Strangers In The Bible Belt and The Holy Land

Photo courtesy of Bradford Daly.

The night before a federal hearing on Alabama’s new immigration law, Alonso, a 19-year-old from Mexico, retold the parable of the Good Samaritan. “So you see somebody on the side of the road, nearly dying,” he said to me, in a church basement near Tuscaloosa. “Do you ask, ‘Are you okay?’ Or, ‘Are you legal?’”

The night after the new immigration law went into effect, Alonso told me most of the undocumented people he knows were packing—to go to other states or back to Mexico. “They don’t want to be dragged out of their homes and lose their stuff, things they’ve earned by hard work,” he said. “They have no reason to stay here. They can’t even get a car tag.”

Now, Alabama police officers can detain anyone they suspect of being in the US illegally. It’s a felony for undocumented immigrants to do business with state and local agencies—from the DMV to city water and sewage service providers. Renewing a vehicle registration or applying for a driver’s license is a crime for non-citizens. There’s a sign outside the Allgood public water company that reads, “Attention all water customers, to be compliant with new laws concerning immigration you must have an Alabama driver’s license or you may lose water service.”

Some of Alonso’s friends and family are moving to Tennessee “to wait it out,” he told me; they’re hoping that the appeals will work. One appeal from the Justice Department to postpone enforcement of the harshest parts of the law, until the courts can determine its constitutionality, was successful. In October, a federal judge in Atlanta temporarily blocked the most controversial provisions: the requirement that public schools check the immigration status of students and parents and that police arrest immigrants who don’t carry documents.

Alonso can keep his job, along with other undocumented employees, at the electronics shop where he works—for now. Any day, someone could file a complaint against his boss for employing illegal immigrants. Come April, employers will be required to use the federal E-Verify system to check the status of its workers.

Farming and business groups are pressuring Alabama legislators to change the harsh immigration law, officially called HB 56, that has depleted their source of cheap labor. Poultry plants are shutting down. There’s squash rotting in the fields and houses to rebuild. Besides those who have left the state, many undocumented immigrants are not going to work—some out of fear that they’ll be detained; others in protest of the law. To alleviate the labor shortage, Alabama’s Commissioner of Agriculture and Industry announced he would look into prison work-release programs, a proposal reminiscent of the convict-leasing system that replaced slaves with inmates after the Civil War.

While citizen prisoners may soon replace undocumented workers, the jails could be filling up with immigration detainees, only to feed the private prison industry. Under HB 56, not having a valid license plate could be a quick ticket to immigration detention. The police provision requires officers to verify immigration status at routine traffic stops. If an undocumented person gets pulled over for an expired plate, he could go to jail without bond until federal immigration authorities take him elsewhere.

Immigration lawyer Diane Oraif says police could round up undocumented people in common arrests. Those incarcerated for DUIs or domestic violence could be held in custody until the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) bus takes them off to Etowah County Detention Center in Gadsden, Alabama—far from immigration court, legal aid, and decent medical care. Within the US immigration detention system, detainees can be moved around from facility to facility, estranged from their families—this is the convoluted network that Killing the Buddha contributor Mark Dow describes in his book American Gulag: Inside US Immigration Prisons.

The Obama administration objects to Alabama’s enlistment of state and local police as immigration enforcers. In a lawsuit filed on behalf of the Departments of Justice, Homeland Security, and State, the attorney general essentially says ‘thanks, but no thanks’ to Alabama’s efforts to crack down on illegal immigration: “While the federal government values state assistance and cooperation with respect to immigration enforcement, a state cannot set its own immigration policy, much less pass laws that conflict with federal enforcement of the immigration laws.”

US District Court Judge Sharon Lovelace Blackburn rejected the Justice Department’s complaint that the Alabama law is unconstitutional because it interferes with federal immigration enforcement. In a case separate from the appeal to suspend the harshest provisions of the law, she ruled that HB 56 is consistent with Congressional intent, which is that states have a supporting role in immigration enforcement. Blackburn did block certain provisions of the Alabama law that she thinks conflict with federal immigration law: injunctions against illegal immigrants seeking work or enrolling in public universities; a clause that prohibits harboring, transporting, encouraging, or renting to an undocumented person; a penalty for drivers who disrupt the flow of traffic when they stop to hire day laborers.

In addition to ruling against the Justice Department’s constitutional challenge, Blackburn rejected the arguments of two class-action suits—one from a coalition of civil-liberties groups and one from an alliance of church leaders. With similar cases pending against immigration laws passed in Arizona, Georgia, Utah, and Indiana, the dispute over states’ roles in immigration enforcement will likely go to the Supreme Court.


The night before the federal hearing on the cases against Alabama’s immigration law opened in August, I went to a public forum on HB 56 at a small Methodist church near Tuscaloosa. On the way, I stopped at a gas station to ask a lady buying cigarettes for directions. The one landmark she could name was a school that had been moved since the April tornadoes. The winding county roads were lined with a sprawl of broken trees and debris.

The construction business in Alabama has been booming since the tornadoes, and many of the workers are undocumented immigrants. Proponents of HB 56 cite the usual economic reasons: Illegal immigrants are taking jobs from American citizens, they claim; they don’t pay taxes, and yet they benefit from public education, healthcare, and police protection. Opponents of the law say these are misconceptions: Undocumented immigrants do jobs citizens can’t or won’t do for low wages; many pay income tax, and those who don’t, contribute to the US economy by paying sales tax.

Oraif says her law office has been bombarded with calls from employers worried about losing their licenses for hiring illegal immigrants. Farmers and construction company owners told her they’ve tried to employ American citizens; they work one day, don’t come back, and apply for worker’s comp.

The ministers who organized the church forum, Matt Lacy and R.G. Lyons, work to dispel misconceptions about the economic effects of illegal immigration, and they criticize HB 56 for encouraging racial profiling by making “reasonable suspicion” a criterion for police detention of potential undocumented immigrants. But they focus on faith: “We’re pressing the religious issue,” Lacy said, “because the main proponents of the law are politicians who say ‘first and foremost I’m a Christian.’”

“I consider myself a disciple of Jesus Christ,” says Mac Buttram, an Alabama state representative who voted for the immigration law. “I am a person who reads and studies and reflects on the Bible.”

Lacy and Lyons co-wrote an open letter addressed to the authors of HB 56, citing Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and the Bible—Exodus, Leviticus, and Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. King’s letter, addressed to fellow clergymen, expresses disappointment with Birmingham’s white religious leaders. Most did not end up participating in the civil rights movement. Now, many white ministers are advocating for undocumented immigrants, in the shadow of Birmingham’s history of racial discrimination.

Lacy pastors Woodlawn Methodist, which was once the church of Bull Connor, the police chief notorious for unleashing German shepherds on civil rights activists. Lyons leads Community Church Without Walls, a network of house churches in the poorest neighborhood in Alabama. He left for college never having heard a sermon on racism, which he now calls “this thing that keeps us from loving our neighbors.”

Lacy and Lyons, along with the hundred other ministers who signed their open letter, are holding their Christian public officials accountable, appealing to biblical law to argue against Bible-beating legislators. “HB 56 is not a loving act to our neighbors who are here illegally,” the letter says. “In fact, it would even make it illegal to be a Good Samaritan.”


In Exodus, God commands the people of Israel, “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ex. 22:21). Leviticus raises the stakes: “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love the stranger as yourself” (Lev. 19:34).

In the Gospel of Luke, it’s a foreigner in the promised land, a Samaritan in Israel, who fulfills the biblical law of loving the stranger as yourself. Jesus and his disciples are on the move—no money, no bags, no shoes—to Jerusalem. They’re depending on the hospitality of strangers, healing the sick, and proclaiming the gospel along the way. A scholar of Mosaic law asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus turns the question back on him, asking, “What is written in the law?” (Lk 10:26) The scholar recites the two commandments Jesus has taught are the greatest: Love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself.

“But who is my neighbor?” the legal scholar asks. Jesus responds with the parable of the Good Samaritan: There’s a man “half dead” on the side of the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. Priests and Levites, the religious authorities of the day, pass him by. But a Samaritan traveler goes near to the man, pours oil and wine on his wounds and bandages them. He brings the man to an inn, takes care of him that night, then pays the innkeeper to tend to him until he returns.

So the Samaritan and the wounded man are strangers made neighbors by compassion. To put the moral of the story in contemporary terms, your neighbor is just as much the person without a house at all as the person in the house next door. And to love your neighbor is to respond to her need—to give her shelter, food, and drink.


The broad coalition of church leaders who mobilized against HB 56 (in a class-action suit filed by bishops from the Methodist, Episcopal, and Catholic Churches of Alabama) argued that the law would violate their religious liberty—to open their church doors, their homeless shelters and soup kitchens, Bible studies and ESL classes, to everyone. They were most concerned with a clause that outlaws harboring, transporting, and concealing illegal immigrants: If you see an undocumented family stranded in a storm on the side of the road, would it be a crime to give them a ride to the nearest shelter?

Judge Blackburn dismissed the bishops’ suit against HB 56 as moot. She blocked the harboring clause—not because she bought the Good Samaritan argument, but because it defines harboring more broadly than federal immigration law. This was a small victory for churches that serve illegal immigrants. But the bishops’ religious arguments against HB 56 are relevant to the national immigration debate: How hospitable should American citizens be to stranger-neighbors?

The Good Samaritan argument against HB 56 may be moot in the eyes of the court, but we shouldn’t be dismissive of the biblical reasons all manner of churchy people—from lefty Methodists to conservative evangelicals, are fighting for the rights of illegal immigrants. They share much common ground with secular social-justice activists, and they have the clout to speak truth to power in the Bible Belt.


At the Tuscaloosa church forum on HB 56, I met a woman who had a conversion to the undocumented neighbor after her daughter fell in love with a young man from Mexico. When Maggie’s daughter Julie became high-school sweethearts with Alonso, she was concerned about his legal status. She asked him a lot of questions about why his family came to the U.S. and learned, from their story and her own research about the immigration system, how hard and expensive it is to immigrate legally, and how desperate people are to come here.

When the DREAM Act, a provision for undocumented students to get legal status and college degrees, was up for a Congressional vote last fall, Maggie watched the Senate live on the internet and TV. She was appalled to see an Alabama senator she’d voted for “twist the facts about the DREAM Act into a nightmare.” Most Republicans voted against the bill, and that’s when Maggie had a change of heart in her faith-based politics. “I used to think I was a Republican,” she told me. She voted for Republicans because she thought they stood for Christian values. She no longer believes that, after watching Republicans block the DREAM Act. “I think they’re just messed up and lost.” She quit the party and joined the ACLU.

The Sunday after the DREAM Act failed to pass, Alonso came to Maggie’s church for the first time. She couldn’t listen to the sermon. All she could think about was how unfairly he was being treated; like many illegal immigrants, he was carried across the US-Mexico border as a young child, and now he was being criminalized for it. As soon as she got home, she wrote an open letter of her own called “A Criminal in the Church.” She wrote about Alonso and the hypocrisy of US immigration policy at large:

We allowed him to grow up here, pledge allegiance to our flag, bond with friends and love life in the US while we used his parents as cheap labor to fatten a few people’s bank accounts … If you still have a hard heart to punish the innocent for crossing over with their parents, I pray that God will stir your heart until it changes … HAVE MERCY!!!!!!!!!!!!

She signs the letter “Sincerely, No Longer a Republican.”

Now, Maggie is praying that the appeals court will repeal the new immigration law. The evening after HB 56 went into effect, Alonso told me “There are a lot of prayers going up tonight.”


Tonight, I light the St. Jude candle I got from the Mexican grocery in Birmingham. I pray for people who were—recently and literally—strangers in the land of Egypt: Sudanese and Eritrean refugees who have walked across the Sinai desert to get to Israel.

Like the Latin Americans who try to make it to the US, African migrants going to Israel are at the mercy of their smugglers, who may abuse them and leave them for dead in the desert. They may get shot at the border. Those who “make it” find hard work for low pay—on farms or construction sites, in restaurant kitchens or hotel laundry rooms.

Like the US, Israel is in a contentious debate over illegal immigration. There’s an “anti-infiltration” bill, now pending in the Knesset, with harsh detention and deportation plans for anyone who has entered the country illegally. Many of the immigrant advocates who oppose the bill, religious and secular alike, are citing the Bible on the ethical obligation to “love the stranger as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Lev. 19:33-34).

By the light of my St. Jude candle, I pray for Gabriel and Lazarus, whom I first encountered as strangers in a neighborhood where I lived in Cairo for a summer. I met them outside All Saints Cathedral, an Anglican church that serves displaced Africans in Egypt. They greeted me after church one day in the courtyard, next to a small limestone monument, sculpted in the shape of an open book. Out of Egypt is engraved in the parchment-colored pages.

Months later, I began to understand what Out of Egypt means for Sudanese refugees in Cairo. “God protected Israel in Egypt,” Gabriel told me. “Then they went home. That’s how we feel.”

The next exodus story I heard from Gabriel was on a phone call from Jerusalem. Like thousands of other Sudanese refugees in Egypt, Gabriel and Lazarus paid Bedouin smugglers to lead them across the desert. They don’t go because they expect Israel to be their promised land. They go because Sudan is not safe, and Egypt is no place for refugees. They go because they’ve heard, from history and holy books, that Israel is a decent place for strangers.

As many undocumented immigrants in Alabama are heading back to Mexico, many Sudanese asylum seekers in Israel are returning to Sudan. But some illegal strangers have gotten too close to their citizen-neighbors to leave. Alonso’s staying put in Tuscaloosa, with his new wife and his job at the electronics shop. Gabriel’s staying in Jerusalem, close to his Sephardic girlfriend. He’s been promoted from bus boy to waiter at the King David Hotel.

The names of undocumented immigrants and their families have been changed.

Part of this article first appeared in Tablet magazine.


Ashley Makar works with refugees in Connecticut. She does community outreach for IRIS--Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services, in New Haven. She has an e-book of essays, You Were Strangers: Dispatches from Exile. Ashley has published essays in Tablet, The Birmingham News, The Struggle Continues (the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute weblog), Religion Dispatches, and The New Haven Register.