The Immigrant among Us

The Statue of Liberty, New York

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest tost to me,
I life my lamp beside the golden door!”
(The New Colossus, by Emma Lazarus, 1883; mounted on the pedestal of The Statue of Liberty)

What book have you read that challenged you to the core and was so timely that you wished everybody would read it?

Recently I have read five books that were on World Magazine’s “books of the year” list. Each book was a good read, but one stood head and shoulders above the pack.

After The Last Border by Jessica Goudeau tells the stories of two women who immigrated to America. I found my heart reaching out to each of these women, one from Myanmar—via a refugee camp in Thailand—and the other from Syria. Between chapters describing their struggles, the author revisits the history of America’s frequently changing immigration policies.

One of the most tragic examples of a broken immigration policy occurred in 1939 when the ocean liner MS St. Louis departed from Europe with 937 Jewish refugees fleeing the Third Reich. Although they had Cuban Visas, upon arrival in Havana, Cuban officials wouldn’t allow them to disembark. When diplomatic negotiations failed The St. Louis sailed to Florida. The passengers and the American press begged President Roosevelt to provide them asylum. Instead the ship was forced to return to Europe where it would release the passengers back into the very situation they had been fleeing. Of the passengers who stood on deck and saw the shores of the United States, over five hundred would be incarcerated in Nazi concentration camps and 254 would die. The voyage came to be called the “voyage of the damned.”

However, six years later, President Truman and the American public pushed for change in our immigration policy. Once again the door opened to welcome the poor, huddled masses fleeing post war Europe.

American immigration policy has been a see-saw between more open borders and closed borders. Sometimes the justification for restrictive policies has been based upon fear such as during the Great Depression when jobs were scarce. Sometimes it was a matter of prejudice against “less desirable” ethnic groups such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first law banning immigrants from a specific ethnic group. Prior to WW II, the “less desirable” list included Jews and southern Europeans. Charles Lindbergh, spokesman for the America First Committee—established in 1940—advocated rejecting Jews and other nationalities based on eugenics, a philosophy that some races were inferior. Hitler’s Third Reich was based on this same philosophy.

It doesn’t matter where you land on the issue of immigration, please read the book. Like me, you will empathize with these two women as you celebrate their victories and grieve their losses. It may also challenge you to imagine walking in their sandals.

It has been said, “Those who don’t learn from history are bound to repeat it.” The actual statement was probably from George Santayana: “Those who can’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

What guidance, then, does God’s Word give us about immigration and immigrants?

Immigrants in the Bible

The Bible uses terms like pilgrim, alien, sojourner or the “stranger among you” to describe an immigrant or refugee.  Abraham became an immigrant when God told him to leave his family and homeland. He lived the rest of his life as a sojourner in the land we now call Israel. After Sarah died, he approached the citizens of Hebron to inquire about purchasing a burial plot for his wife, telling the elders, “I am a sojourner and foreigner among you; give me property among you for a burying place, that I may bury my dead out of my sight.” (Genesis 23:4, ESV)

During a drought-caused-famine in Canaan, Abraham immigrated to Egypt, where the waters of the Nile provided irrigation so there was still food. Once again he became a sojourner.

Having promised to give the land of the Canaanites to Abraham’s descendants, God added that they would live 400 years as sojourners in another land. (Genesis 15:13) Three generations later, Jacob moved his growing family to Egypt to escape yet another famine.  (Genesis 47:4) When he was introduced to Pharaoh, Jacob responded, “The days of my sojourning is 130 years.”  That’s a lifetime—a long lifetime—to never have a homeland.

One of Jacob’s sons became an immigrant when his brothers sold him to slave traders. Joseph didn’t become a refugee fleeing a famine, he was the victim of slavery. Violence and human trafficking continue to create refugees today.

Abraham’s descendants became slaves due to fear and prejudice among their Egyptian hosts. Moses, adopted by an Egyptian princess, rose to a position of power, but became a refugee when he fled the fury of Pharaoh. We are invited to empathize with Moses when he names his son, Gershom, meaning “I have been  a sojourner—a refugee.” (Exodus 2:22; 18:3)

Even David, fleeing Saul’s violence, became a refugee among Israel’s enemies. Elijah immigrated to Zarephath in Sidon due to famine and King Ahaz’s death threats. (1 Kings 17:8)

Consider these refugees who fled hunger or danger: Rahab’s family (Joshua 6:22, 23) and Naomi (Ruth 1:1) Even Joseph and Mary with infant Jesus were refugees fleeing Herod’s wrath (Matthew 2:13, 14).

Protection for immigrants in the Bible

The older testament consistently demands protection for immigrants and refugees living in Israel. For example, the law of gleanings required them to leave some of the grain standing or fruit hanging after harvest to provide food for the poor, the widows and orphans and the sojourners among them. (See Leviticus 19:9, 10) Every third year an additional tithe (10 percent of all the harvested produce) was required to provide for the Levites (who had no land) and widows, orphans and sojourners (Deuteronomy 14:28, 29; 26:12).

Sojourners, living among the Israelites, were also given equal protection under the Law (Leviticus 24:22; Jeremiah 22:3; Zechariah 7:8-10; Malachi 3:5—with severe warnings).

Refugees and sojourners in the New Testament

Jesus, in Matthew 25:31- 46, used the metaphor of separating sheep from goats at the final judgment. The determination of their destination—inheriting the kingdom or being evicted from the kingdom—is based upon how they treated the most vulnerable: the hungry, the poor, the prisoner and the stranger (sojourner or refugee) among them.

The apostles referred to Christians suffering persecution as sojourners or strangers. Peter addresses his readers as “exiles of the dispersion”—people fleeing persecution—in 1 Peter 1:1. Then, in 2:11 he calls them sojourners and exiles, challenging them to live such godly and honorable lives that their critics would recognize their good deeds and glorify God.

Paul reminded the Ephesian believers that they were once outsiders, alienated from God’s people and hopeless and without God. But, now in Christ, “you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God,” (Ephesians 2:19, ESV) No longer sojourners or pilgrims or refugees or slaves but free citizens and cherished members of God’s family!

I share one more passage that describes a Christian as a pilgrim—someone without a home—but searching for that homeland where they belong. Hebrews 11 is a list of Old Testament believers who lived their lives as pilgrims in search of a homeland. Clinging to God’s promise, yet they “all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland.” (Hebrews 11:13–14, ESV).

That not only described their lives, but ours today. We live in the “in-between-time”. Jesus has gone to prepare the place we will call home for eternity. Meanwhile we live as strangers, sojourners and pilgrims.

Each of us, that are followers of Christ, were once part of those “tired, poor huddled masses yearning to breathe free. We were the wretched refuse, the homeless, the tempest-tossed until one day we heard a voice calling—not from a statue in a harbor, but from the Son of God hanging on a cross: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28–30, ESV).

God’s immigration policy never changes. The door of opportunity is always open. The Father is always ready to welcome another child into His family.

Perhaps, today is your day to join the family by acknowledging your guilt and sin and accepting God’s gracious offer to forgive you and to welcome you into His family. Here is His promise:

But to all who did receive him, (Jesus Christ) who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12–13, ESV) .

It doesn’t get any better than that.