Immigration and Embracing the Stranger

The first job I ever had out on my own was in the front of the house in a restaurant. Back then I was a fairly clean-cut seminarian who didn’t drink or swear. It’s fair to say that those days have shaped me.

What I will never forget from those early days especially, was watching that kitchen run. Behind the line the guys had a radio blasting Mexican polkas and they moved together as if they were a sweaty well-choreographed ballet. Each of them was either just beginning a 12 hour day or on the tail end of one, most earning money to send to family back home. The majority of these men shared rooms with each other, banded together by a shared purpose of making a better life for themselves and their families.

The bulk of these men were undocumented immigrants.

And so, of course, I have never understood the argument that undocumented immigrants are causing trouble for the rest of us. Any available statistic will tell you that immigrants, as a whole, cause far less trouble than those of us who are born in America. This fact is unchanged regardless of documentation status.

Donald Trump’s campaign famously began by signaling the racism and fear-mongering he would later take to the White House, as he painted Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and “gang members”. ICE has ramped-up efforts to deport even peaceful immigrants who have deep roots in America, men and women who have raised families here have been uprooted. While we hear the now-familiar bellowing for a medieval border wall repeated in rallies, the cruel policies on the ground have made it exponentially more difficult to apply for asylum legally, causing thousands of people to be essentially trapped on either side of the border.

It is well-worth pointing out that, outside of the unashamed cruelty of Trump’s policies, the intentional separation of families at the border, and the now dozens of deaths in ICE custody, the problem of immigration is bipartisan. President Barack Obama was famously referred to by activists as “The deporter in chief”, deporting 2.5 million people, more than all 20th Century presidents combined. 

The simple charge against Republican and Democrat alike is that we are a “nation of immigrants”. I’m sure I’ve said this myself before. And it is true enough. But if we are to claim an American heritage of embracing the immigrant, we had better check our history first. We had better reckon with our first sin, the genocide of the native peoples. Then we had better reckon with the transatlantic slave trade. After that we can deal with the way Irish immigrants were treated. Then we can recount that, even under FDR, the patron saint of the left, we refused Jewish immigrants in the 1930’s and created internment camps for Japanese-Americans.

Today there are a host of reasons people are fleeing to our borders, and we, as Americans, have had in creating many of these conditions. Our history in destabilizing Latin America is well-documented. Our trade policies have created an economic race to the bottom (think union jobs in Michigan being replaced by “cheap labor” to the tune of a couple of bucks an hour in Mexico City). In recent years we have also seen the beginning stages of worldwide mass-migration caused by our changing climate.

But immigrants have always been an easy target for the powerful to single out. Tucker Carlson, for instance, recently dusted off the accusation that immigrants make America “dirtier”. We hear almost daily now the accusation that illegal immigrants make us less safe. Again, all available data prove this to be a lie.

Is the solution, as many on the left believe, to “abolish ICE”? That would be a good start. Is the solution amnesty or open borders- as indeed the patron saint of the right, Ronald Reagan believed? Yes.

And as Christians, this should be very clear in our thinking. As far back as the book of Leviticus, the people of Israel are instructed:

33 “‘When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. 34 The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.

Now, what precedes this textually also prohibits tattoos (oops, sorry mom!), but these words are echoed by Jesus in Matthew 25:

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

Embracing the stranger, taking care not to mistreat foreigners among us, in my understanding, is basic to belonging to the people of God.

We have spent far too long, too much money and too much energy supporting those in power who would have us pit ourselves against immigrants. It is an old tool and one that is as transparent as day. And it is antithetical to following a Jesus who spent the first years of his life as a stranger in a strange land.

When I worked with those men years ago I knew implicitly that what they were here for was the same things I was taught to pursue. They were here to provide for their families. They were here to participate in society. They were here to make a better way forward. None of them were particularly saintly but I’ve still yet to see anybody work harder than those guys in the back of the house.

And even if this weren’t the case. Even if immigrants weren’t, on the whole, harder workers than the rest of us (and they are), would it make them any less worthy of participating in life with us? Because they were born somewhere else, do perpetuate the evil that our forefathers were guilty of, and exclude them, putting up walls physical, political and social? No.

May we embrace the stranger among us in both word and deed.


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