The Trump administration has pointed to the Bible in justifying its “zero-tolerance immigration policy,” which includes the separation of immigrant children from their parents.
According to one Catholic theology professor, though, scripture has much more to say on the topic of immigration.
On June 14, Attorney General Jeff Sessions referred to Romans 13 in a speech to law enforcement officers in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
“I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for his purposes,” said Sessions.
When asked about the attorney general’s statement, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders provided further Biblical interpretation.
“I can say that it is very biblical to enforce the law. That is, actually, repeated a number of times throughout the Bible,” said Sanders in a press conference on June 14.
The statement comes at a time when many Catholic bishops have been critical of the current U.S. practice of separating migrant children from their parents at the border. On June 5, the United Nations condemned the practice as “a serious violation of the rights of the child.”
“The Attorney General cites a famous passage in the theological tradition,” said theology professor Dr. Joseph Capizzi, who teaches moral theology and ethics at The Catholic University of America.
In the New American Bible translation, Romans 13:1 reads, “Let every person be subordinate to the higher authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been established by God.”
“Essentially Paul is encouraging those who follow Christ to have a disposition of respect to those in political authority because, in essence, they are there by providence,” Capizzi told CNA. “It does not, by any means, license a blanket support for all laws that are made by those in political authority.”
“The obvious connection here for Catholics is the way we think about abortion,” explained Capizzi, who said that Catholics should not simply follow abortion laws because they are the law, but seek to change them because they are not moral laws.
Scripture is “legitimate as a source of wisdom to draw on” in the public square, continued Capizzi, who said that the Bible can “help us inform the way we think about things, maybe to deepen or challenge certain kind of thoughts we have about politics.”
But the Bible has a lot more to say about immigration than the attorney general’s “clumsy invocation of Paul’s letter to the Romans,” he said.
“The whole story of the Hebrew Scriptures is the story of a people that has been exiled and persecuted,” Capizzi told CNA. The Israelites are wandering, stateless and homeless, and yet they understand that they are called by God to “welcome those who are strangers among them.” Scripture calls everyone, even those who are themselves migrants, to welcome the vulnerable, he said.
The U.S. bishops for years have called for comprehensive immigration reform. They have recognized the importance of national security and border protection, but have also stressed the human rights and dignity of immigrants, the need to address root causes of migration, and the importance of family unity.
Earlier this week, on June 11, Sessions released a ruling stating that domestic abuse and gang violence claims alone should not be considered grounds for asylum claims. This decision also drew strong criticism from the bishops.
“At its core, asylum is an instrument to preserve the right to life. The Attorney General's recent decision elicits deep concern because it potentially strips asylum from many women who lack adequate protection,” said Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Houston-Galveston, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, in a statement on June 13.
The cardinal also condemned family separation at the U.S.-Mexico border.
“Our government has the discretion in our laws to ensure that young children are not separated from their parents and exposed to irreparable harm and trauma...Separating babies from their mothers is not the answer and is immoral.”