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Love Thy Immigrant

The Rev. Dr. Alice Hunt
President, Chicago Theological Seminary

Arizona’s new immigration law is necessarily abhorrent to people of faith—-and for good reason. From a Judeo-Christian faith perspective, the people of God are called--actually commanded--by God to love the immigrant. Why? Because the people of God know what it is like to be immigrants.

The United States of America is a nation of many, and often competing, values. Nowhere is this more true than in relation to the immigration issue. Given the current level of tension, there is some irony in the fact that most of the citizens in this nation come from immigrant families.
Of course, we should never forget that some of this nation’s citizens are here because their ancestors were forced to come here. And we should remember those who are native to this land, having survived despite the coming of immigrants. We are, by and large, an immigrant nation.

From Abraham to Jesus, the people of God were immigrants. For Christians, Jesus is perhaps the ultimate immigrant – born in a manger—on the very margins of society—no place to lay his head. The biblical tradition makes the commandment to love immigrants plain. While found throughout the Bible, the command is stated clearly in Leviticus 19. "When an immigrant resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the immigrant. The immigrant who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the immigrant as yourself, for you were immigrants in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God." (19:33-34)

Is this commandment relevant for today? In this time, some might debate the applicability to this country of a biblical text telling of God’s commandment to the children of Israel, the chosen ones. Nevertheless, many people of this country claim to use the Bible as a guide for their lives. If so, surely this commandment, seen many times in text and permeating the values of the biblical material, must apply.

For those who want to selectively apply certain biblical texts while ignoring others, they should at least be clear about the values and ideologies underlying their selections.

Dignity instead of fear should be our basic value for this issue. Some people of faith would cry out that love cannot be the operative principle in this case—today’s immigration issue—because we must protect what we have or face being overtaken. Instead of honoring the dignity of all, such a response is formed out of fear, operating on the highest value being given to economic privilege. The fear of losing what is seen as “our” money (position, status, belongings…) serves as the basic value. But God does not give a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind (2 Timothy 1:7)

And, in fact, we should probably pause for just a moment to realize that moving toward comprehensive immigration reform will help solve our current economic crisis. We already have “illegal” immigrants working in this country—working for less than minimum wage (to say nothing of a living wage.) If those positions were made legal, pay would be improved all. Furthermore, think of the tax dollars this country is losing because these workers are undocumented.

Finally, I believe the spirit of fear has overtaken this country’s core spirit. The best of this country is built upon the stories of people’s lives—stories of hard work, stories of survival, stories of building community, stories of welcoming and radical inclusion.

I grew up on Sand Mountain, Alabama—where stories matter. I now love living in the remarkable and beautiful city of Chicago—where stories matter. And I have had the privilege and opportunity to come to know some people who live in Mexico – their stories are much like yours and mine—people like Brisa and Martin and Nicole who live in Nogales, Mexico in a one room house made of plywood and cook on a burner and have to buy water from a truck that comes by once a week and pay for groceries the same thing that you and I pay at Treasure Island or Dominics or Jewel Osco. The people who migrate from and to Mexico, crossing 25 miles in a 114 degree desert to get to this country, risk their lives to get here not because they want to take away from you or from me. They come because they too love their families and are trying to survive.

I know Americans – and I know when Americans come to know people personally—the stories of their lives—they will do the right thing—working together for comprehensive immigration reform that tends to human dignity.

This article was originally published online in the Chicago Tribune on May 5, 2010.

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