“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).
Gina Christian is a senior content producer at CatholicPhilly.com. Follow her on Twitter at @GinaJesseReina.
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Gina, first we can no longer be an immigrant nation, either legal or illegal. We have to many people either unemployed or underemployed. Second the illegal immigrants are breaking God’s commandments by coming here illegally. By either stealing other people’s jobs, lying (making false documents) or coveting their neighbors goods. You and other clergy (priests, bishops & Pope) are indirectly teaching them break God’s commandments. Which means you have a millstone around your neck. The Church should be focusing on helping to stabilize those countries instead.
I’m confused as to the point you’re trying to make. Are you advocating we should merely let anyone who comes to our borders free access? There is a process for entering our country. Why can’t we agree that people follow it? In the meantime, we can help people less fortunate than us by supporting organizations dedicated to helping them. We have sponsored children through Children International for over 30 years. We likewise have supported Food for the Poor and Food for the Hungry and other organizations on a monthly basis. We can’t fix every problem in the world but we can make a difference by helping them where they are. We cannot take the entire world into our country. We will be judged by how generous we are with the abundant resources we have. Let’s start there.
I’m sorry Gina, but your emotive article is a bit of a stretch …
Firstly, you appear to condemn the settling immigration for taking from Native Americans, but then condone illegal immigration?
Secondly, you state that if you don’t meet the various criteria for current immigration laws, including that of refugee status, “then the door is barred, even if what lies behind you is, essentially, hell on earth.” … wouldn’t “hell on earth” qualify you for refugee status? … and if not in the US, at least in one of the other ‘well to do’ first world countries?
Finally, you state that “Most people who rail against the influx of [illegal] migrants and refugees invoke the importance of following the rules.” I think the word ‘illegal’ is an important yet conveniently omitted qualifier for your statement. Do you not want to live in a law abiding community? Please understand that the US admitted nearly 1.2 million legal immigrants in 2016 alone, and will likely continue to grow as it has done recent decades despite immigrations laws not too different to those currently in play.
I totally agree with helping ‘the stranger’, but we should primarily do so to help them stay in their country with their family, history and culture. We should be improving the world so that there is no need for people to come to the US (or another country) for a better life. If we do that, we will be helping a lot more than those trying to add to the US illegal immigrant population.
Thanks for reading, Ron, and for sharing your insights. In response to your points:
Our immigration debate has too often become a blind exaltation of law and rules over compassion and reason. Laws enacted by humans are not in themselves necessarily just, as our nation’s founders would be the first to observe. Flawed people can (and do) make flawed laws, and where those laws are deficient or harmful, they can and should be revised. In recalling our horrific treatment of Native Americans, I am reminding us that our self-righteous appeal to law is hypocritical: we couldn’t live up to our own treaties (which were, as I noted, often conducted under coercion, with terms that did not favor the indigenous nations). Before we point fingers at “illegal” immigrants, we need to first look into the mirror of history.
Our refusal to admit the thousands of Syrian refugees who have desperately needed our assistance for years is just one example of how living through “hell on earth” in no way guarantees refugee status in the U.S. Syrian civilians have been subjected to documented chemical warfare by their own government, and used as humans shields by any number of rebel factions throughout a horrific civil war that has been marked by unspeakable atrocities. The Pew Research Center reported that as of January 2018, “no nation in recent decades has had such a large percentage of its population displaced” — with the numbers totaling 13 million (which includes 6 million internally displaced). Of these, the U.S. has accepted just 33,000. Canada was a bit more welcoming at 54,000, and Germany took in 530,000. The remainder were accepted by Middle Eastern countries, where they are largely confined to marginalized and substandard living conditions, and where they often face additional mistreatment and discrimination.
I agree that we should indeed be improving the world, and I would add that one way to do so would be to reexamine both historical and current foreign policies that have resulted in the destabilization of several nations. Our long interference in Latin American governments, combined with this nation’s unconscionable consumption of illegal drugs (we are the world’s number one consumer), has led to the conditions that have caused migrants to flee countries such as El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. We do not operate in a vacuum; every political, economic and social choice we make as a nation has a global impact, and affects millions if not billions of human lives.
Thanks again for reading, and may God bless you and yours.
Thankyou for your extended insights Gina.
While looking in the ‘mirror’, current and historical, take a wider look at all those ‘strangers’ who suffer inside the US. Where is the ‘better life and opportunities’ outcry for the US citizens that served their country, or are homeless, disabled, aborted, euthanized, etc.? Surely these greatly outnumber the potential illegal immigrants trying to circumvent the law? Shouldn’t our own people be taken care of before we extend an already generous hand to legally take in additional immigrants?
Accepting your ideology for a moment, how many ‘refugees’ and/or immigrants do you propose the US takes each year? If you attempt to put a number on it, or limit/restrict it in any way, you are extremely disingenuous as there will always be someone in the world that would like to come to the US for a better life. So, if immigration needs to be unlimited and unrestricted to meet your ‘help a stranger’ utopia, what will that do to the ‘better life’ experience in the US, and are you prepared to accept the consequences and risk the better lives of your family and their future generations?
Separately, on the subject of Syria, I note your concentration on the ‘bad’ Syrian Government, but you fail to recognize that civilians are fleeing the country because of a war … not just a civil war with the rebels, but one that the US and its allies are physically contributing to on a regular basis (try Googling “US airstrikes kill dozens in eastern Syria mosque” to see what happened last month). Don’t you think it’s a bit hypocritical to care about Syrian refugees when you appear to not care if the US government under the last two Presidents is directly causing their deaths and the need to flee their war-torn country?
Both of these maybe the results of ‘flawed laws’ and decisions, but I’m sure you would agree that we need a society that abides by the rules if we want to live our lives with order rather than chaos. If you disagree with the flawed laws and decisions, put more of your efforts into getting them changed/corrected, while caring for the strangers who are in the US legally that need your help, including legal immigrants, otherwise the need for help will continue to grow in perpetuity.
Again, I’m all for helping ‘the stranger’, but I think we need to consider in which way we help every stranger to ensure they are all taken care of in their own countries in the first instance.
May God Bless you for your well-informed article on welcoming our neighbors, the immigrants! “Whatsoever, you do to the least of my brothers, you do unto me”. God’s law always overrides and man-made laws! It is so important that we remember and practice the Beautitudes. Yes, there is a border we will all cross and we need to hear, “Well done my good and faithful servant”.
Thank you for speaking for those who have no voice!
Thank you for the well informed, compassionate response to the arguments many pose against reasonable immigration policies that recognize immigrants as God’s beloved in need. One does not need to be Christian to see these individuals as fellow humans in need of compassion, but there should especially be no question in a Christian’s conscience that we are to welcome refugees and immigrants seeking a peaceful life of dignity in our nation. They should not be dehumanized by being defined by a legal status, but embraced as child of God.
Excellent article! Thank you for providing us both some historical context with a Scriptural reminder of Jesus’ call to welcome the stranger.