A Nation of Immigrants. Part 5 of Welcoming the Stranger Series

ellis island photo

Image: Ellis Island Immigration Museum. Photo by Fovea Centralis

Immigrants today, whatever their manner of entry, come primarily for the same reasons that immigrants have always come to our country. Though immigration policies have changed quite drastically over the last two centuries, immigrants themselves are still pushed out of their countries of origin by poverty, war, and persecution, and are still drawn to the United States by promises of jobs and economic advancement, freedom, and family reunification. These push and pull factors explain most, if not all, of immigration to the United States from the time of the first settlers to today. – From Matthew Soerens and Jenny Yang (2018), “Nation of Immigrants: A historical perspective on immigration to the United States.” Chapter 3 in Welcoming the Stranger.

Chapter 3 Summary

This post is a reflection on Matthew Soerens and Jenny Yang’s insightful and thoughtful Chapter 3. Chapter 3 is a historical overview of the US immigration system. This chapter has been updated as well, with inserts on “the Church and immigration history,” “the refugee act of 1980,” and a reference to the Undocumented Migration Project. I especially like the addition of the last reference because of the comparison of undocumented migration across the Sonoran Desert with Ellis Island at the turn of the 20th century. Ellis Island, notes Jason de Leon, “was a horrible place if you were Italian or Eastern European. The human rights abuses that were happening when folks were migrating here have largely been forgotten with some historical distance.” Of course at that time, as is captured in Soerens and Yang, or any other book that recounts American immigration history, US immigration law was intended to exclude Italians and Eastern Europeans on the basis of their race. Therefore, our whitewashed memories of Ellis Island do not fully capture the complexity of what happened when migrants reached our shores.

Key Discussion Questions

  1. God presents care for immigrants as a justice issue while reminding the Hebrews that he was faithful to redeem their situation. How can the church remember its past in a productive way? How can we rehearse our own immigrant history both in a national and spiritual sense?
  2. Historian Roger Daniels has proposed that Americans have a “dualistic” view of immigration. What does he mean? Do you think this is historical or hypocritical?
  3. What does the ebb and flow of historical sentiment toward immigrants reveal about our country? Is it an encouragement or a discouragement to read the brief historical immigration summary of our nation?

What Shaped Immigration Law

What really moved me to anger and action on immigration reform was learning that our country did not have immigration restrictions during its first 100 years. After that, the immigration restrictions that were created were openly racist. Chinese, Italian, Irish, Mexican, and on and on depending on whoever the recent non-Anglo arrivals happened to be. Even in 1965, when we replaced our openly racist restrictions with more subtly racist ones aimed at welcoming skilled populations to the USA, our laws made it far more difficult for new arrivals from Latin America, Asia, and Africa to migrate. This was true even while most arrivals would be coming from these areas of the world.

Other disparities also come out clearly when reading about the options available to people who want to immigrate legally. Investing a relatively large amount of money and making jobs for Americans is one way. Of course, your employer can sponsor your visa, or you may obtain a student visa. You may also obtain a tourist visa, but you must have enough assets, wealth, or status to demonstrate that it would be unlikely you’d overstay your visa. So far, most of what I’ve written involves temporary visits. It is exceedingly difficult to legally obtain lawful permanent residence, whether by way of asylum, family reunification, diversity lottery, or otherwise. For example, suppose one wants to apply for lawful permanent residence while still in one’s home country. Even if your application is likely to be approved, you will likely face a waiting period of many years. For most persons of modest means—the overwhelming majority—your application for lawful residency is not likely to be approved. For most immigrants, there is simply no legal option.

Immigration is Complex, Not Simple

I’m not exactly sure what the correct response is to all this. Certainly, I feel a biblical approach to immigration would involve more liberty and generosity—just as our society favors liberty in areas of personal freedom so that a person may respond to God according to their own conscience and not under compulsion. However, reading other books by non-Christian authors on this issue, such as The Making of a Dream or Tell Me How It Ends, makes one word come to mind: complexity. Maybe this is why everyone tries to keep it so simple. I can hear the simplistic points so often used replaying in my mind:

  • Love your neighbor.
  • Deport the criminals, they broke the law.
  • No one needs to know my status, they can’t help me anyways.
  • We need to protect our jobs and culture, we don’t know who these people are or where they come from.
  • It’s amnesty. You cannot break our laws and expect citizenship.
  • These immigration laws are racist and unjust.
  • Can’t folks just be resettled closer to their home country?
  • They need to fix the problems in their home country instead of bringing them here.

If only it were so simple, because any one of these factors would be easier to deal with if it stood alone. Unfortunately, it is not so simple. We have all of these things happening at the same time. Simultaneously, we have an economic crisis happening in our middle and lower classes in this country obscured by economic indicators that hide the devastation. Matters are made worse by division between the urban and rural communities that suffer exactly the same problems—displacement of well paying work, shifting skill demands with limited retraining support, dissolution of the safety net, drug addiction and hopelessness, and breakdown of the family—yet we cannot come together to address them. Can we deal with immigration too? Or should we save our resources for our own people?

Often, we are in relationships with immigrants without knowing it. Sometimes we know, but then accept them as one of our own. We think of them as different from the others. They become integrated into our community until an unanticipated event brings their status to light. It becomes clear that one cannot care only about the immigrant who is their neighbor. While it is only recently that the public has started to view illegal immigration as a criminal offense, even administrative violations are still violations of the law. Even if one can see the virtue of a migrant’s actions—and would likely make exactly the same choice as their undocumented neighbor—how does one satisfy the demands of the law? As Marco Rubio once said, “We cannot deport or detain 11 million people, but we also cannot legalize 11 million people.”

Complexity Requires Responsible Action

In the face of such complexity, I am reminded of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s thoughts on responsible action. Bonhoeffer writes in Letters and Papers from Prison:

Only the one whose ultimate standard is not his reason, his principles, conscience, freedom, or virtue; only the one who is prepared to sacrifice all of these when, in faith and in relationship to God alone, he is called to obedient and responsible action. Such a person is the responsible one, whose life is to be nothing but a response to God’s question and call.

If I can paraphrase, I would write: “In faith and relationship to my Sovereign Lord, I must take obedient and responsible action in response to His call.” Bonhoeffer’s ethics were responsive to complexity because they were grounded in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Ethics grounded in incarnation will have us act in ways that may make our earthly alliances unclear as we follow Christ into the complexity of His work. We cannot abscond our responsibility by pointing at the law or hoping someone else will take care of it. We cannot take solace in our social or political relationships because we have been called to lay all that down and follow Christ. We must take responsibility for discerning what we believe God is saying to us in Chris, and then take responsibility for obeying what we hear.

Since we must pursue responsible action, let us pray and ask God how he would have us act as Jesus’ agents in this moment.

  • Does he ask you to serve and support ICE agents? Find out how you can pray for them and encourage them in securing the border graciously.
  • Does he ask you to call out to him on behalf of the undocumented for greater grace as they bear their circumstances and uncertainty? Then devote yourself to prayer and fasting as he leads you.
  • Is he asking you to help others see Romans 8:1 in action: “there is now therefore no condemnation…”? Then ask your church how you can participate in the creation of communities of grace that integrate immigrants into our church and society without regard for why they have come.
  • Or, is he asking you to lovingly apply Romans 13:1: “be subject to the governing authorities…”? Then partner with organizations that provide legal or other counsel for those in deportation proceedings or advocate for comprehensive immigration reform.

Your thoughts, emotions, and responsible actions will not be simple, because you do not face simplicity. We face complexity. And God is asking you to exercise discernment as you follow him into responsible action as we face this moment in our nation.

Peace and blessings,


PostScript: Training Update, 8 Weeks Out

This week, I was dealing with a minor injury, so I’m copying large parts of an entry from my private training journal. As a result, today’s postscript is somewhat long. I know that many amateur athletes struggle with injuries, or stubborn pains if you’d like to think of it that way, so I’ll share some of my struggles too. I hope you’ll find this helpful…

It’s Monday, 8 Weeks Out from the Baltimore Running Festival half marathon, and I have written on my schedule a 2x3mi Tempo Workout. I’m going to run it, but it’s taking everything I have to get out of my chair and go run it. I’m so afraid of the workout. I just have to get off my chair, move one foot in front of the other to the car, move one foot in front of the other to the warmup, and then to the workout. Let’s see how my mind has responded when I return…

So, I attempted [the] workout, modifying the 2x3mi workout above, to a track workout of 3200m, 2000m, 1600m, 1600m at hard tempo pace (my 5k-10k race pace, about 7:50/mi or so, currently). I got the 3200m feeling great. I got 1600m through the second interval when I felt my left calf twinge. I decided to stop the workout immediately. It was a good thing, because I’d been hoping to get the whole 2000m, and was trying to finish the interval and just stop afterwards, but I probably would have caused much more damage that way than I did. So, this is my first injury of this year. [I ended up taking the rest of the] week off of running, and [based on this morning’s workout that was a good choice]. [I was] hoping not to destroy anything and need to take more than that…. I’ve pushed too early countless times as an athlete in the past, and wasted many days and hours of training, across various sports…

However, I had been thinking before that about trying to intentionally strengthen my calves more since I’ve been having trouble with plantar fasciitis. In fact, while I had plantar fasciitis in my left foot last year [that cost me the whole season because of a number of poor choices I made], this year I am dealing with it in my right foot and I had a hunch it was related to calf weakness. I am hesitant to take time off since I have just now been able to start running regularly, and I’ve only missed one workout (this past Saturday) in several weeks now. Clearly, God and my body [had] something else planned for me. [I ended up taking the whole week after last Monday off of running, and my workouts consisted principally of leg and calf weight training to make my legs and hips stronger. For details, send me a message by email or comment below…]

[I spent a lot of the winter and spring feeling sorry for myself. Especially last fall after I had to cancel my race plans, I really felt defeated with regard to running. However, I have resolved that this year,] I will not be defeated by this injury, even if I have to take a bit of time off from the running. However, I cannot say I’m not somewhat frustrated. I wanted to see what I could run this fall, even if I had a suspicion that it wouldn’t be close as I’d liked to [even] my [normal] 10 mile paces. I wanted to put together a full season of solid training, and I was hoping to be able to get several uninterrupted weeks in before the school year started. That [was] not the case as far as running is concerned, but I [did not skip a day’s worth of] workouts [this past week].

It’s Friday, the end of the week, and I’ve mixed feelings right now. I’m excited that my calves went through a tough weightlifting and jump rope workout, [indicating that I will be able to safely resume training on Monday] and in some ways, this is a great time to get an injury, since I have 8 weeks to race day from Saturday. In other ways, this is a terrible time to get an injury since my sleep and training schedules will be disrupted with the start of [the new semester] and [conference travel] to Belgium.

In the gym, I was thinking to myself about the fact that sometimes you just have to do something that feels good while training [to reset]. And for me, what feels good is [lifting heavy weights with my legs]. Especially squats and the leg press. I already have massive legs, and should probably watch out for putting too much more weight on my legs, but since I was sitting out the run training anyways, I just felt that I should go for it. I’m hoping that slacking off the cardio training too much this week won’t be my undoing…

I will not be defeated in injury, either by stupid training mistakes or by feeling down on the training I am able to do.

So, if you’re dealing with injury, know that everyone, even the elites, face injuries of all sorts and have to adjust. I hope you can find some encouragement and mutual strengthening in looking at just one part of some of the mental tricks I’ve had to play on myself and/or adjust my training. Depending on what happens this week, I’ll either talk about the struggles with pushing through the middle parts of your training schedule, or adjusting for major changes in work/life that bear on your training. Peace and Blessings.

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Royce Francis

Royce is an associate professor of engineering management and systems engineering at the George Washington University. He conducts and teaches under the broad theme “SEED”: Strategic [urban] Ecologies, Engineering, and Decision making. His research and teaching interests include infrastructure sustainability and resilience measurement, risk analysis, and drinking water systems analysis. Royce is a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), and the Society for Risk Analysis (SRA).

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  • Kle.seaton@gmail.com'
    Kelly Seaton commented on September 2, 2018 Reply

    I appreciate the acknowledgement of the complexities involved in the immigration issue. Too often we are divided on one side of the political aisle or the other (perhaps it becomes easier that way). Regardless of our stance on immigration though, a good reminder to pray for those seeking refuge.

  • royceworld@gmail.com'
    royce commented on September 3, 2018 Reply

    Dear Kelly,

    Thank you for this. It is very encouraging to know that others are seeking to know how God will lead them through this difficult season in our nation. I’m also glad that the posts have not been more offending than edifying, hopefully. To unity in Him, royce

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