Christians have an obligation to reject negative attitudes and false assumptions about immigrants, in part because their Savior was an alien in Egypt, Christian ethicist and columnist Miguel De La Torre said in a Friday lecture at Belmont University.

“The biblical text has much to say about welcoming strangers,” De La Torre, associate professor of social ethics and director of the Social Justice and Peace Institute of Iliff School of Theology, said. After “do not be afraid,” he said, the most frequently occurring phrase in the Bible refers to care for the “alien within your midst.”

“Throughout the Bible we are reminded of God’s concern for the alien and the stranger,” he said. In the exodus story, God, for example, God told the Israelites to welcome the stranger because “you were once aliens in the land of Egypt.” In Ruth, a Moabite woman clings to her mother-in-law rather than returning to her own people. In Luke, the Good Samaritan takes social risk to attend to the alien in need.

“The call to Christian responsibility toward aliens is so paramount that God incarnated Godself as an alien,” De La Torre said. “The radicalness of the incarnation is not so much that the Creator of the universe became a frail human, but rather that God chose to become an alien, fleeing the oppressive consequences of the empire of the time. In so doing, Jesus willingly assumed the role of the ultra-disenfranchised.”

De La Torre, who was born in Cuba and was himself an undocumented alien in the United States until receiving his naturalization papers in 1969, said when Joseph and Mary took the baby Jesus to Egypt to escape Herod they were political refugees.

“Jesus understands what it means to be seen as inferior, because he was from a culture different from the dominant one,” De La Torre said. “I have no doubt that Jesus wept as a child for the same reasons that I wept. Those of us who are or have been undocumented aliens discover a savior who knows our fears and frustrations.”

De La Torre said much of the current debate about immigration fails to acknowledge that over a century of U.S. foreign policy has contributed to the current situation. Using a theological basis known as “Manifest Destiny,” the U.S. invaded Mexico in the 1800s, seizing about half of Mexican territory–including gold-rich California, silver-laden Nevada, oil in Texas and every natural harbor–enriching the U.S. while limiting Mexico’s future ability to build wealth.

In the 20th century, President Theodore Roosevelt’s “gunboat diplomacy” use of the U.S. military to protect U.S. business interests in Latin America led to establishment of “banana republics” ruled by brutal dictators forcing citizens toward either fight or flight.

Even the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which helped anchor Mexico’s economy to 3,500 foreign-owned factories along the border by reducing tariffs with the U.S. and Canada, De La Torre said, has benefited corporate profits at the expense of Mexican workers. While income and benefits increased for some workers, he said, the real spending power for Mexican wage earners has declined 20 percent.

More recently, he said, factories have begun relocating to other countries, especially China, where labor is even cheaper. “Why then should we be surprised that more and more dissatisfied workers tempt the hazardous border crossing to the north?” he asked.

De La Torre challenged “false assumptions” about undocumented workers, such as they use up services while contributing nothing, take away American jobs and don’t want to learn English–the impetus behind “English-only” laws. He cited statistics showing that undocumented immigrants add $10 billion a year to the U.S. economy and hold about 4 percent of U.S. jobs–often in service occupations and other industries requiring minimal education or skill. Those in poverty, he said, are keenly aware that learning English is closely correlated to their socioeconomic development.

Extensive media coverage of crimes and gang activities has led many to believe that immigrants, and particularly Latino immigrants, commit crimes at a higher rate than native-born Americans, De La Torre said. But the U.S. Justice Department reports that immigrants–both legal and undocumented–actually have a lower crime rate than native-born Americans. One sociologist suggests that is because they desire to get ahead, so they work hard and stay out of trouble.

Another false assumption, De La Torre said, is that immigrants are lawbreakers who entered the country illegally. According to the Department of Homeland Security, about 75 percent of today’s immigrants have permanent visas. Of the 25 percent who are undocumented, 40 percent overstayed temporary visas.

“Why then have the opponents to immigration consistently used the term ‘illegal’ to describe aliens,” De La Torre asked. “Stereotyping aliens as lawbreakers, and by extension all Hispanics as lawbreakers, appeals to racism for political gains.”

That stereotyping has gotten even worse since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, De La Torre said, with efforts to link the causes of terrorism to the undocumented, even though no security expert has ever said that restrictive immigration measures could have prevented the 9/11 terror attacks, which were committed by hijackers in the U.S. on legal visas.

De La Torre commended the New Sanctuary Movement, an interfaith movement of congregations to provide hospitality and protection for a limited number of immigrants while working for legislation for moral immigration reform.

Other attempts to come to terms with the presence of undocumented aliens, he said, are less positive, and “many are offsetting our Christian response.”

Laws and regulations that criminalize a group of individuals, for example, have helped create a flourishing “environment of racial profiling” toward immigrants. This “immoral situation,” he said, can lead employers and social service agencies to find it “financially safer” to discriminate against those who appear to be foreigners.

De La Torre said denying preventive healthcare services to any human based on documentary status is “inhumane” and contrary to “the express mandate of the biblical text.”

“Breaking up families is cruel and inhumane,” he added, “causing psychological damage to children separated from parents.”

“Family values cannot solely focus on the family of those privileged by whiteness or class,” he said. “All have a right to be united with loved ones.”

Objectifying a class of humans as “illegal immigrants,” De La Torre said, contradicts the “Imago Dei ” possessed by all humans. He said the image of God safeguards basic human rights to a living wage, safety from emotional or physical trauma and family unity. “Our present immigration laws deny these basic human rights to over 12 million undocumented aliens living in the United States,” he said.

De La Torre, at Belmont as part of the university’s Performing Faith lectures in Christian ethics, said he is trying to “change the debate” about immigration. “This isn’t really about them coming,” he said. “We have always been here. We need to hear the voices of the undocumented.”

Bob Allen is managing editor of

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