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As my dad handed the immigration officer our passports, I watched as the agent flipped quickly through each one of them. First my dad, then my brother, then mine. But when he got to my mom’s passport, he stopped and asked how long she had been an ‘alien’ in this country. My head quickly turned up as I looked with both surprise and offense at the agent asking such a question. “My Mom is not an alien!” I shouted, “She’s from Earth!” My dad shot me a look that quickly informed me that I was to remain silent as the agent and my parents conversed.

To my surprise, my dad turned back to the immigration officer and informed him that she had been in the country as an ‘alien’ for about 15 years. My young mind was now racing a million miles a minute as I tried to process the information I had just heard about my mom. It was also around this time that my family and I had just seen the blockbuster movie “E.T.” and images of tiny, brown walking aliens with glowing fingers filled my mind. I started to form a series of questions in an attempt to understand what I had just heard: “What planet is she from?” “Does she still have access to the spaceship that brought her here?” “Can I have access to the spaceship that brought her here?” “Is she like Superman from the distant planet of Krypton and has amazing superpowers?” “If I’m her son, does that mean I have superpowers?!” These and a million other questions began swirling around in my mind as I sought to deal with this new information. Observing the worry, astonishment, and puzzled look on my face, my mom, turned around from the front seat of the car and asked what the problem was. I nervously looked up at her and simply asked her, “What type of alien are you? Are you from Mars, Jupiter, or somewhere even further?!” With a smile on her face, she put her hand on my leg and explained that she’s not from another world like ‘E.T.,’ but an ‘alien’ from another country. My mom was born in and grew up in India. Even though we now lived in Canada, she was still a citizen of India, with an Indian passport, and with the immigration status of ‘landed resident alien’ in Canada. With that, I slumped back into my seat and breathed both a sigh of relief that my mom wasn’t from another world, but also a little regret as all hopes of space travel quickly faded from my mind.

My Experience as an Immigrant

My experiences with immigration statuses didn’t end with my Indian Mom in Canada. Years later, I would find myself as a college student in Dubuque, IA, at Emmaus Bible College under the immigration status of ‘foreign student,’ as I was a Canadian citizen studying in America. Those years as a foreign student would continue in Dallas, TX, as I pursued a graduate degree in Counseling from Dallas Theological Seminary. My immigration status again changed to an ‘Optional Training Visa’ after completing my studies in Dallas and working there for a year. After my time in Texas, I was offered a position back at Emmaus Bible College, and I was able to change my immigration status to an ‘H1B Visa’ that allowed me as a Canadian citizen to work at the college. Soon afterwards, my marriage to my American wife provided a pathway for me to pursue my application for my Permanent Resident Card, better known as my ‘Green Card’. Finally, in November of 2018, I happily completed the process of becoming an American citizen.  All that to say, my experiences with immigration have provided me with some insight and empathy for those that seek to come to this country. But it’s been my engagement with God’s Word that has provided me with a more precise and nuanced view on how to engage with those that may not have the same privilege and opportunities that I had in coming to America.

The Purpose of this Article

I realize that the topic of immigration status and undocumented workers is potentially fraught with political polarization on both sides. Images of border walls and screams of ‘amnesty’ fill the screens of political talking heads on both sides of the political aisle. But the purpose of this article is not to engage in the political issues and debate of immigration policy and undocumented workers. For clarity, please note what I will NOT be examining in this article. I will not be providing a history of immigration policy in America. I will not seek to argue for or against any ‘solutions’ to the current immigration laws. I will not point to economic findings that relate to the population of undocumented workers. Nor will I bring to issue the debates regarding criminal activity and the undocumented community. These and many other issues connected to undocumented workers are important and need to be discussed, but that is not the focus of this article. My aim is speak to a far more fundamental set of questions: How do we as Christians think biblically about the people often labeled as undocumented workers in America? What principles should inform Christians when it comes to the issue of undocumented workers, and how should God’s people respond to those that do not enter this country through legal means? Even with this goal, I realize that this issue may still cause concern and disagreement. Regardless, I hope you at least see an argument that seeks to engage with God’s Word and is not simply the parroting of political talking points. God’s Word should always be our source of truth and standard of authority, even when the topic is hotly debated and politically infused.

The Danger of ‘One-Verse’ Theology

As with many issues, we Christians are prone to letting our convictions form our theology rather than allowing good theology to form our convictions. We all come to the text of God’s Word with our biases, personal experiences, and formed convictions; but without the humility to allow God’s Word to form us, we often seek to find verses and passages that build our confirmation bias.

Some Christians look at the issue of undocumented workers and simply state that “they are here illegally. There is a legal way to enter this country, and if they don’t do it the right way, then they should be sent back.” Romans 13:2 is often cited to support this conviction that God has set up the government, and those that want to enter this country should do it the legal way: “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.” Concerns of criminal activity, the transmission of illness, ‘anchor babies,’ stealing jobs, and a list of other concerns are noted as continued proof that if they don’t come the right and legal way, they shouldn’t be here at all.

Other Christians look at the issue of undocumented workers and recognize that many are in America without going through the proper immigration process while also noting that many are fleeing economic or political difficulties in their home countries. Some are under threat of religious persecution, and others are just trying to find the means to feed their hungry children. 1 Timothy 5:8 is often cited to support this conviction that we are called to care for our loved ones and provide their basic needs for survival: “But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” Concerns of malnutrition, religious persecution, and care for the vulnerable are noted as continued proof that America should be a place of refuge, as Lady Liberty welcomes those who are “tired and poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free”!

Both verses are in scripture and should be valued. Indeed, we are under the authority of all of God’s Word, but to cite any one verse as an “end-of-all-discussion” proof text is neither faithful to the totality of scripture nor does it properly inform how God’s people should respond to those that are undocumented in this country. We need to take a longitude view of God’s Word that helps us see His standard throughout scripture and (if need be) should challenge us to not fall to one extreme or the other.

Ben Mathew

Ben Mathew (Ph.D.) is the Chair of the Behavioral & Health Sciences Department at Emmaus Bible College, and in private practice as a therapist in Dubuque, Iowa.