There is a lot of discussion among Christians currently about immigration policy and the Bible. Mostly, this discussion has focused on either the responsibility of God’s people to welcome and care for refugees, or the need for secure borders and the responsibility of government to protect its people. Both are legitimate concerns, but there is a question that is not being addressed: what are the responsibilities of immigrants to the host country?

We need to distinguish two groups. The first, the “foreigners” (Hebrew nokrim), were temporary residents in Israel, generally as travelers or merchants. They were not expected (or frequently allowed) to participate in Israelite religious practice, but they otherwise had to obey the laws of Israel, including keeping the Sabbath. They were to be treated well but did not have the same rights as citizens.

The second group, the “sojourners” (Hebrew gerim), were resident aliens who had settled more or less permanently in Israel. God tells us that He loves sojourners and lists them with widows and orphans as subjects of His special care. Israelites were expected to protect, help, and love sojourners and give them their rights. For their part, the sojourner was to obey some of Israel’s religious laws: they had to keep the Sabbath, to abstain from leaven during the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and to observe the Day of Atonement; they could offer sacrifices, and if circumcised they could participate in the Passover. And, of course, worshipping other gods was completely forbidden. They were not to be abused, though they did not have full rights as native Israelites unless they became proselytes to Judaism. (Click here for a summary of the rules about foreigners and sojourners in the Bible.)

Most of the pro-immigration discussions focus on our responsibilities to sojourners, and that is appropriate: we do need to care for the poor, the persecuted, for the last, the least, and the lost. But if we are going to use the Old Testament Law as our model, if it is a reflection of God’s character and the moral law that still stands under the New Covenant, then we need to recognize that the resident alien has responsibilities as well. We are not a theocracy and so the religious dimensions of the Torah are not directly applicable to us, but we can draw some principles from the Torah that we can apply as guidelines for dealing with refugees and resident aliens:

  • They are to be protected from abuse and exploitation.
  • If they are in need, they are to be taken care of in the same way as the native poor are.
  • They are to obey the laws of their host country and not to try to import their own laws.
  • They are to participate in the culture of their host country though without necessarily giving up their own cultural identity completely; sojourners were not obligated to participate in all of Israel’s religious practices, though some were mandatory.
  • Those parts of their cultural identity that are incompatible with the host country’s culture must be abandoned (e.g. idolatry in Israel).
  • They do not have full rights of citizenship unless they go through the process of becoming citizens.

Applying a biblical worldview to the question of refugees and immigration requires compassion balanced with an awareness that if a country loses its cultural center, centrifugal forces will tear it apart, leaving everyone worse off. These guidelines balance two competing interests: protecting minorities and maintaining cultural cohesion. The best way to do this is to recognize that the host country and the resident alien have reciprocal responsibilities to each other, and to advocate for both sides of the equation.