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A Nation of Immigrants

Matthew Soerens describes how his faith plays an important role in his advocacy work with immigrants.

Matthew SoerensMatthew Soerens is being honored as a Champion of Change for his efforts as an Immigration Reformer.

Like many other Americans, most of what I thought about issues of immigration throughout most of my life was based on what I saw on television, heard on the radio, or read in the newspaper. Some was positive, much was negative, and none of it seemed to affect me directly, particularly where I grew up, in the mostly ethnically homogenous part of Northeastern Wisconsin. Over the past several years, though, I’ve been challenged to see the various ways that my own values – those of our country, of my faith, and of my family – compel me to see immigration in a different light. Through my work at World Relief, where our mission is to empower local churches to serve the most vulnerable, including refugees, victims of human trafficking, and undocumented immigrants, I now have the privilege of encouraging others within my faith community to rediscover their values and to apply them to the complex and sometimes controversial topic of immigration.

The United States of America is, as John F. Kennedy called it, “a nation of immigrants.”  Except for those of Native American ancestry, we all can trace our heritage back to somewhere else, whether our ancestors came on the Mayflower or a slave ship, into Ellis Island or Angel Island, into JFK Airport or across the Rio Grande.  At its founding, America was, as our first president said, “open to receive not only the opulent and respectable stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all nations and religions.”  Though at various moments in our history we have not fully lived up to that standard, it remains core to our national identity.  I’m inspired by my Dutch immigrant ancestors, and I see reflections of their courage in the immigrants arriving today.

My faith teaches me that I must remember not only my immigrant ancestors’ valor and ingenuity, but also God’s grace in bringing them from the desperation they left behind, through immense struggles upon arrival in a new country where they were not always welcomed, to rebuilding a new life in the United States.  In the Hebrew Scriptures, God commands his people to remember their own history as foreigners in the land of Egypt and to allow their own experience to inform the way that they would treat those who migrated to their land later: “Don’t oppress an immigrant,” God says very clearly. “You know what it’s like to be an immigrant, because you were immigrants…” (Exodus 23:9, Common English Bible).  God repeatedly commands his people, as individuals and as a society, to care for those who are most vulnerable, specifically mentioning the immigrant, the orphan, and the widow on multiple occasions.  The Bible is replete with commands to hospitality – literally, the love of strangers – with the suggestion that by welcoming strangers, we might just be welcoming an angel without realizing it (Hebrews 13:2).

That reality – that immigrants, rather than people to be feared, may actually be a blessing – has been the experience of my own family.  When I was just a small child, my mother met a young woman who had recently arrived from Mexico in the nursing mothers’ room of our church.  Putting the values of her own faith into action, my mother befriended the young woman and invited her over for lunch.  When she learned that the young immigrant and her baby were living in a dangerous situation of domestic violence, my mother invited them into our home, where they lived in our basement for several months while getting back onto their feet.  In the process, they became a part of our family, enriching our lives in countless ways.

When we apply our values – American values, values of our faith traditions, family values – to the realities of immigration to the United States, our national dialogue transforms from a fixation on an imagined threat to the recognition of a tremendous opportunity.  We can then work together across partisan, religious, geographic, and ethnic divides to establish laws that reflect our shared values and to build a society that welcomes those who arrive as strangers into our communities.  As we do so, our country, our faith communities, and our families are strengthened in the process.

Matthew Soerens is the U.S. Church Training Specialist at World Relief and the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate.