On a blistering hot, cloudless day in July 1980, 26 Salvadoran migrants fleeing the civil wars and violence in Central America crossed the border between Mexico and Arizona in one the most desolate areas of the Sonoran Desert.

Half of them were dead in less than one day.

The 13 survivors, nearly dying from heat stroke, dehydration, and sheer exhaustion were discovered by U.S. Border Patrol agents, who took them to a hospital in Tucson, Ariz. It was there that John Fife, pastor of Tucson’s Southside Presbyterian Church, had his first encounter with the migrants and learned why they had crossed the border.

Fife’s life would never be the same. He became a human rights activist, co-founding the Sanctuary Movement and the immigrant rights group, No More Deaths.

In March 1982, Fife’s congregation hung a huge banner on the front of its church that read, in Spanish, “This is a sanctuary of God for the oppressed of Central America.” The community publicly welcomed a new family from El Salvador to join other refugees who were staying at the church.

Three years later, Fife and 16 other leaders of the Sanctuary Movement were charged in federal court with smuggling and harboring undocumented migrants. Eight, including Fife, a Catholic nun, and two Catholic priests were convicted, but the judge suspended their five-year prison sentences.

The “sanctuary city” movement and today’s immigration controversies have their roots in Fife’s experience, when the demands of his faith encountered human suffering. Since then, the sanctuary movement and faith-based groups determined to protect undocumented refugees have been in conflict with the immigration agencies required to enforce the law.

With the election of President Trump, the sanctuary movement has been reinvigorated. The issue is front and center in San Antonio with the recent passage and signing of Senate Bill 4. To explore the role religion plays on attitudes about immigration, the Rivard Report contacted six local clergy and theologians to discuss the topic. Of those contacted, Rev. John Hagee, founder and pastor of the prominent non-denominational evangelical Cornerstone Church, declined to be interviewed for this article.

Bible and Religion Have Little Impact On Christians’ Immigration Stance

Two national research projects during the past decade measured the influence of the Bible and religious teaching on the immigration debate. One was conducted by Pew Research, the other by Lifeway Research, which focuses on attitudes of Christian Evangelicals.

The research shows that for 90% of U.S. Christians, the Bible and religious teaching have little, if any, impact when it comes to taking a personal stance on immigration issues.

Pew research reveals that 67% of white Evangelicals say that immigration is a very important issue. Yet only 11% of that group say that their religion has a significant influence on their attitudes about immigration.

Fifty-six percent of white mainline Protestants say that immigration is an important issue, but only 3% say their religion is the biggest influence on their stance.

Sixty-two percent of Catholics responded that immigration is an important issue, yet only 5% indicated their Catholic religion is the primary influence on their attitudes about immigration.

Hispanic Catholics came in at 9% for religion being the major influence on their immigration stance.

The constituency most influenced by their religion when it comes to immigration are black Protestants (14%).

Catholics (32%) say they are more likely than Protestants (20%) to hear their clergy speak out about the issue. This finding, in conjunction with the other data, suggests that Catholics are 50% more likely than Protestants to be exposed to their church’s teaching on the issue, yet are 50% less likely to be influenced by that teaching.

The studies also show that 53% of white Evangelicals say they are very familiar with biblical insights about immigration. But 70% of that group claim they have never been encouraged by their clergy to reach out to immigrants.

“The sad part of the research on immigration is that American evangelicals are more influenced by the media than by their Bibles and their churches combined,” said Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals. “We need to turn off our TVs and open up our Bibles.”

This begs the question: Do the Bible and church teachings really influence Christians on any societal issues? Yes, very much so – if they want them to. The Pew research reflects that religion is the No. 1 influence on how Christians view same-sex marriage.

For both Protestants and Catholics, religion is 500% more likely to influence their views on same-sex marriage versus immigration. Forty-eight percent of Protestants say that their religion is the major influence on their attitudes about same-sex marriage, compared to the 11% for immigration issues. For Catholics, it’s 27% on same-sex marriage issue versus only 5% on immigration.

One pastor commented that these research findings seem to indicate that for Protestants and Catholics alike, inserting Jesus into people’s bedroom seems to be okay – just as long as He stays away from the border.

“The reason for this incongruity may well be because we are all sexual beings, but we are not all immigrants,” said Mario Ramos, chair of Biblical and Theological Studies at the Baptist University of the Americas (BUA) in San Antonio. “Our sexuality is close to us and is part of our identity. It is to be expected that we would bring our religious views into something so meaningful to us, so near to us, and that it would influence our views.”

Money, Law, and Security More Important than Human Dignity

The Lifeway research about Evangelicals shows that should immigration reform be considered, fairness to taxpayers (90%), the rule of law (90%), and border security (86%) are all deemed more important than the human dignity of the immigrant (82%) or the protection of the social fabric of immigrants’ families (72%).

Although the human dignity of immigrants comes in at fourth place behind money, law, and security, 73% of Evangelicals “agree that the arrival of immigrants presents a great opportunity to share Jesus Christ.”

Even if the concerns for the rule of law, taxpayer fairness, and border security were fully resolved, only 60% of Evangelicals responded that immigration reform should offer a path to citizenship or offer any form of legal status.

“This indicates that there is fear present in this country,” said Nora Lozano, professor of Theology at BUA. “If all of the safety, economic and legal concerns have been met, why would there still be a lack of support for citizenship or even legal status for immigrants? There must be deeper issues. It must be because people do not know any immigrants personally as human beings; they have not heard their stories. Once I know a person, they are no longer anonymous. They’re no longer just a policy theory.”

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints recognizes this need for personal engagement by advocating that effective immigrant outreach requires getting to know immigrants and refugees personally by making friends with them and inviting them into one’s home.

Most of the Bible references used by Christians about sanctuary cities and treatment of immigrants comes from the Hebrew Scriptures. However, biblical scholars agree that what is generally proffered as biblical teaching on most political issues results from proof-texting, a process through which someone takes a predetermined position, then goes looking for Bible verses to back up what they have already decided.

Jeffrey Abraham, senior rabbi of San Antonio’s Agudas Achim congregation, strongly cautions against the present-day misuse of the Hebrew Scriptures that conflate biblical “cities of refuge” with the modern sanctuary cities. “That interpretation is definitely a misreading of the original Hebrew text,” Abraham said.

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham.
Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham. Credit: Courtesy / Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

“There is much, much more rich biblical literature that set forth the requirement to respect the human dignity of immigrants, aliens, and refugees, the responsibility to welcome and protect them, and to ensure their ethical treatment.”

The rabbi cited Chapter 18 of Genesis as providing an example for how strangers should be treated.

“[Abraham] doesn’t just greet them, he runs out to meet them and has Sarah prepare a feast,” he said. “Abraham shows us what we must do. We don’t just passively accept the stranger; we initiate the welcome and hospitality. We must act first, before the stranger even asks us.”

Rabbi Abraham emphasized that the three strangers were just that – human strangers. Christian exegesis of the Hebrew verses often claims that the biblical Abraham recognized them as angels and that that’s the reason he welcomed them. Rabbi Abraham says that is a wrong reading. The Hebrew word was stranger, and stranger equally covered an alien, a refugee, a migrant, someone just passing through, or someone who came to stay. All were to be given an equally expansive welcome, gracious hospitality, and, above all, protection.

“How we read the Bible depends upon the lens which we use,” Ramos said. “The Bible was written by a marginalized people, for a marginalized people. Our interpretation must begin there. To read the Scriptures through the lens of an established, arrived, and privileged class is a mistake. This certainly applies to the immigration debate. We must read the Bible through the eyes and experience of an immigrant, a refugee, an exile.”

Law and Order Supersedes Bible and Religion

A religious language seems to be developing that divides aliens into one of two designations, legal or criminal. In this way of thinking, because refugees or immigrants cross the border without legal permission, they are, de facto, criminals. Because they broke immigration law, their illegality negates any biblical requirement to protect them, respect them, and welcome them.

The biblical Letter of Paul to the Romans (13:1-7) is often cited to place legality over compassion when considering immigration. These are sometimes referred to as the “law and order” or “what is it about the word ‘illegal’ you don’t understand?” Bible verses.

This primacy of law and order has among its most vocal proponents the Rev. Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham. Immigration is “not a Bible issue,” according to Graham. “We want to love people, we want to be kind to people, we want to be considerate, but we have a country and a country should have order and there are laws that relate to immigration and I think we should follow those laws,” he told the Huffington Post.

Some theologians and pastors found that view far too narrow an interpretation for people of faith.

Father Larry Christian.
Fr. Larry Christian. Credit: Courtesy / Archdiocese San Antonio

“In the United States people write the law. We write the laws,” Ramos said. “Yes, Paul’s letter in the Bible admonishes us to follow the law, but that presupposes that the laws are just.”

“The laws of our nation do not grant human rights; laws exist to protect human rights,” said Fr. Larry Christian, vicar general of the Archdiocese of San Antonio. “Human rights are granted naturally by our Creator and know of no borders.”

Respect for Human Life Applies Equally To Immigrant Treatment

Christian notes that Catholics must approach the issue from two perspectives, not just from the Bible. Catholic authoritative teaching says that God’s revelation has two divine wellsprings – Scripture and Tradition – and that Tradition must be equally respected in moral decisions, including immigration.

“The Church’s teaching on human dignity, the value of life, and respect for human life applies as much to immigration as it does to abortion,” Christian said. “Also, understanding the true meaning of justice in the eyes of God has been badly skewed. When discussing immigration, the concept of justice has come to mean retributive justice, a justice that demands [punishment]. What is needed is a recovery of understanding God’s restorative justice, a justice that unifies and heals.”

“The moral issues and need for restorative justice deeply concern [San Antonio] Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller,” Christian said. “Our archbishop has stated his concerns about the implications and impacts of the new Texas law, SB 4, in print and on television.”

Christian referred to Memory and Identity, the last major work written by Pope John Paul II before his death in 2005. In it, he distinguished between the virtue of patriotism and the sin of nationalism.

Patriotism is a love for one’s native land and “leads to a properly ordered social love,” according to the late Pontiff. He compares that concept to nationalism, which “involves recognizing and pursuing the good of one’s own nation alone, without regard to the rights of others.” Then the Pope hammers home the point: “Clearly, one thing must be avoided at all costs: the risk of allowing the essential function of the nation to lead to an unhealthy nationalism.”

Lozano and Ramos concur that the resistance to offering citizenship or legal status, even if all of the economic and legal issues are resolved, may be rooted in fears that have erupted into nationalism. “I’m a patriot. I deeply love my country. I get goosebumps at the national anthem. I love all we stand for,” Ramos said. “But first I’m a Christian, subject to the sovereignty of my Savior, Jesus Christ, and his word.”

Who prevails: God or Mammon?

Rev. Ron Scates, co-pastor of First Presbyterian Church in downtown San Antonio, has written about his personal struggles on the immigration issue as a Christian, a pastor, a respected theologian, and as a citizen.

“How does the sovereignty of an unbounded God inform the idea of nations having sovereign borders?” Scates writes.

His response: “I don’t have a definitive answer.”

“As a pastor, I have a hunch that nothing is as powerful an influence on our faith as is economics,” Scates writes. “It’s amazing how you and I will be gung-ho for Jesus until it hits our pocketbooks. Then we begin to rationalize, which is simply to tell yourself rational lies. How many Bible-believing Christians make their decisions regarding immigration/immigrants based on their pocketbooks rather than Scripture? I’m not sure.”

Reverend Ron Scates.
Rev. Ron Scates speaks at the pulpit. Credit: Courtesy / Reverend Ron Scates

Based on the research presented earlier in this article, Scate’s hunch is correct. There lies the intersection of his personal struggle: On what will he base his priorities? It is the Lord’s sovereignty that must prevail in his life, Scates says.

“It all boils down to call: What is the Lord calling us, in our unique situation, to be and do with our resources in regards to the alien, the stranger, the immigrant? I’m not always sure,” Scates writes. “How does my sin deafen me to Christ’s call? Bottom line, I’m forced to my knees, to pray St. Augustine’s prayer, ‘Lord, give me what you command.’”

“Christians in the United States all stand at the geographical border with Mexico in a sociopolitical and economic sense,” writes M. Daniel Carrol R., author of Christians at the Border: Immigration, the Church, and the Bible. There is also a second border at which all Christians must stand. “We must all make a decision about how to respond to the Bible’s teaching and the example of Jesus. The geographical boundary with Mexico now takes on a greater significance at the boundary of faith.”

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Edward Speed

Edward Speed holds a Master of Arts in Systematic Theology from St. Mary's University. He reports on religion and spirituality for the Rivard Report.