Immigration has been called “the oldest and most persistent theme” in U.S. history.
Samuel Eliot Morison and Henry Steele Commager, two prominent 20th-century historians, offered this observation in their book, “The Growth of the American Republic.”
The dark side of this reality is an equally old and equally persistent anti-immigrant sentiment.
“All through our history there have been zealots who persuaded themselves that love of country comes only from birth not from adoption, and who were agitated about the ability of American society to absorb these newcomers, and about their loyalty to America,” they commented.
First penned in the 1930s, these words accurately describe the situation in which the U.S. – and the world – still finds itself. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
In reviewing Morison and Commager’s overview of U.S. immigration regulations, fear as a driver of legislation is evident:
1798: Fear of an impending war with France resulted in laws that increased immigrants’ citizenship requirements, prohibited naturalization of immigrants from “enemy” nations and authorized the president to deport persons thought to be “dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States.”
1882: Fear of Chinese laborers coming to California during the “gold rush” and taking their earnings back to China prompted a decade-long ban on Chinese workers.
1917: Fear of immigrants who didn’t speak or read English fluently resulted in Congress passing (over President Wilson’s veto) a literacy test for U.S. citizenship.
1921: Fear of too many immigrants coming to the U.S. resulted in a quota system tied to the percentage of each nationality then residing in the U.S. (based on the 1910 census).
This 1921 legislation was a significant shift in approach that, with some variation, remained intact until 1965 when national origin quotas were eliminated.
As Pew Research Center explained, “The 1965 law undid national origin quotas enacted in the 1920s” but retained per country quotas and “imposed the first limits on immigration from Western Hemisphere countries, including Mexico.”
Pew added, “Those limits, combined with the end of the Bracero program in 1964 [a guest-worker program for farm laborers from Mexico], are associated with a rise in unauthorized immigration, mostly from Mexico.”
While we should lament fear as a consistent influence on immigration policy, it is important to emphasize that borders matter.
National leaders have both a right and responsibility to manage their borders – monitoring persons and products that cross them to ensure citizens’ safety, regulate trade and commerce, and control disease.
Yet, for Christians, the Bible’s consistent call to show compassion to “the stranger” offers a constructive tension that influences perspectives on such policies.
What U.S. history makes clear is that too often the important, yet delicate balance of border security informed by compassionate welcome to immigrants has been thrown off-kilter by fear.
We seem to be at a tipping point yet again, in which fear is overriding facts with regard to refugees in particular and immigrants in general.
This is always a tragic situation, but it is more so when faced with record levels of global displacement.
Christians should set an example by knowing the facts about immigration and working to ensure that conversations and proposed policies are based on the reality on the ground and not the result of fear-based perceptions.
We can differ on policy decisions, but those differences should be based on facts rather than feelings or fictions.
This necessitates that we educate ourselves about the issues involved. With regard to refugees, for example, this requires understanding the U.S. vetting process for refugee resettlement.
Informed Christians should then be educators and “myth busters” who speak out against falsehoods (uttered intentionally or not) in a way that ensures we are heard.
Being prophetic doesn’t mean being rude, crude or arrogant. It doesn’t mean denigrating those who have different perspectives (whether based on informed analysis or feeling-based conclusions). Presentation and tone matter if we want to make a difference and change hearts and minds.
The Bible consistently calls for compassion to be shown toward “the stranger” – the alien, foreigner, immigrant / migrant, refugee.
How this could (or should) be translated into public policy isn’t clearly spelled out, so Christians should be humble in the conclusions they reach and careful not to draw a straight line between biblical texts related to immigration and specific legislative proposals.
Fear and false information have often derailed constructive, bipartisan proposals regarding immigration reform.
Christians must speak against rhetoric that incites fear, expose false information, oppose fear-based actions, prioritize compassion (particularly with regard to refugees and asylum seekers) and engage in ministry to (and with) immigrants.
A cursory review of U.S. history reveals that too often the nation’s immigration policies have resulted from fear more than facts.
Let’s work to change this trend by educating ourselves about the facts regarding immigration and then speaking the truth in love.
Editor’s note: “Gospel Without Borders,” EthicsDaily.com’s documentary on faith and immigration, helps churches find more light and less heat on this issue by addressing false narratives about immigrants and providing handles for advancing the common good.