From the ancient Code of Hammurabi to 19th-century America, fugitive slaves were to be returned to their masters, if not put to death, and those who harboured them were punished. The Torah alone among early law codes offers them freedom. If we look for a Jewish ethic for dealing with refugees, this passage is one place to start. Today's asylum seekers may not be escaping from literal slavery (some, tragically, are trafficked into slavery) but they are fleeing from war, brutality, crushing poverty and persecution.
Midrash Sifrei on Deuteronomy finds in these verses a guide to the reception of asylum seekers. "He shall live with you - not in a city by himself": asylum seekers are not to be consigned to separate ghettos, but live among the native populace. "In any place he may choose - where he finds a livelihood": not living on vouchers, but able to work and rebuild self-respect. "In one of your towns -
he should not have to wander from city to city" - not relocated away from friends, to a place where he is isolated; but "where it is good for him."
Finally, "you must not ill-treat him - this means wronging with words." We must not use language that stigmatises and blames asylum-seekers for the ills of our country, but recognise the opportunity to grow as a society, both morally and economically.
Another comment in the Midrash can be interpreted two ways. "In your midst - and not on the border." Why? Some interpret it to mean that, on the border, the fugitive slave could be easily recaptured. Another interpretation, though, shows more awareness of security concerns. On the border, the new immigrant might be pressured to show enemies the way in to the country. We are commanded to welcome those who, like our ancestors, escaped from slavery and persecution, but we should not ignore the risks this poses, and must strive to balance compassion with prudence.