As los presidentes Bush and Vicente Fox of Mexico meet this week, a three-dimensional national debate about immigration is intensifying, and a fourth dimension may soon kick in.
The three now-prominent dimensions are economic, political, and environmental. Economically, immigrant labor is important in many industries, but it apparently reduces wages for poor native-born workers by several percentage points. Politically, TeamBush wants to increase its percentage of the Hispanic vote, but since most Hispanics are not Republican the conservative newsweekly Human Events had a front-page headline, "Legalizing Illegals May Lead to Democratic Domination."
The environmental dimension is also significant, leading many Americans to temper sympathy for people searching for a better life with calculations about resources and a reduction of wide-open spaces. But a fourth dimension up to now hasn't received much notice. At WORLD we always ask whether the Bible suggests ways to think through policy issues.
It turns out that biblical pleas for the kind treatment of aliens are almost as abundant as calls for the protection of widows and orphans. Prophets frequently commanded, "Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor." Aliens in ancient Israel had the same opportunity as the local poor to take on some hard tasks, such as picking up grain from the corners of fields and picking fruit from high branches. Charity is also important: Israelites were to give part of their tithes to "the alien, the fatherless and the widow, so that they may eat in your towns and be satisfied."
The Bible emphasizes hospitality, but it also celebrates a melting pot. After all, the Bible's most famous story about an alien stars Ruth, the widow of an Israelite who had moved to the land of Moab and married her there. Three times Ruth's mother-in-law, Naomi, tells Ruth not to become an immigrant to Israel. Only when Naomi realizes that Ruth is determined to go with her, and only when Ruth says, "Your people will be my people, and your God my God," does she assent.
Immigration to America used to emphasize the secular equivalent of that. Aliens, like my grandparents, worked to learn English and wanted their children to be Americanized. Now, though, Mexican flags lead Los Angeles parades and naturalized U.S. citizens from Mexico are encouraged to vote in Mexican elections. School multicultural programs teach kids to think of themselves primarily as members of a particular ethnic group rather than as Americans.
Two particular policy measures seem to be consistent with a biblical way of thinking. Israelites were repeatedly told, "Do not take advantage of a hired man who is poor and needy, whether he is a brother Israelite or an alien living in one of your towns." Illegal aliens today are easy to take advantage of because they cannot contact their local sheriff when they are cheated. That's an argument for a guest worker program, with temporary visas, so that those determined to come anyway gain legal protection and the right to work at jobs that would otherwise go unfilled.
Secondly, Ruth in the Bible book by that name receives help from a distant relative, Boaz, who is her "kinsman-redeemer." Immigrants to America have had to have the secular version, a sponsor to teach them the ways of the new country and guarantee that they will not need to go on welfare. From the 1960s through the mid-1990s, sponsorship agreements were often wishes rather than legally binding obligations; now they are being taken seriously again, and that is as it should be.
I could insert lots of caveats and cautions, of course. We should stress biblical moral law and the principles of ancient Israel's civil law, but not the specific measures; besides, societies two to four millennia ago did not have the same kind of borders we have. In New Testament times, with Israel part of the Roman Empire, cultural barriers between Jew and Greek were more important than geographic boundaries. Etc.
(At WORLD, we have a method of trying to avoid either under-use of the Bible or making it definitive where it is silent. Readers who are interested can go to our website, www.worldmag.com; click in the left-hand column on a book I wrote, Telling the Truth; and then read about our whitewater rapids metaphor in chapter one, "Biblical Objectivity.")
Even as we debate nuances, though, the Bible will help us remember that immigrants are important, sometimes in ways we don't anticipate at the time. The biblical Ruth was a successful immigrant and a romantic heroine who married Boaz, her deliverer. But she also became the great-grandmother of Israel's greatest king, David, and an ancestor of Christ Himself.