These last few weeks have seen a veritable explosion in interest in reforming current U.S. immigration law. After being pushed to the back burner for several months, the recent national elections brought it to the fore. Both political parties witnessed the impact of the Latino vote last November and now would like to gain the allegiance of this fast growing demographic. Everyone now recognizes that the status and future of more than 11 million undocumented immigrants, mostly Hispanics, is the 800-pound gorilla in the room that no one can ignore.
I am half-Guatemalan, attend an Hispanic church, and am involved with Hispanics at other levels, so I watch this trend with interest -- and a bit of sadness. Immigrants can be reduced in the ongoing battle between the two parties to a faceless potential electoral block. Or, they are welcomed as needed consumers to help stimulate the economy or championed as a hard-working (keep-your-mouth-shut) labor force that will do jobs the rest of the country is not willing to do. What of their humanity? Part of me understands the pragmatics of our context, but I ask myself, "Where is the distinctively Christian voice for these times?"
Human history is the story of migrations. Not surprisingly it is a significant phenomenon with the Scripture. Many Christians, however, are not aware of how central migration is to the Bible. Sections of both testaments were written by those in exile, far from home. What is more, the father of the Christian faith, Abraham, lived his life as a "wandering Aramean" (Deuteronomy 26:5), never owning any property except for the plot he bought to bury his wife Sarah. This wanderer is the one we look to as the exemplar of faith to come into relationship to God (Romans 4). Migration even is a foundational metaphor of what it means to be a Christian: All believers, we are told, are "foreigners and sojourners" -- dependent, vulnerable, citizens of another kingdom (1 Peter 2:11; Philippians 3:20). Perhaps the more we understand about the realities of migration and the lives of immigrants, the more we will actually understand some of the depths of the meaning of the metaphor we might not grasp otherwise.
Old Testament law has much to say about the strangers in Israel (and not just the legal ones, as some are wont to claim). This group of outsiders that needed charitable hospitality to survive is included along with the widow, the orphan, and the poor as needing special support. The law deals with the immigrants' provision, protection and work place; it even allows them to enter into the religious world of the people of God. Repeatedly Israel is exhorted not to forget its own immigrant experience in Egypt, and in Deuteronomy (10:17-19) they are told to love the stranger because God does. There is much, much more about the immigrant and migration in the Bible.
Recently, I have been interviewed by several news outlets about the growing evangelical interest in immigration reform. Are not all evangelicals politically conservative, I have been asked, and therefore naturally anti-immigrant or at least against comprehensive immigration reform?
I am happy to say that this sort of stereotyping does not reflect what is actually happening on the ground. Evangelicals in growing numbers are joining efforts to change attitudes and laws. I can point to the work of the Evangelical Immigration Table and to the resolutions of several major denominations and their efforts at planting immigrant churches and starting leadership training programs. Christian colleges are organizing conferences to address the topic, and more and more evangelical publications now engage the topic. On the flip side, Hispanic churches are revitalizing several denominations and are beginning to appreciate their missional role to the United States.
Yes, there is still much work to be done to open the eyes of all Christians to the love of God for the outsider and to orient them from the Scriptures to be his hand and feet of encouragement in a society that objectifies immigrants as some sort of commodity or marginalizes them as the foreign Other. The movement to reach out to the strangers in our midst, though, has begun. This is a new day.