Legislating by anecdote makes for bad public policy. While an illegal alien named Maria, whose story was related in a recent Christianity Todayeditorial, may put a sympathetic human face on the issue, her story of near-rape and apparent Christian faith isn't the end of the story that policymakers must consider.

Indeed, Maria's Christianity doesn't seem enough to prick her conscience over the very real wrongdoing she's done by coming into this country unlawfully. And the fact she's a fellow believer doesn't excuse what she has done or relieve her of a moral obligation to observe the laws.

For every Maria who unlawfully lives and works in America, there are many more would-be Marias back in the home country. And for every Maria, there are many times more Americans, including the native-born, whom Maria is hurting—call them Patricias.

Patricia Morena is an American whose plight was reported in a 2003 Los Angeles Times Magazine story. Patricia, a U.S. citizen, is a single mother with three children, living in a one-bedroom California apartment. She earns pre-tax $300 a week as a motel maid.

The magazine profiled Patricia's life as a poor American whose greatest fear is being replaced by the ever-plentiful illegal foreign workers—newly arriving Marias—who continually depress Patricia's wages. The Times Magazine put it, "Morena can't work her way up the economic ladder because the bottom rungs have been broken off by the weight of millions of new illegal workers."

The average Mexican worker earns 1/12 what the average American makes. But there are 4.6 billion people in the world who earn less than the average Mexican. That's a lot of "willing workers" whose immigration here, lawfully or unlawfully, will hurt the most vulnerable Americans: minorities, the disabled, recent legal immigrants.

The Bible's big pictures
Clearly, if a lawmaker focuses too much on the face of Maria, the face of a fellow American becomes blurred. So how should thoughtful Christians approach the immigration issue? What biblical guidance can guide sound immigration policy?

Several general principles from Scripture form a frame. First, two cornerstone commandments guide us in all things: Love the Lord with all your heart, soul, and mind; and love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus said these summarize God's moral law, the Ten Commandments (Matt. 22:37-40). They are timeless, eternally binding upon every person.

Second, God's principles don't contradict one another. Thus, his principles of justice, fairness, and equality not only don't contradict, but are complementary to his principles of mercy. Principles of justice and mercy require us to owe a greater obligation to some people over others.

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This becomes clear from specific passages of Scripture. Elements of both sets of principles apply to us individually and corporately.

For example, Exodus 23:2 warns us "not [to] show favoritism to a poor man in his lawsuit," while James 2:1 says "don't show favoritism [to the rich]." James 2:9 cautions that "if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers."

In the context of the Golden Rule, a Christian's obligation to show mercy is greater for individuals than could rightly be expected by civil government. Luke 6:30-31 says, "Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you."

Scripture indicates certain priorities of our obligations. 1 Timothy 5:8 teaches, "If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever." Clearly, God organizes society around groups of people: families, clans, communities, tribes, nations. The priorities of allegiance are implied in this verse.

Third, God ordains civil government. Earthly authorities are his agents to restrain evil, protect the innocent, and punish the wrongdoer.

Romans 13:1-7 describes the divine ordination of civil authorities. It reads in part, "The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted. … "

Civil governments are part of God's common grace to protect people in a fallen, sinful world. It's why we appropriately owe allegiance to governing authorities of this world. It's also why courts of law assess punishment for lawbreaking, rather than mob rule or a tyrant's whim. This is a characteristic under common grace, the rule of law.

Fourth, the Lord providentially establishes particular governments for particular groups of people in particular places at particular times. This can mean specific forms of government and specific rulers and officials. Daniel 2:21 says, "He changes times and seasons; he sets up kings and deposes them." The same general principle is seen in Acts 17:26 and Deuteronomy 32:8.

Getting specific
After these five general principles, we now can consider immigration in light of four more specific biblical principles.

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First, the Scripture passages sometimes referenced in connection with immigration actually speak more to immigrant policy than immigration policy. These are verses such as Leviticus 19:33-34 and Exodus 22:21. The latter passage reads, "Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt."

Such verses call for fairness toward aliens and strangers, the same as how other passages say to treat widows and orphans. Importantly, these passages address treatment of aliens once they are in a country. They don't say anything about the criteria or the process by which aliens originally gained admittance into the nation.

Second, the law in Old Testament Israel required resident aliens to assimilate. They were to adapt to Israel's ways, not impose their own. For instance, Deuteronomy 16:9-15 requires all residents to observe the Feast of Weeks and the Feast of Booths. This includes foreigners.

Also, some laws accorded only Hebrews certain privileges. For instance, Deuteronomy 15:3 allows the exacting of credit loaned to a foreigner in the seventh year, when Hebrew debt was forgiven. Yet, the Lord didn't contradict his own commands, nor are they "discriminatory" and unfair towards aliens.

Third, making immigration policy is a legitimate role for civil government. It falls under civil authority's responsibility, acting as God's agent, to determine how many people, and on what basis, by what priorities, through what process to regulate the visitation, permanent residence, and acquisition of citizenship of foreigners.

Immigration regulation is a matter of the government's exercise of prudential judgment. It must rely on assessing the best, most valid and reliable data to make its decisions. And a government's primary duty is to protect the interests of its own citizens.

Fourth, when civil government makes a reasonable (or just) law, moral implications attach. This exemplifies the core Judeo-Christian concept of the rule of law.

Though some things aren't inherently evil, laws develop regulating certain conduct for the public good. Paul Marshall has illustrated this principle regarding driving on the left or right side of the road. He says, "Only after the law is passed do these actions take on a whole new context and become matters of morality."

Marshall notes that most illegal immigrants "simply desire a better life, and are willing to risk their lives in striving for it. … If there were no border then who could object to what they do? It is the fact of a border, a political invention, that makes their action wrong."

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Notably, even desperate circumstances don't make a lawless act moral. Proverbs 6:30-31 says, "Men do not despise a thief if he steals to satisfy hunger when he is starving. Yet if he is caught, he must pay sevenfold, though it costs him all the wealth of his house." Maria rightfully should face a very tough penalty, even if driven to lawbreaking for understandable reasons.

Imposing oneself on another society is not a victimless crime. It causes harmful consequences. It is immoral. It breaks or undermines shalom, God's peace that has already been disturbed in this fallen world.

Every Maria who gains a "better life" hurts our Patricias, who have no where else to turn but to the civil government under whom God's providential hand has placed Patricia for protection. Rationalizing immigration policies based on a warm, soft, anecdotal, "feel-good" approach to legislating fails to do justice to fellow Americans. We deserve policies based on the factual, reasoned approach to legislating that places law and order right under biblical principles.

James R. Edwards Jr., coauthor of The Congressional Politics of Immigration Reform (Longman, 1998), is an adjunct fellow with the Hudson Institute. This article, as with all "Speaking Out" pieces, does not necessarily represent the views of Christianity Today.

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Christianity Today's full coverage of the immigration debate is available on our site.