The story of Jesus and his parents fleeing from Bethlehem to Egypt is one of the biblical passages that is often seen as supporting immigration policies that deregulate national borders. It is argued that this example in Matt. 2:13-23 points to migration as a divinely sanctioned or divinely ordained way of life, and that it underlines the importance of support for (im)migrants and the ethical necessity of (near-)open borders. It is also assumed that Jesus, because of this experience, would feel himself as a migrant and have a special sympathy for migrants; by the same token, migrants as such would be particularly close to Jesus and somehow reflect him in this world.

There is in fact no doubt that Jesus, together with his parents, would qualify as “refugees” in the context of current legal standards (as established, for example, in the Geneva Refugee Convention). Also according to current legal standards and terminology, Jesus and his parents would not fall into the category of “illegal immigrants,” since there is no hint in the biblical report that they went into Egypt and stayed there without the consent of the authorities ruling over Egypt (apart from the unlikelihood of such an attempt on the practical level). While the story presents Jesus and his parents as temporary refugees, there is no obvious basis for the claim that Jesus would define himself essentially as a migrant based on this specific episode, understanding the term “migrant” in its broad general sense. One reason for this is that the Gospel of Matthew (or any other of the gospels) does not portray this event as having a special biographical importance for Jesus. It is true that Jesus is said to state that he has no place to lay his head (see Matt. 8:20; Luke 9:58). This statement, however, comes closer – in the context of current circumstances and categories – to the life of “homeless people,” although in the case of Jesus this is a matter of choice rather than adverse circumstances. This also distinguishes Jesus from present-day migrants who in some cases face homelessness, especially on the transit between sending and receiving country. For these migrants, homelessness is a temporary phenomenon which they suffer involuntarily and aspire to overcome as quickly as possible; for Jesus, on the other hand, the situation of having “no place to lay his head” was permanent as much as it was voluntary. Another – and in fact fundamental – characteristic trait of Jesus’ flight is that the issue at hand is exile, not migration for economic reasons.

It is obvious that Matthew’s story of Jesus’ flight to Egypt and return to the land of Israel is heavily focused on a theological point: Jesus is the new Moses and, at the same time, the new Israel, in the context of a new exodus. Like Moses, his life is under threat right in the early stages of his childhood, and like Moses he has to flee to preserve his life. Jesus is also the new Israel, following the migratory patterns of the patriarchs from what was then Canaan to Egypt and back, and mirroring the exodus of the people from Egypt to the Promised Land – the latter being directly hinted at in the quote of Hos. 11:1 in Matt. 2:15, a quote which uses the Old Testament source in a typological way. It is about the specific role of Jesus as the messiah in a new exodus: as the new deliverer, he has to suffer persecution like the old one did.

These theological dimensions of the story cannot be directly transferred to migration in general. On the other hand, one can still argue that the fact that God has chosen to guide his people in a way that includes physical flight from oppression needs to be given due weight. This is certainly true on a spiritual level. On the practical physical level, however, there is nothing in the story and its broader use in the Gospel of Matthew that would suggest that it functions as a generic model encouraging migration of any kind or supporting (near-)open border immigration policies. Rather, if one looks for a general application beyond the spiritual realm, it would likely be that the first exodus and Jesus’ flight and return demonstrate that flight from oppression may indeed be part of God’s ways with his people. It is, however, not within the frame of proper interpretation to postulate that when God has been at work in the specific journeys of the patriarchs, the exodus of the Israelites, and the flight of Jesus and his parents to Egypt, God is present in a comparable way in all incidents of migration. Such an interpretation would also need to explain why in the case of Abraham and Jesus only the journey to Egypt has special weight and can be applied generally, but not the return to Canaan or the land of Israel respectively. This is all the more important because in the case of Jesus, it is exactly the return that establishes him as the forerunner of the new exodus.

Overall, it seems clear that on the practical-physical level there is no bearing on issues of migration beyond instances of imminent personal persecution or death threats – or instances of group oppression, if one goes beyond Jesus’ flight to include also the first exodus. The flight of Jesus and his parents is an expression of the temporary political exile of an individual, not related to questions of escaping poverty nor to situations in which large-scale immigration takes place. This does, of course, not mean that the text is per se against liberal immigration policies – it just does not address these issues in such a direct way as is sometimes suggested. It is also not possible to deduce any support for illegal immigration from the passage in question.

I would argue that the use of the episode in the current migration debate, mostly by advocates of (near-)open border immigration policies, then, looks largely like a matter of over-interpretation and exegetically problematic generalization. The only clear direct connection can be seen to cases of individuals fleeing from personal death threats. Even so, one has to bear in mind two important points: Only the fact that there was some kind of political and legal border between Judea and Egypt could guarantee the success of the escape (which is an antidote to one-world globalism); and according to the socio-political circumstances of that time, Jesus and his family would not have been economically supported by what we would call today "the government," but either (in part) by donations of the large Jewish diaspora in Egypt, and perhaps more importantly by income generated by Joseph himself.