Immigration and Christian Faith

Sitting before a nativity scene in her home, the Tennessee state representative explained a tough new law to a television reporter. It’s designed to make employers identify illegal immigrants and send them packing, she said, oblivious to the irony of the setting.

The nativity is a story of displacement and immigration. It’s a refugee story. Joseph and Mary were migrants. When the infant Jesus was born and they fled Palestine for Egypt upon hearing infant boys were being slaughtered to prevent insurrection, they became refugees. They crossed national borders, perhaps illegally, we don’t know.

We do know one of the most remembered of Jesus’ teachings is that a mark of faithfulness of his followers is to show hospitality to strangers. “I was a stranger and you took me in.” (Matt. 25:36b)”

The Bible was written by, for and about immigrants, migrants and refugees,” according to The Rev. Joan Maruskin, former director of immigration for Church World Service. She points to biblical narratives that refer to immigration from the Exodus to Jesus to Paul.

As she notes, the best known migration story is the Exodus. The Israelites sought to escape persecution and economic exploitation. These conditions are no less a defining part of reality for millions of poor people today. According to Jason DeParle writing in the New York Times, seventy four million people migrate from poor country to poor country to escape poverty.

Many, if not most, are illegal immigrants. They risk greater abuse and less protective services than immigrants to richer countries and they place burdens on nations ill-equipped to deal with them. Even if they are only notch above where they were, they seek that small measure of gain.

At the root of this massive movement of people across borders is poverty. So long as poverty eats away at their quality of life and the grass looks greener in the next pasture, even if it’s only slightly greener, people will go, legally or not.

Immigration is about poverty, war and persecution, the very things Jesus said his followers should be concerned about, and among the very people he said it is necessary to receive with hospitality.

In this age of Lou Dobbs it’s worth remembering what Jesus said. When we receive the stranger it’s as if we’re receiving him. Recognizing this, a more constructive way to curb illegal immigration would be to partner with the poor to develop better economic conditions right where they are and not to build longer and higher walls. And it would be more consistent with Jesus to ratchet down the rhetoric that demeans and exploits fear and racism. But most importantly, it’s necessary to remember what he said, and who he was. When those who thought they were faithful asked,”When did we see you?”

He replied, “I was a stranger and you took me in.”

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