Strangers in a Not-So-Strange Land

By Rev. Eliana Maxim

President Barack Obama’s administration officials and political pundits of all stripes have indicated that January is the month for the president to make a push on immigration reform if there is to be any hope of real change. Gun control, fiscal cliffs and international affairs not withstanding, it’s safe to say that some significant move will be made by this administration to propose reform.

The most recent election has also made both political parties in the US acutely aware at the power of the Latino vote and the potential wielding of this power on issues near and dear to their hearts.

Economists have pointed out tangible benefits of extending immigration reform.

-      Legalizing the 11 million plus undocumented workers in this country would boost our nation’s economy. Tax revenues would increase as would legitimate businesses, which would provide employment for others.

-      DREAMers, undocumented young people who because of their illegal status cannot pursue higher education or employment, would be an asset (professionally, creatively, etc.) to an aging population.

There are many more reasons to support comprehensive immigration reform. People are being forced to live in the shadows of society, families are torn apart by deportation and access to basic services is compromised. Anyone who has ever had to deal with immigration law or navigate Homeland Security knows the incredible maze they present. Now imagine dealing with it when English is not your first language. It’s not uncommon to hear of individuals spending 6 – 8 months in detention centers awaiting deportation. Young adults, brought to this country as small children, find themselves being deported to countries they don’t remember, with languages they barely understand.

At best, the US immigration process is unwieldy and capricious. At worst, it is unjust and inhumane.

As people of faith, particularly those of us who follow Jesus Christ, we point to the Biblical call to welcome the stranger and love our neighbors as top reasons for our support. We refer to the God-given dignity of each person, acknowledging that God created and loves each person, regardless of his or her immigration status.

We are reminded throughout Scripture that, like current immigrants, we were once strangers in a strange land: “You must not oppress foreigners. You know what it’s like to be a foreigner, for you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 23:9; New Living Translation)

As a pastor, I am sensitive to those who darken the church doorway as a newcomer or outsider. It is particularly to this group of people that I believe God calls us to stand beside, to comfort and advocate for, in good and bad times. Perhaps my sensitivity has less to do with my pastoral call and more with my own experience as an immigrant.

Although my parents and I emigrated in the early 60’s with green cards in hand, we arrived to a culture that was outwardly bigoted and overtly racist. My parents had left behind their family and friends, culture, and all they knew, in order to strike out in a new country filled with the promise of a better future. They realized that as much as they loved their homeland of Colombia, this adoptive country would offer them – and their children – a better future, opportunities for education, and well-being.

Despite doing everything according to the immigration requirements of the time, we were continually questioned whether we belonged here and not so gently asked to go back to where we came from. We had the right documents. We didn’t need to hide, and yet…I know what it’s like to be a foreigner…

Times have changed. I don’t speak with an accent and most people haven’t a clue I didn’t start out as an American. But I remember well what it’s like to be unwelcomed.  I can’t even begin to imagine what it must be like to be undocumented or, as is more commonly and crudely called, illegal.

As faith communities, we are compelled by our understanding of who God is and who we are to God to extend an extravagant welcome to the foreigners and – perhaps more importantly – to advocate for the alien when they are mistreated or experience injustice.

Jim Wallis, Christian writer and political activist, recently spoke to a group made up of law enforcement, faith and business leaders about the urgent need for immigration reform. “They [undocumented aliens] live in fear and danger in the shadows, even though they are a potentially stable work force that we need. Our utterly broken immigration system enforces unfairness and injustice – and it literally is separating families from one another. Our safety, security, sanity, and, literally, our souls are all compromised by this broken and cruel system. Those who hold the Bibles know this breaks God’s heart and disobeys God’s direct commandments on how we are to treat “the stranger.”

My denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), is joining other mainline denominations through the Interfaith Coalition by welcoming the new Congress on January 22nd, making sure they know that people of faith demand human immigration reform in 2013.  The message is clear – we desire immigration reform that provides a pathway to full citizenship and prioritize family unity.

For more information on this important call-in day, please visit www.interfaithimmigration.org

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Rev. Eliana Maxim is Associate Executive Presbyter of the Presbytery of Seattle.

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