At Christmas time, should the Nativity story be interpreted as a tale of solidarity with illegal immigrants? Some religious voices, anxious to push some version of liberalized immigration policy as a Christian imperative, describe Jesus and the Holy Family as the most premier of illegal immigrants.
One recent blogger for the Progressive Christian Alliance even crafted a novelette called “Christmas Undocumented: Anunciación” about a pregnant 14-year-old girl named Ave who is smuggled across the Texas border so she can get to her boyfriend in Alabama. First, she visits her cousin Isabella in San Antonio, who “leaps” for joy when hearing about the pregnancy. Only the first installment of the story has been released, but presumably Alabama’s new immigration enforcement law will affect young Ave, her boyfriend, and the new baby.
A recent column for the National Catholic Reporter similarly posited that Mary and Joseph, with Baby Jesus, were akin to today’s illegals by “seeking posada, or shelter” but finding no room at the inn. “The Christmas season should remind us of how Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus also represented migrants and refugees who were rejected like today’s immigrants,” the columnist suggested. “What if those we turn away today include Mary, Joseph and Jesus?” A cynical commenter responded: “What if the illegal aliens we reject are Herod or the soldiers who crucified Jesus?”
A blogger self-described as “A Unitarian Universalist Minister in the South” has laid out his case for Jesus and Holy Family as illegal immigrants. “Shortly after his birth, we read that King Herod orders the killing of the innocent, all children under the age of two,” explained the Unitarian, who now pastors in the immigration battle zone of Alabama. “So Jesus and his parents become fugitives under the law and flee once again this time to Egypt. Jesus is now an illegal immigrant with a criminal record.”
Ostensibly Jesus’ illegal status continued even after Mary and Joseph returned from Egypt “not to Bethlehem where Jesus is a legal resident but to Nazareth,” where “Jesus grows up as an illegal alien where he takes the job of carpenter away from other Nazarenes.” According to the Unitarian minister, if the Nativity story happened in today’s Arizona, “Sheriff Arpaio would seek to arrest Joseph and Mary, throw them into Tent City, where Mary would have had her baby with little medical attention.” In this scenario, Jesus would be an “anchor baby.” And Joseph may have a dream directing him back into Mexico, though the “trek across the Arizona desert is as treacherous and dangerous as the trek from Bethlehem to Egypt.”
The imagined view of Jesus as illegal immigrant is not limited to liberal Unitarian Universalists. Earlier this year, a prominent Southern Baptist seminary dean wrote that “our Lord Jesus himself was a so-called ‘illegal immigrant.'” After all, Mary and Joseph had fled, “like many of those in our country right now, a brutal political situation,” and “sojourned” in Egypt. Young Jesus “spent his childhood years in a foreign land away from his relatives among people speaking a different language with strange customs.”
Yes, but which Egyptian immigration laws did Mary and Joseph violate when they fled there to protect the Baby Jesus from a murderous King Herod? Neither Scripture nor non-canonical sources reveal any such violations. Joseph, Mary and Jesus remained in Egypt until Herod was dead, when they settled in Nazareth. They were essentially temporary religious refugees who fled persecution.
Besides, if both ancient Judaea and ancient Egypt were under the Roman Empire, was moving from one to the other an act of “immigration,” much less “illegal”? In his 2009 book The Immigration Crisis: Immigrants, Aliens, and the Bible, James Hoffmeier of Trinity International University near Chicago wrote that the Holy Family en route to Egypt likely would have passed several Roman forts, some of whose ruins have recently been discovered. At these forts, “Joseph undoubtedly had to stop and obtain permission to enter Egypt.”
No, there’s no historical reason to believe that Joseph, Mary and Baby Jesus were ever illegal immigrants to Egypt or anywhere else. They temporarily were refugees from murderous religious and political persecution. Unlike the Holy family, most illegal immigrants come to America seeking higher wages, not fleeing persecution. Unlike the Holy Family, most illegal immigrants come to stay, though hundreds of thousands every year do in fact return home.
Faith dictates that churches offer their ministry and message of redemption, embodied in the Nativity story, to all people, including illegal immigrants. But there is no covert message within the Christmas narrative offering specific policy guidance on U.S. immigration law. The temptation to extract politics out of the Nativity account should be resisted. Perhaps the most infamous example was the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s 1992 Democratic Convention speech comparing Vice President Dan Quayle to murderous King Herod. The birth of Baby Jesus was significant enough by itself that it needs no political sloganeering to amplify its importance.