Reflections from My Summer Vacation
Last week, I took my ten-year-old daughter on a trip to New York City, where we boarded a boat bound for the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. I’ve made that trip at least a half dozen times and it never gets old. I find the history of immigration to the United States so fascinating – and so relevant to our contemporary debates over immigration.
Lady Liberty, as 19th century poet Emma Lazarus memorably proclaimed, lifts her lamp beside “the golden door” to the “wretched refuse” of other lands, the “tired… poor… huddled masses, yearning to breathe.” But the stories contained within the Ellis Island immigration museum tell a more complicated story: even as Emma Lazarus penned that sonnet in 1883, President Chester A. Arthur had just signed the Chinese Exclusion Act, one of the first federal restrictions on who could immigrate to the U.S., essentially excluding an entire nationality for more than half a century. That law would be followed in subsequent decades by restrictions on the poor and other “undesirable” immigrants, culminating in broad restrictions in the 1920s that would dramatically close off most immigration for decades.
It’s not that Lazarus’ poem was untrue: there have certainly always been Americans eager to welcome newcomers, including many followers of Jesus who were motivated by their faith to extend hospitality and convey the hope of the gospel. But there have simultaneously always been others – including, at times, Christians – who believed the United States should close its doors to further immigration. These restrictionist attitudes tend to be fueled by the idea that today’s immigrants – whether those were Germans, Irish, Italians, Jews, Chinese, Mexicans, or Syrians – were unable or unwilling to become fully-integrated Americans in the ways that past generations of immigrants (often precisely those deemed unassimilable a generation or two earlier) did.
It’s easy to reflect only on the generous welcome and on the romanticized immigration narratives: the brave people who, we have been told, crossed the sea in search of freedom and opportunity, worked hard, pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and achieved the American Dream.
But God had an important challenge to the people of Israel that I believe should also inform our response to immigrants to the United States: he told the people of Israel to remember their history – particularly the challenging parts of their history, the mistreatment they experienced as foreigners in the land of Egypt – lest they turn to the immigrants who came after them and treat them as horribly as Pharaoh had treated them (Exodus 23:9, Leviticus 19:33-34). God repeatedly commands his people to remember that it was his grace, not their or their ancestors’ hard work and virtue, that had brought them into abundance and safety.
Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. (Deuteronomy 8:12-14)
June is Immigrant Heritage Month, a month to reflect upon the legacy of immigration. Those of us for whom that is a distant family history, in particular, would do well to learn about and reflect upon the hardships faced by many of our ancestors – and to commit ourselves to emulating the best, most generous models of our history, not the discrimination and exclusion that many past generations of immigrants endured.
We also just commemorated Juneteenth, the celebration of when news and enforcement of emancipation reaching the enslaved Black Americans of Galveston, Texas. Juneteenth serves as an important reminder that – while often considered a “nation of immigrants” – not all who came to the United States did so voluntarily in search of a better life. Many came in bondage and endured oppression for centuries before they gained their freedom. That history, too, is vital to remember: both the virtue of those who fought against and ultimately defeated slavery and the personal and systemic sins and heretical theologies that made such liberation necessary.
As you pray this month, I’d encourage you to reflect on how God has provided for you and your family over generations, to ask him to help us to rightly learn the lessons of our history, and to pray that both the Church and the nation as a whole would welcome new immigrants, treating those arriving today not necessarily as our ancestors were treated, but as we would want them to be treated, doing to others as we would have them do unto us (Luke 6:31).
National Coordinator, Evangelical Immigration Table