taking the words of Jesus seriously

The Hebrew Scriptures clearly call for the children of Israel to make room for the alien. The Israelites are reminded that they, too, were once aliens in a strange and distant land.

[For the Lord your God] …Who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.—Deuteronomy 10:18-19

The New Testament picked up this same admonition as Jesus explained to his disciples that they should treat the alien as they would treat him (Matthew 25:31-40).

St. Francis of Assisi taught his followers that Jesus is mystically present in the alien. They were told that when they look into the eyes of the stranger in their midst, they might see their Christ staring back at them.

Christians need to be reminded that in the only description that Jesus gave of judgment day, he specifically declares that God will inquire how we treated the alien. God will want to know, according to Matthew 25:35, whether or not we made room for “the stranger” to live among us.

Given such Biblical teachings, it is difficult to understand how so many Jews and Christians can call for harsh treatment of the millions of illegal immigrants who presently reside within our national borders, and how they so often act as though U.S. citizens should not make them welcome.

There is little question that we need these men and women who have illegally entered our country. They are doing necessary work as farm laborers and in the manufacturing sectors of our economy. Elderly persons, like myself, should realize that millions of dollars taken out of these laborers’ wages each week go into our depleting Social Security fund. The evidence is clear that overwhelming numbers of these undocumented workers are hardworking, decent neighbors who are contributing much to our nation’s well-being.

Having made these points, we must go on to acknowledge that there are good people who justly point out that these illegal entrants have broken the law, and that granting them amnesty will only invite others to do the same. Furthermore, there are concerns about the possibility that criminals, drug pushers, and even terrorists, may be among those undocumented and illegal immigrants who daily come through our porous borders. There are fears that such undesirable persons pose a threat to our nation’s security and to the safety of our fellow citizens.

As I reflect on the pros and cons of dealing with amnesty for these undocumented brothers and sisters, I have to start by asking why so many of them choose to enter our country illegally. Could it be that the U.S. has made it too difficult and too expensive for them to come in any other way?

Back in 1910, when my father immigrated to this country, he came as an impoverished Italian peasant. He liked to tell me that when he came through Ellis Island, he came with a few dollars in his pocket and little more than “the shirt on his back.” He would go on to declare, in his broken English, that this country was, for him, a land of opportunity, and that he soon had a job and a future filled with hope.

The bad news is that today impoverished immigrants do not have the same opportunity that my father had. Nowadays, “the poor and huddled masses” who come to the U.S. have a much harder time, and the barriers that keep them living in our country usually appear insurmountable. If my father wanted to settle in the U.S. and get a job, given present requirements, he would have to get a “green card, ” if he wanted to be legal. Getting a green card would take somewhere around two years or more, and would likely cost him a couple thousand dollars in legal fees. (The legal language in the forms is so complicated that often it takes a lawyer to help applicants fill out the forms, costing thousands in fees.) Not having enough money to support himself during the time he was waiting for his green card to be granted, he probably would have his hopes dashed to pieces. Not having the means to hire a lawyer, he probably would have to face the reality that what is required to enter into the American Dream is beyond his reach. In today’s U.S., there would be little room for a poor man like my father. I have a sense that his desire for the better life that the U.S. could offer him just might tempt him to become an illegal immigrant.

What I propose is that our country should have a “high wall and a wide gate” at our borders. By a high wall, I mean that our borders should be secure. America should protect itself against drug pushers, criminals and possible terrorists. There should be a background check on every person who crosses into our country so that such undesirables would be kept out.

On the other hand, I believe that the gate should be wide. We U.S. citizens should make it fiscally possible for poor people who want to come and live among us. Green cards should be made available quickly and without the need to go through the kind of legal hoops that require lawyers. It seems to me that people in faith communities should work to create these conditions.

When it comes to dealing with those who are already here, I agree with those who claim that amnesty is not a good idea. These illegal immigrants did break the law, and amnesty would likely invite others to do the same. Law breakers should be dealt with seriously. Allow me to suggest some solutions to this predicament. I propose that undocumented entrants be granted green cards as soon as possible, but that they be required to pay a hefty fine for having broken the law. Also, they should be required to pay back taxes on their past earnings. But, knowing that it would be unlikely for them to have the money to cover these expenses all at once, I suggest that they have as much as 10 percent of their income deducted in the years that follow until such time as these fines and back taxes are paid off. Those who earn the higher salaries would pay off what they owe sooner, while those with lower salaries would have to take longer to fulfill their obligations.

The reality is that so many of these undocumented brothers and sisters are now being paid less than the minimum wage. With green cards in hand, they would be entitled to legal wages, which likely would be more than they are presently earning. Given this consideration, many, if not most, would come out with more money on pay days, in spite of the 10 percent that would be deducted by the government to cover their fines and back taxes.

To people with faith commitments who take the Bible as their guide for living, it seems as though this proposal could go a long way to treating undocumented entrants with God-ordained love and justice. I think that what I am proposing could satisfy those who want law breakers to pay their debt to society while, at the same time, satisfying those who are committed to showing God’s grace to those who, full of hope, come to live among us.

About The Author


Tony Campolo is Professor of Sociology at Eastern University, and was formerly on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania. For 40 years, he founded and led the Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education, an organization that created and supported programs serving needy communities in the Third World as well as in “at risk” neighborhoods across North America. More recently, Dr. Campolo has provided leadership for the Red Letter Christians movement. He blogs regularly at his own website. Tony and his wife Peggy live near Philadelphia, and have two children and four grandchildren.

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