“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”
You probably already know that these words from Emma Lazarus’ poem are written on a plaque at the Statue of Liberty. A statue that stands as something of a symbol for America.
So I recently finished reading the book of Deuteronomy, and one of the things that stood out to me, repeated over and over, was the command to care for the foreigner and alien among us. And the reason that God gives this newly founded community for doing this is because they too were once slaves and foreigners in Egypt.
Now by the time that people were reading this, not a single one of them had been brought out of Egypt. That was their ancestors. But God is reminding them of their heritage, how they were once strangers, needing help, in a strange land. In fact, God even commands a special ceremony in chapter 26, where people would go the the priest and declare, “My father was a wondering Aramean.” And then they would share their food and their money with the foreigners that they had among them.
I found myself reading this chapter over and over again. How could this be so prominent in the Scriptures and we never talk about this?
Immigration may not be a hot-button issue for you if you are in, you know, Topeka, but I live in Texas, and everyone has an opinion on this. And most of the opinions aren’t formed as an abstract idea, but because they, or someone they care about, lost a job to an immigrant who’s willing to do cheap labor. I have Mexican friends who have been deported, some who need health care, but can’t get it because they are not legal. I have friends who work long and hard days for next to nothing to send what little money they get back to their home country for their extended families survival.
I know there are a lot of layers to this problem.
So how does Deuteronomy speak to Fort Worth?
Because this seems like a weightier matter of the law.
One thing that struck me here was that God wants us to remember our own story. I remember finding out that my great grandfather’s great grandfather took a boat from Scotland. It seems like my father was a wandering Scotsman. So this isn’t a us vs. them issue, even though it may seem that way. When we discuss immigration, we have to realize that we are talking about a grace that was extended to our not so distant family. We too were once in Egypt.
Phyllis Tickle (whose name just has to make you smile) points out another layer to this discussion. She talks about how in the beginning of the 19th century, Chinese labor was the cheapest around. And the railroad companies exploited these immigrants, simultaneously laying off thousands of American manual workers. The backlash from this loss of jobs was so great that Congress eventually fully banned Asian immigrants. Seriously.
Our culture became devoid of Asian perspective, and the next three wars America was to fight was with Asian countries. Japan, Korea, and Vietnam.
Now this isn’t to say that these wars would have been certainly avoided, or that Mexico will soon attack the States. But there is something about shutting off from others, of closing our doors, that is destructive. That needs to be factored in when we talk about this. It’s a matter of National Security for our doors to be open to others.
Immigration isn’t just for “them,” it’s for “us” too.
I hate that this is seen as right or left political issue. I hate that churches are so silent about this issue, but are so vocal about such peripheral ones, ones that Scripture doesn’t even speak to.
Like I said I recognize that there are many moving parts to this discussion. But why aren’t churches leading the charge in the conversation? The church has pioneered the majority of great human rights movements in the past. Even to their own economic detriment. (Did you know that slave labor was the majority of England’s economic intake, and that the church offered and paid almost a half of their lost national income?) If something’s just wrong, economic forces have to take a back burner.
Is there an imaginative third way here?
What does it look like to remember our own story as foreigners in the context of feared job losses and economic down-turns?
What does it look like to wade into all the different nuances and layers of this problem because of a commitment to justice and obedience over other pressures, societal and economic?