Immigration History and Confusion in the Church

Polls suggest that just 12% of evangelical Christians say that they think of immigration primarily through the lens of the Bible.

We have a somewhat romanticized view of immigration in the US. All of us in the United States reading this article are the benefactors of immigration, unless your ancestors were all Native American. Thus, the vast majority of us have benefitted from the various waves of immigration to the US in the past.

My ancestors immigrated at various times from England, Wales, Germany, Switzerland and France. It’s no wonder, then, that I view our history of immigration with some appreciation and sentimentality, and I believe most people with European ancestry feel like I do in that respect unless.

If you have much Native American or African ancestry, then, your view might be a bit different. If you have Chinese ancestry, you might feel differently. If you had German ancestry in 1750’s, you also might feel differently, but I will get to that.

We also tend to view our immigrant ancestors as hard-working, honest, and lawful people checking off the right boxes, jumping through the right hoops and diligently observing the protocols demanded of them to enter the country. We have earned the right to be citizens through their noble and respectful efforts.

Most of us, me included in years past, don’t really know the history of immigration to the United States other than the generalized and romanticized notions we carry from the US history we learned s children.

I am not a big fan of the new approach to American history that downplays the great positives that characterize the birth of our nation and its unique place in the world as a leader in many facets of human existence from governance to industry, science, and technology, medicine and human rights and in many other ways. At the same time, I think we should be honest about our history.

Immigration in the New World was relatively open, with exceptions, before 1882. Benjamin Franklin advocated in 1751 to exclude Germans and Africans from settling in the New World because he was “partial to the complexion of my country”.[1] Alexander Hamilton “warned of the dangers of absorbing and especially naturalizing too many foreigners”.[2] In fact, it seems that fear of immigrants is (at least) as old as the New World itself.[3]

People like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington opposed those views at the time, though Jefferson’s opinion may have been motived by a perception that German immigrants were more apt to support him politically. Some things don’t change!

I am not going to recount all the history of immigration in the United States. I am sure I don’t know the half of it, but a few noteworthy historical markers might be instructive in these times.

My interest here is the evangelical church in the United States, of which I am a member. How should we as a church orient ourselves to the immigration issues in our time in light of Scripture?

Our history, or perceived history, is one of the things that influences us, but I am not sure we have an accurate picture of that history. We know, of course, that we are practically all products of immigration. The Protestant work ethic we carry still today surely stems from the labors of our ancestors. The life of an immigrant is always hard, having to start (often) at the bottom rung of society in a foreign land where a foreign language is spoken.

The sentiment that our ancestors worked hard to earn their citizenship for themselves and us is built into how we see ourselves. We also seem to believe that our ancestors “did it right” in entering the United States, observing the requirements of the law on their path to citizenship.

We don’t really appreciate that, before 1790, there were no rules on immigration. People showed up at the ports, like Ellis Island, and they were processed into the country. The road to citizenship was quick and easy. Getting here was the hardest part.

The Naturalization Act of 1790 imposed the first immigration rules. They consisted of “two years of residence in the country, ‘good moral character,’ and an applicant must be a ‘free white person.’”[4] Yes, you read that right. A person had to be a “free” and “white” to become a citizen.

There was no requirement to become a resident at all. Citizenship was given to anyone who remained for two years and managed to have a reputation of “good moral character” (and was white).

The Naturalization Act of 1795 extended the residency requirement to five (5) years. In 1798, the residency requirement was extended to 14 years, and then back to five (5) years in 1802. There was still no bar on taking up residency. People simply showed up and entered the country.

Africans were not allowed citizenship until 1870. Thus today, we might call the Africans before 1870 “illegals”.[5] Though it wasn’t illegal to be a resident. Anyone could come and live in the United States with virtually no restrictions, but citizenship was reserved for whites only until 1870.

Things began to change in the late 1800’s.  Restrictions were imposed on “criminals, people with contagious diseases, polygamists, anarchists, beggars and importers of prostitutes’.[6] “Other restrictions targeted the rising number of Asian immigrants, first limiting migration from China and later banning immigration from most Asian countries.”

Immigration remained free and open, except for Asian nationalities, into the 1920’s. Shifting patterns of immigration from northern and western Europe to southern and eastern Europe prompted efforts to cap immigration and impose “numerical quotas based on immigrant nationality that favored northern and western European countries”.[7]

It wasn’t until the 1950’s that immigration was opened up, partially, to Asians. In 1965, the immigration laws were finally overhauled to eliminate national quotas, replacing them with laws favoring family reunification and skilled workers. The 1965 law did, however, impose limits on Latin American immigrants. Before that time, Latin American immigrants were not restricted at all.

Only recently, in 1996, 2002 and 2010, the immigration laws were tightened up in response to concerns about terrorism and unauthorized immigration that included border control measures, prioritized enforcement of laws on hiring immigrants and tightened admissions eligibility. Before that, unless you were of a disfavored race or nationality, the laws were very loose on entry and citizenship.

This isn’t the romanticized history we think we know. The actual history is a bit sketchier than we realize. Our perceptions tend to color our views on immigration today in ways that may not be accurate.

For evangelicals, in particular, our perception that our ancestors earned their right to citizenship is not an accurate view. This is not to say that they didn’t work hard. Difficulty is the road for every immigrant. The difficulties, though, were in adapting to a foreign land and a foreign tongue. Entry to reside here was open, and the path to citizenship was easy (unless you were African or Asian).

As I have dug into the issue of immigration over the last eight (8) years or so, I see another disconnect on the immigration issue among evangelicals. My perception has been that most evangelicals don’t have a biblical view on immigration – meaning that the view of most evangelicals is informed by influences other than Scripture (like culture, heritage, politics, etc.).

My view on immigration wasn’t informed by Scripture until 2014 when I decided to figure out what the Bible says about it.[8] I felt the need to research it because I realized there wasn’t much direction applying Scripture to the subject coming from the evangelical world. I didn’t realize, then, that I was in the majority of evangelicals who did not have a view of immigration that was informed by Scripture.

Pew research in 2010 revealed that “white evangelicals are among those expressing the least favorable views of immigrants”, but only seven percent (7%) of people responding to a poll tied their views on immigration to their religious beliefs.[9] Sources, like Matthew Soerens of World Relief, cite that only twelve percent (12%) of white evangelicals claim to have a view on immigration that is informed by Scripture.[10]

“Many American Christians do not think of immigration as a major theme in Scripture. It’s not a common subject of sermons, and polls suggest that just 12% of evangelical Christians say that they think of immigration primarily through the lens of the Bible.”[11]

To be fair, a Lifeway Research poll in 2015 found that fifty three percent (53%) of evangelicals believe they are strongly (24%) or somewhat (29%) familiar with what the Bible says about how immigrants should be treated, though sixty eight percent (68%) of those polled still wanted teaching on how biblical principles and examples can be applied to immigration.[12]  

This is a positive statement, indeed, as Scripture should inform all that Christians think and do. On the issue of immigration, though, my personal experience is that Christians are often influenced more by culture, heritage and current politics than a deep understanding and application of biblical principles. we need to know what Scripture says on the subject to inform our present attitudes about it.

While I think it true that many Christians believe they know what the Bible says on immigration. I don’t think the more recent PEW study is a better indicator of how most Christians actually view immigration. I was confused, myself, which is why I took time to study through the Bible in 2014 on the subject.

I was very surprised how clear God’s attitude on immigration seemed and what the biblical imperatives are when I read Scripture with the question in mind. It was much clearer than I thought it would be, and it isn’t in line with the message I hear from many evangelical Christians.

Christians are often conflicted between the idea of a concern about terrorism and a vague sense that we should be compassionate to immigrants. Christians are conflicted about “illegals” breaking the law and how we should respond to them. We don’t know which way to go on the subject. Most Christians felt strongly about building a wall to protect the border, but they didn’t have a clear idea of how we should respond to to the crowds of people seeking refuge at the border.

With white evangelicals being “among those expressing the least favorable views of immigrants”[13], I would say that we are skewed with a negative attitude toward immigrants. From my own study over the last 8 or so years, I have found this is definitely not the way Scripture leans.[14] Therefore, I urge my evangelical brothers and sisters to do a deep dive for yourself into what Scripture actually says on the subject.



[1] See Opinion: Founding Fathers, trashing immigrants, Washington Post, by Catherine Rampell August, 28, 2015, quoting Frankling:

“[W]hy should the Palatine Boors be suffered to swarm into our Settlements and, by herding together, establish their Language and Manners, to the Exclusion of ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs any more than they can acquire our Complexion?

“Which leads me to add one Remark, that the Number of purely white People in the World is proportionably very small. All Africa is black or tawny; Asia chiefly tawny; America (exclusive of the new Comers) wholly so. And in Europe, the SpaniardsItaliansFrenchRussians, and Swedes, are generally of what we call a swarthy Complexion; as are the Germans also, the Saxons only excepted, who, with the English, make the principal Body of White People on the Face of the Earth. I could wish their Numbers were increased. And while we are, as I may call it, Scouring our Planet, by clearing America of Woods, and so making this Side of our Globe reflect a brighter Light to the Eyes of Inhabitants in Mars or Venus, why should we, in the Sight of Superior Beings, darken its People? Why increase the Sons of Africa, by planting them in America, where we have so fair an Opportunity, by excluding all Blacks and Tawneys, of increasing the lovely White and Red? But perhaps I am partial to the Complexion of my Country, for such Kind of Partiality is natural to Mankind.”

[2] Ibid.

[3] See Fear of Immigrants Is as Old as America Itself, ABCNews, by Cristina Costantni May 14, 2013 (going into much more detail of Franklin’s objections to German immigrants).

[4] See How U.S. immigration laws and rules have changed through history, Pew Research Center, by D’Vera Cohn, September 30, 2105

[5] Ibid.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] See Immigration: the Strangers Among Us, Navigating by Faith, November 23, 2014.

[9] See Few Say Religion Shapes Immigration, Environment Views, by Pew Research Center, September 17, 2010.

[10] See Discovering And Living God’s Heart For Immigrants: A Guide To Welcoming The Stranger, by Matthew Soerens and Jenny Yang, World Relief, May 2020; “I Was a Stranger” Challenge, by Matthew Soerens, for G92 January 14, 2013; and see Thoughts from a Christian.

[11] See Discovering and Living God’s Heart for Immigrants at p. 10.

[12] See Evangelical Views on Immigration, Sponsored by the Evangelical Immigration Table and World Relief February 2015

[13] See Few Say Religion Shapes Immigration, Environment Views, by Pew Research Center.

[14] See Loving the Sojourner Because God Loves the Sojourner, Navigating by Faith February 27, 2021

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