, none of whom were counted against quota ceilings. In a single decade, one student visa could lead to the settlement of dozens of additional immigrants.

3. Pew Research Center, Title 42.

4. See DACA. See also U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services DACA website.