Gina Christian

“The Lord commands that we first take care of our own people,” an angry reader tweeted at me during an online debate about immigration. “It’s in the Book of Tobit and in Paul’s first letter to Timothy. You don’t know your Scripture.”

I squinted at my phone and sighed. Was it worth trying to convince a stranger in cyberspace that migrants and refugees are “our own people” — human beings, made in God’s image and likeness? That they are fleeing violence, famine, and oppression; that they need an outstretched hand, not a clenched fist?

I didn’t get the chance; the reader blocked me before I could respond. He ended our exchange with a stern declaration on the supremacy of law and justice.

He’s far from alone. Most people who rail against the influx of migrants and refugees invoke the importance of following the rules. Many will point to their own immigrant ancestors who, they proudly observe, did no less when seeking a new life in this country.

Perhaps we should dust off a few history books to make sure our memory serves us correctly.

If we want to check our record of legal compliance, one place to start would be with the more than 370 treaties this nation entered into with the Native American peoples, who (as their title indicates) were the first inhabitants of this land. Most if not all of those treaties — a number of them executed under coercion — were broken. Native Americans were systematically stripped of their land, their culture and their lives in the creation of the United States, often by “God-fearing” settlers who believed this continent had been divinely ceded to them for their unrestrained exploitation.

Today, Native Americans have a poverty rate in excess of 30 percent, while they die at higher rates than other Americans from tuberculosis (600 percent), alcoholism (510 percent), diabetes (189 percent), vehicle crashes (229 percent) and suicide (62 percent). In fact, suicide is the second leading cause of death for Native youth ages 15 to 24 — the highest rate among all ethnic groups in the U.S., according to the National Congress of American Indians.

So much for the supremacy of law and justice.

“My ancestors came after all that,” some would argue. “And they were treated badly too.”

So were mine, who escaped Ireland’s great famine in the mid-19th century only to be told upon their arrival in New York that “no Irish need apply.” But even their situation, dire as it was, cannot be accurately compared to that faced by today’s refugees — because immigration laws as we now know them, with their quotas and complexities, did not exist then.

The American Immigration Council (AIC) observes that “until the late 19th century, there was very little federal regulation of immigration.” With “virtually no laws to break,” immigrants arrived at port centers such as Ellis Island or Castle Garden for inspection and — if no deterrents such as illness or insanity were found — admission.

Even with the Chinese Exclusion Act, which was in place from 1882-1943, “the vast majority of people who arrived at a port of entry were allowed to enter,” according to the AIC. Of the 25 million European immigrants who landed at Ellis Island between 1880 and World War I, authorities turned away only one percent.

Quotas weren’t established until 1921, and visas weren’t required until the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924. But even as the federal government began to tighten the rules for entry, immigration — legal and illegal — continued. Amnesty programs such as the Registry Act (through which 200,000 unauthorized Europeans legalized their status between 1925 and 1965) acknowledged the obvious: those who sought these shores were overwhelmingly ordinary, hardworking people who simply wanted to live in peace and freedom.

Surveying the past century and a half, the AIC concludes that “many of our ancestors would not have qualified under today’s immigration laws” for admission to the United States. Currently, if you’re not closely related to a qualified U.S. citizen or permanent resident, if you don’t have job offer from a recognized employer, if you don’t meet the criteria for refugee status — then the door is barred, even if what lies behind you is, essentially, hell on earth.

And speaking of hell, there is a border we will all cross one day, regardless of our immigration status. Each and every one of us will stand before the Lord God after death. What documentation shall we then present to gain entrance to his kingdom? And who will defend us from eternal deportation?

Before we are ultimately driven from our earthly home, perhaps we should retain an immigration attorney. Scripture has an excellent recommendation for our counsel: “Jesus Christ the righteous one,” who is our “Advocate with the Father” (1 John 2:1) — and who stands with all migrants and refugees, awaiting our compassion that he might truly say, “I was … a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:35).

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Gina Christian is a senior content producer at CatholicPhilly.com. Follow her on Twitter at @GinaJesseReina.