Our nation is gearing up for a debate on immigration reform. The question is: What do we do about the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in our country? Do we forcibly deport? What about Miriam, the 22-year-old woman I met who came to this nation illegally as a 9 month old baby held in her mother’s arms? Her 17-year-old brother and 9-year-old sister were born in the USA. Should she be deported and separated from her siblings?
This past Sunday to honor Dr. King’s legacy the church I serve hosted a panel discussion and sermon on immigration. Sally Godard our guest preacher chose a text from Leviticus 19: 33,34: ‘When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.’
This morning I had a phone call from a neighbor who had heard about the church’s immigration event. He was concerned that we were ‘diluting that which makes this nation great’. He said: “We are Americans, when we talk about Latino Americans and Anglo Americans, we are focusing on what divides us, not on what unites us.”
I understand his argument but I don’t agree. We’ve always been a nation of immigrants. We’ve been able to honor our diversity while also being able to focus on that which unites us. I think our ability to make room for diversity, while claiming our unity, provides the creative energy that makes this nation such a special place.
The writer of Leviticus reflects God’s heart for the alien, the outsider, the other, ‘for once you too were an alien’. Listen to my story: In 1867 my Great, Great, Grandmother, Sarah gave birth to my Great Grandfather, John. Sarah was a single mother and gave birth to her son in a ‘work house’ in Manchester, England. A work house was where the poorest of the poor lived, the indigent. For reasons lost to history, Sarah’s family would not take her in. She gave birth in the most humble of settings. Alone.
Two years later, Sarah made up a story, she changed her last name, said she was a widow, and brought her child to America, where Sarah found work as a textile worker in the mills of New England. Sarah was an alien, an outsider, trying like so many other immigrants to make a better future for herself and her family.
When I look at the immigrant debate today, I don’t think of ‘them’ and ‘us’. I simply think of ‘us’. With the Biblical writer, I too seek to welcome the immigrant. As a citizen, I will do my part to advocate for immigration reform. For not so long ago, my people were aliens in a distant land.