When the Roman Empire took Judea in 63 BCE, it ruled through vassals. It lost Palestine briefly to the Iranians, but then came back and from 37 BCE ruled through a vassal king, Herod.
Jesus of Nazareth, according to the Gospels, was a displaced person. In his childhood his parents fled Herod the Great and his plan to kill Jewish newborn boys, going to Egypt.
In 4 BC Herod the Great died and the family came back to Roman Palestine.
“Matthew says, “But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.”
Around this time Rome instituted direct rule of Palestine, installing prefects. So the holy family came back, not to their own country, but to an empire where they had no status. Rome saw them as barbarian riffraff.
Jesus wasn’t viewed as a citizen by the Roman authorities. At that time, citizenship for non-Romans, or at least for people not from the Italian peninsula, was rare.
Paul of Tarsus was said by the book of Acts to be a Roman citizen. He was born near today’s Adana, Turkey, which was then ruled by Rome. If he had citizenship it was likely because his father had performed some extraordinary service for the empire. But it is most likely that Paul did not have citizenship; he never mentions it in his letters, and at that time it was a rare social status for a Jew from Asia Minor.
It is unclear why the Romans arrested and executed Jesus. They appear to have interpreted his religious teachings as political rebellion. We know this because crucifixion was a Roman punishment for enemies of the state, along with disobedient slaves and brigands.
I love Reza Aslan to death, but most academic scholars of the New Testament today do not believe that Jesus was in fact a political rebel or Zealot.
Here is the important thing. Roman citizens were not subject to capital punishment.
If Jesus had been a citizen of the Roman Empire, he would not have been executed, much less crucified.
His crucifixion was itself a testimony to his lack of citizenship, to his in-between legal status.
Jesus was an undocumented alien from the point of view of Pontius Pilate, and he was treated differently than a dissident in Rome would have been. He was an outsider. He was a colonial subject. He was an undocumented Mexican farm worker, from the point of view of Roman authorities.
In today’s America, Dreamers are undocumented young people who were brought to the United States as children, typically by undocumented relatives, just as Jesus was brought to the Galilee by his parents. In the strict letter of the law, they are in the United States illegally. (Statuses can be illegal; people cannot).
But dreamers, unlike adults who cross the border without paperwork or who overstay their visa, never consciously broke the law. They were toddlers or children. They had no idea what was going on. They lived in our neighborhoods and attended our schools, believing themselves native-born Americans. Subjectively, deep down inside, they are Americans. But they do not have a birth certificate and were not born in the USA.
The United States offers no path to citizenship except through the visa system. You get a work visa and then you get a green card for permanent residency and then you get citizenship. If you did not come in through that system, there is no way to apply for citizenship, as Dreamers would do if they could.
There is no Federal form you can fill out to apply for citizenship if your relatives brought you here as a child. There is no fine you can pay, no action you can undertake.
People say, you could self-deport and apply to come back. But if you leave, you get in a queue with millions of people and there is no guarantee you will ever be able to come back. In fact, if you admit that you were once undocumented, that would rather be a strike against you.
But remember that the Dreamers never consciously did anything wrong.
Now they are Americans. They speak American English. They go to university. They have live-in girlfriends or boyfriends and a network of friends from childhood. They likely do not speak the language of their country of origin, or don’t speak it very well. They know no one there. Deporting them to the country of their parents is more exile than it is homecoming.
Jose Antonio Vargas did not even know he was undocumented until his employer asked him for a birth certificate when he was an adult. He is an award-winning journalist.
The Federal government made a deal with the Dreamers some years ago, that they would not be arbitrarily deported, would not have to live in fear, if they went to school or got a job and behaved responsibly. (American citizens like Donald Trump can be here even though they behave very irresponsibly, routinely committing felony assault on other people’s private parts. But life isn’t fair.) This was the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
Trump and the Republican Congress have reneged on that deal, throwing the future of 800,000 Dreamers into doubt.
Matthew 25 says,
34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ ”
We forget that Jesus himself was a stranger from a Roman point of view, and that he was a prisoner, and he likely went hungry as a refugee child in Egpt.
As we celebrate Christmas today, we might give some thought to those, like Jesus, who lack citizenship, and who therefore are open to displacement and arbitrary arrest and punishment even though they have done nothing wrong– even though they might have been charitable to others around them and lived exemplarly lives. We might think about how we can help our fellow Americans who are full of promise and ready to contribute to our nation, who are here through no fault of their own but who are being treated as perpetual outsiders. We have to decide if we want to be more like Jesus or more like Pontius Pilate.