“You shall not oppress a sojourner. You know the heart of a sojourner, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9)
“Come, inherit God’s realm prepared for you . . . for I (Jesus) was a stranger and you welcomed me.” (Matthew 25:34-35)
There is more at stake in our national debate over the fate of the “dreamers” than immigration policy. The very soul of who we are as a nation moving forward hinges on how we act toward these young sojourners in our midst.
At the heart of the great Abrahamic faith traditions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—are mandates to love the neighbor, with special emphasis on welcoming strangers and those fleeing persecution. God formed God’s own people Israel in an act of migration (the Exodus into Egypt). When Herod sought to kill the newborn who was being proclaimed Savior, Jesus’ parents sought temporary asylum in a neighboring country.
Few issues enable the many disparate religious communities in our pluralistic nation to speak with one voice. But on the matter of the Trump administration’s declared intent to end DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and deport hundreds of thousands of wonderful young women and men who are our neighbors, we so stand together. The Central Conference of American Rabbis, leading Muslim imams, Catholic Conference of Bishops, National Association of Evangelicals, and bishops and presiding officers of virtually every “mainline” protestant church have issued pleas to reverse the proposed course and establish reasonable (though not automatic or easy) pathways toward permanent residency or ultimate citizenship for the “dreamers.”
Detailed rehearsals of the implications and consequences of deporting upwards of a million young persons have been issued by many in the media. As one who has lived and traveled widely in Latin America, from whence come a significant percentage of these vulnerable sisters and brothers, I can testify firsthand to the perils they will face if forcibly returned to the places where they were born. Particularly in Central American nations like El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, a deportation order amounts to a death sentence. As cited in a recent New York Times column, young women are especially vulnerable (“In El Salvador, ‘Girls Are a Problem’” by Catalina Lobo-Guerrero, Sunday, September 3, 2017). Imagine a teenage American-raised young woman who speaks no Spanish being put out on the streets as prey for violent drug dealers and gang members. Parents and grandparents, imagine your beloved teenagers being forced onto an airplane that will land in an alien country they have never known.
Human beings that we are, all of us make decisions based upon self-interest, in greater or lesser degree. Good patriots (and I consider myself one) are not at fault in weighing the national interest as we vote and advocate for policies and political stances. From that standpoint alone, those who would truly “make America great” will grasp the historical wisdom that generations of immigrants have brought the tensile strength that has made us who we are. At a time when unemployment is low (around 4% in Pennsylvania and below that in Adams County), when many employers worry about current and projected labor shortages, how does it make sense to send away a significant portion of the coming generation? Who will fill their places on the job, as tax payers and contributors to the Social Security system on which growing numbers of us rely?
Time and again, what has made America the great nation we are is a spirit of openness, trust in and care for our neighbors, and the courage to listen to Lady Liberty as she beckons in every generation, “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” In the case of the dreamers, they’re not tired! While many come from low-income households, the vast majority are willing and eager to work, hungry to advance their educations and thereby maximize contributions to our society. As have been prior generations of new immigrants, they’ll be among the first to sign up for military duty, to serve as police officers and firefighters prepared to offer the ultimate sacrifice for the rest of us in this land they love. Seek a few out. Sit and talk with them for a few hours. Discover their grit and gumption. Listen to their dreams, and resolve that together we will not dash them.
So many times in our nation’s history we got things right. That we did has been good not only for the United States, but for the whole world. And there were times we got things altogether wrong. Too many of the early “settlers” got it wrong in relationship to Native Americans. Generations got it wrong in brutally enslaving and denying the humanity of African Americans. We got it wrong in the Japanese internment during World War II. Let’s not allow our political leaders to get it wrong this time.
In one of his many parables, Jesus spoke of a self-centered rich man planning to build bigger barns to store all his wealth. The parable’s point is that there come those times when more is at stake than personal or national interest. This may be one of those moments where God is whispering, ”America, tonight your soul is demanded of you.”
The Rev. Michael Cooper-White is President Emeritus of United Lutheran Seminary, Director of Lutheran Formation at Union Theological Seminary in New York, and President of The Gettysburg Group consulting collaborative. He divides his time between the Gettysburg area and New York City.