Is Immigration Reform Just Another Way of Saying "Amnesty"?

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New York City (July 19, 2014): Immigration opponents faced off against immigrant supporters to protest amnesty for undocumented immigrants in front of the United Nations. (Photo by A Katz /

by Ronald J. Sider

Yes, say many opponents of immigration reform.

Regularly, on TV talk shows like Lou Dobbs Tonight, you hear the charge that immigration reform is amnesty. "Good evening, everyone. Here we go again. The Obama administration [is] making amnesty for undocumented aliens and open borders one of its top priorities." "The Obama administration's push for amnesty for undocumented aliens couldn't come at a worse time for many Americans who struggle to survive this recession."

What is actually being proposed? And is it accurate (or honest) to call it amnesty?

President Obama has said that he intends to protect the integrity of American borders with more personnel, infrastructure, and technology. Second, he wants to remove incentives to illegal immigration by preventing employers from hiring undocumented workers. And third, he hopes to bring people out of the shadows by allowing undocumented immigrants in good standing (it does not apply to criminals) to pay a fine, learn English, and go to the back of the line for the opportunity to become citizens.

Is this amnesty? The legal definition of amnesty, according to Webster's dictionary, is "a general pardon of offenses against a government." Undocumented immigrants have clearly broken the law. True amnesty would grant them total, unconditional pardon without having to pay any price. It is perfectly clear that this is not what is  being proposed. To charge that that is a "general pardon" (amnesty) is simply false. Lou Dobbs may feel comfortable telling lies on TV, but Christians—whether they favor or oppose specific immigration reforms—should not. If Christians want to debate immigration reform honestly, then we dare not call President Obama's proposals amnesty.

Precisely to the extent that we want our Christian faith to shape our views on immigration, we will search the Scriptures for guidance on how to treat immigrants.

The first thing we discover is that the Bible talks a great deal about how we should treat foreigners. (The Hebrew word ger refers to persons who live in an area but are not native to the local area and therefore often have no family or land.)

The biblical text regularly reminded the people of Israel that they had been immigrants in Egypt and then urged them to treat immigrants/aliens very generously. Again and again, the Old Testament links aliens/immigrants with two other vulnerable groups, widows and orphans, and commands Israel to have a special concern for them all (Psalms 146:9; Ezekiel 22:7; Zechariah 7:10; Deuteronomy 14:28-29, 24:19-21). As stated in Deuteronomy 10:18, God "defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien."

Jesus taught that anyone in need is our neighbor, and then he commanded us to love our neighbors as ourselves. Surely that applies to immigrants.

Furthermore, millions of these undocumented immigrants are sisters and brothers in Christ. Our oneness in Christ surely is a stronger bond than any division grounded in differing national origins.

A concern to protect the integrity of the family also compels us to find a way to allow undocumented immigrants to stay. Estimates suggest that 4.1 million children in the United States have one or more undocumented parents. Two-thirds of these children are themselves US citizens. If we forced all these undocumented immigrants to return home, we would break up millions of families. (Children who are US citizens could return home with a parent, but that would deprive them of educational and economic opportunity.) It is much more pro-family to find a way to allow undocumented immigrants to work their way to legal status.

Does all this mean we ought to grant amnesty—a full unconditional pardon—to undocumented immigrants? After all, God totally forgives sinners who repent, offering them unconditional pardon through the cross. But the church is not the state. The state rightly requires that persons pay a penalty for breaking the law. Requiring payment of a substantial fine would show that breaking the law is wrong.

Amnesty is not the answer. Neither is trying to send all undocumented immigrants back home. That is anti-family and counter to biblical teaching about how to treat aliens—not to mention impossible and unworkable.

It is time for the Christian community to unite to promote wise, family-friendly, fair, caring immigration reform.

Ron Sider is the founder and president emeritus of ESA.


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