Immigration: Threat or Opportunity?
By Matthew Soerens
Immigration is one of the most complex and controversial issues affecting society today. Many Americans, including many Christians, view immigration as a threat: they see the presence of immigrants—particularly undocumented immigrants—as a risk to our national identity, our economy, our national security. For Christ-followers, though, I believe immigration presents a beautiful, missional opportunity—one that the church risks missing if we insist on conforming to a fear-based political narrative.
Scripture gives us two contrasting models of how to look upon and respond to immigrants. At the end of Genesis, we encounter a Pharaoh who sees a great opportunity in Joseph—an immigrant. This immigrant, Pharaoh recognizes, is “discerning and wise” and filled with God’s Spirit, and so the Egyptian king gives Joseph a great deal of responsibility (Genesis 41:38-40). That trust is more than rewarded: Joseph goes on to save the Egyptian society in the midst of a terrible famine.
Made in God’s image, immigrants have the potential to contribute in spectacular ways, and to greatly bless the country that receives them. When Joseph’s famine-ridden family arrived in Egypt—hunger, then as now, is a great motivator for migration—Pharaoh received them warmly, and “gave them property in the best part of the land” (Genesis 47:11). A wise leader, Pharaoh extended hospitality, but his motives were more than simple altruism: he sought the blessing of the newly arrived elderly immigrant Jacob (Genesis 47:7) and put Joseph’s most-skilled brothers in charge of his livestock (Gen. 47:5). This Pharaoh knew, as columnist Michael Gerson has observed in the contemporary context, that immigrants are “not just mouths but hands and brains.”
A few pages further into the Bible, however, at the beginning of Exodus, we find a very different response to immigrants: one grounded in fear. A new Pharaoh came to power: he did not know Joseph or Jacob, but he saw in their many descendants a serious threat. The Israelites had “become far too numerous” and imperiled Egypt’s national security (Exodus 1:9). Pharaoh was not willing to deport the Israelites, though, because they played too important a role in the Egyptian economy; he wanted the Israelites’ labor, but did not appreciate them as people—and certainly did not consider, as his predecessor had, that they might present an opportunity. He decided to subject them to hard labor, and then went so far as to destroy families, decreeing that all male Hebrew infants should be killed (Exodus 1:11, 16).
Moses was born into this genocidal context; under the law, he should have been killed. His parents did all that they could to subvert this unjust law, though, just as most parents would, and by God’s grace saved their child’s life by seeking employment under false pretenses: Moses’ sister asked Pharaoh’s daughter, who discovered Moses floating in the river, “Shall I go and get one of the Hebrew women to nurse the baby for you?” She declined to reveal that this Hebrew woman would actually be Moses’ lawbreaking mother (Exodus 2:7).
In the end, of course, Pharaoh’s hardheartedness cost him, and his country, dearly, as Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, and Pharaoh’s army was drowned in the Red Sea. Meanwhile, Moses’ immigrant identity was so integral to him that his firstborn son, born to him during his exile from Egypt, was named Gershom, “a foreigner there” (Exodus 2:22). A central tenet of the Law that God would later give Moses was that the Israelites were to remember their immigrant history: “Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt” (Exodus 23:9). God’s practical example of the great commandment, to love our neighbors as ourselves, is a reminder that “you were foreigners in Egypt” (Leviticus 19:34).
The response of the Pharaoh of Exodus to the Israelites in Egypt has some striking parallels to the American immigration situation today. American Christians in 2011 would do well to remember our history—both as spiritual heirs of the Israelites and as individuals with an immigrant history of our own. Almost all of us have an immigrant past—whether four centuries ago on the Mayflower, on a slave ship, through Ellis Island at the turn of the twentieth century, or last week. Most of us have some recollection of our own family’s story, but we too quickly forget the most important part: God’s grace in bringing us from where we were (in many cases, a place of desperation) to where we are now. And much of America, sadly, has forgotten that immigrants made this country great—and can continue to do so, if we have the eyes to see immigration as an opportunity.
For the church, in particular, immigration is too great an opportunity to miss. Jesus’ Great Commission to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19) becomes a mission at our doorstep through immigration, but only if we have the eyes to see that “the harvest is plentiful.” (Matthew 9:37) While many immigrants arrive with a vibrant faith—breathing new life into churches in need of revitalization—others encounter the hope of a transformative relationship with Christ for the first time in the United States. Sadly, many churches have been slow to extend welcome, with the cultural narrative of fear guiding our thinking more than the biblical story of immigrants as a missional opportunity. In the process, these churches miss out on an enormous blessing as well: we never know which of the strangers we welcome might be angels in disguise (Hebrews 13:2).
One way to help change this discussion is to join a new campaign: UnDocumented.tv is a media-driven social-action movement to inspire young evangelicals, in particular, to champion the cause of immigrants. Please check out the site and, if it resonates, sign up for updates and share it with others. Together, we can change the way that the Church views this issue—and find that God wants to bless us through the arrival of immigrants.
Matthew Soerens is the U.S. Church Training Specialist for World Relief and the coauthor of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate. Watch a video conversation between Matthew Soerens and Spencer Burke here.