As mentioned on Thursday, today I’m posting the first part of an interview with Jenny Hwang who, along with Matthew Soerens, authored Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate. I read a lot of books this year, but this is the one I’ve most recommended. Hwang works for World Relief in Maryland as the director of advocacy and policy for the Refugee and Immigration Program. She is an able guide through the murky waters of American immigration policy, both past and present.
Today we begin with some of the bigger issues this book provoked for me. On Wednesday I’ll post Hwang’s responses to three very practical questions, including ways each of us can be involved in this arena.
In your book you cut through a lot of the confusion regarding the history of immigration and immigration policy in the United States. What are a couple of the greatest misconceptions about immigration you’ve encountered?
One of the most common misconceptions about immigrants is that they are all Latino or Mexican immigrants who are crossing the border illegally. Of the 12 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. today, there is a substantial number of undocumented immigrants who are Irish, Korean, Ukrainian, or Nigerian, among others. Also, there is a misconception that all undocumented immigrants have cross the border illegally which is not true- about half of undocumented immigrants did cross the border illegally but about half actually entered the U.S. legally on a visa but over-stayed their visa, oftentimes to continue work in a job or to be with family. Many undocumented immigrants, when you talk with them on a one-on-one basis, did try to come the legal way to the U.S. but oftentimes there was no “line” for them to get into since there is such a limited number of visas available; for example, there are currently only 10,000 visas available for low-skilled permanent immigrants to enter the U.S.
The majority of immigrants also pay taxes. The Social Security Administration estimates that 3 out of 4 undocumented immigrants have payroll, Social Security, and Medicare taxes deducted from their paychecks, contributing $6 to $7 billion dollars a year in withholdings. Undocumented immigrants, however, are ineligible to receive any federal benefits, including Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, etc. Even legal immigrants are ineligible for many public benefits until at least 5 years after their admission.
Many immigrants are often fellow believers in Christ who share the same values that the broader American people have. They are hard-workers, very family oriented, hospitable, generous, and welcoming. So for Christians, when we think about the immigration issue, we should think of the issue as one that is directly affecting the body of Christ.
Your book argues that immigration is a theological issue, one that connects with Christianity at a fundamental level. What do you say to Christians who haven’t seen the immigration debate in theological terms?
When you read the Bible you find it is a book about migration. Almost every major Biblical character has some sort of migration experience, from Abraham who was told to leave his homeland, to the Israelites in Egypt who were refugees fleeing Pharaoh, to Ruth, the Moabite woman who with her mother-in-law migrated to Israel from Moab, and King David who fled at times in his life from King Saul, to Jesus who as an infant fled to Egypt following King Herod’s decree that all infants under 2 years of age were to be killed.
God also throughout the Bible has a special concern for the immigrant. Ger, the Hebrew word closest to “immigrant” in English, appears 92 times in the Old Testament and is often noted as a people group who are vulnerable along with widows and orphans (Deuteronomy 24:19-21; 14:28-29). In the Old Testament, God explicitly and repeatedly commands the Israelites to provide the immigrants in their society with rights, benefits, and responsibilities equal to the native-born. Exodus 12:49 states “The same law applies to the native-born and to the alien [ger] living among you.” Leviticus 19:33-24 states “When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.”
While we do not necessarily have to adopt the Old Testament Law, it tells us about God’s character: God loves the immigrant, as He does the orphan and the widow, and He commands His people to love them also, remembering their own history. The Law was designed to draw the attention of other nations as a model of wisdom and justice (Deuteronomy 4:5-8).
As we think about immigrants today, it’s important to acknowledge that immigrants are a part of the body of Christ. Immigrant congregations are growing faster than any other category of evangelical churches. There is one Church – one Body, one Spirit, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all (Ephesians 4:4-6). Each part of the Body is indispensable (1 Corinthians 12:14-25) – so our immigrant brothers and sisters need us, and we need them. Many immigrants are suffering under the current system, living in fear of being separated from their families. In 1 Corinthians 12:26 we’re told that when one part of the body suffers we all suffer together.
While many view immigration as a threat, for the Church it is a great missional opportunity. Many immigrants arrive in the U.S. and bring a vibrant evangelical faith with them, revitalizing our churches. Others arrive in U.S. having never heard or accepted the gospel, so we have the privilege to share it with them. We are commanded to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19-20); through immigration, the nations arrive at our doorstep. Our response to immigrants and to questions of immigration policy—whether “welcome!” or “go home!”–will define how immigrants respond to the gospel we preach.