Was Jesus An Illegal Immigrant?

Was Jesus an illegal immigrant?  Our current immigration situation has led to fierce debate on the subject.  Even Jesus and the Holy family have been thrust into the debate.  In one case, a church in Southern California placed the Holy Family in cages in their manger scene to draw attention to the plight of immigrants.

Immigration is at the core of many of the debates raging in our country right now.  We are not going to address immigration policy one way or another in this post.  It is a complex issue with no easy answers.  We will be looking specifically at the idea that Jesus himself was an illegal immigrant.  

Where is this in the Bible?

The most common argument used to show that Jesus and the Holy Family were immigrants is from the birth narratives.  After Herod learns of Jesus’ birth, he orders the execution of all the male children two and under in what is commonly known as the “Slaughter Of The Innocent”.  Being warned in a dream, Joseph relocates his family from Bethlehem to Egypt.  

13 Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Arise, take the young Child and His mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I bring you word; for Herod will seek the young Child to destroy Him.”

14 When he arose, he took the young Child and His mother by night and departed for Egypt, 15 and was there until the death of Herod, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, “Out of Egypt I called My Son.”[1]

Was This Illegal?

So, was this an act of illegal immigration?  To understand the circumstances better, we need to have an accurate view of what the region was like at the time.  Every country in the region was under control of the Roman Empire.  It was in fact a period known as the “pax Romana” or “Peace of Rome”.  Travel was considered easy and safe for the time.  

Because all of the countries were under direct control of Rome, travel between the regions was not restricted.  There were no border crossings or check points.  No one was being restricted from entering other regions or countries.  And travel from and into all regions was perfectly legal. Everyone and all countries were subjects of Rome.  

Travel Between States

Some have likened it to moving from state to state here in the United States.  While there are boundaries and different laws from state to state, travel is not restricted because all are citizens of the United States. 

So no, the Holy Family did not do anything illegal or immoral in their flight to Egypt.  Interestingly enough, we actually know very little about the reception they received and their lives in Egypt.  They could very well have faced bigotry, persecution or imprisonment.  We simply don’t have the details of this part of the story. The only thing we are told is that they returned to Israel once the threat had passed.  

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[1] The New King James Version. (1982). (Mt 2:13–15). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.