Welcoming the Stranger | Reflections & Notes

Matthew Soerens & Jenny Yang. Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate. 2018 [Revised and Expanded]. (274 pages)


evangelicalimmigrationtable.com; worldrelief.org


Welcoming the Stranger is thoughtfully measured, data-driven, theologically robust, politically non-partisan, solutions-oriented, and story-filled. The authors address immigration, asylum, and American policies with the wisdom of their experience, but also with a critical analysis of the various arguments, aspects, and nuances of the issue that are at the forefront of our public discourse.

In a morass of exhausting punditry, it can be difficult to find resources and voices that are informative and explanatory. Soerens and Yang are both, an approach that not only helps advance good understanding, but more importantly appeals to the better angels of our nature; our frontal cortices that is.

Of utmost importance are the stories that are woven throughout the book that remind us that “immigration” is about real people, real lives, real hopes and dreams, and real suffering and fear. (And also real delinquency on our government’s part to enact viable solutions). We are reminded of the most basic and profound of human principles, of compassion, mercy, and empathy, and we are given the tools to quell the more primal impulses of fear.

For followers of Jesus this is also a clarion call back to the “first principles” of the faith, that from the very beginning and all throughout the Christian religion, identifying with and therefore welcoming “the stranger” is core to the tradition of Abraham and the Way of Jesus. It was a revolutionary and profoundly redemptive idea then, and it continues to be earnestly important and necessary now. In good form with the prophetic tradition, the authors exhort us to examine our true commitments, and to re-prioritize our convictions, ensuring they are rooted in the ethics of our sacred texts rather than in our modern political identities.

Without compromise, and with respect to all “sides” of the argument, this book is truly everything the subtitle says. It is just, it is compassionate, and it is truthful. I commend this to you, not just for the sake of addressing your questions on “immigration,” but also for the bolstering of your commitment to those three virtues.


Foreword by Leith Anderson

There are only three commands: to love the Lord your God, love your neighbor, and love the alien in the land. Deuteronomy 10:19 gives this third commandment to love and explains why: you were once aliens yourselves. (1)

1 The Immigration Dilemma

…we hope this book will encourage our sisters and brothers to take a step back from the rhetoric and combine a basic understanding of how immigration works, and has worked in the United States, (6) with a biblical worldview. We do not believe there is one Christian prescription to solve the immigration issue (though there may be decidedly un-Christian ways to view the issue), and there is plenty of space within the church for charitable disagreement on issues such as this. (7)

2 “Aliens” Among You: Who Are Undocumented Immigrants?

Undocumented immigrants make up a disproportionate share of federal prisoners because certain federal offenses (such as unlawful entry to the country) are specifically related to immigration, but undocumented immigrants are actually 44 percent less likely to be incarcerated in local, state, or federal facilities than native-born US citizens. (21)

It’s like surveying people at your family reunion and concluding that most Americans share your surname. (21)

…we consider the demographic information from governmental agencies and from the Pew Research Center and the Migration Policy Institute, two nonpartisan research institutions, to be among the most reliable, unbiased data. (22)

…almost all undocumented immigrants pay taxes in one form or another, even though they are ineligible for many of the services that tax dollars support. (27)

…almost all immigrants come to the United States to work. Immigrants overall are significantly more likely than native-born US citizens to be employed,… (29)

3 Nation of Immigrants: A Historical Perspective on Immigration to the United States

Historian Roger Daniels suggests that most Americans hold a dualistic opinion about immigration: “On the one hand reveling in the nation’s immigrant past and on the other rejecting much of its immigrant present.” (45)

Immigrants today, whatever their manner of entry, come primarily for the same reasons that immigrants have always come to our country. (45)

Why should [immigrants] establish their Language and Manners to the Exclusion of ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens who will shortly be so numerous as to [change] us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our complexion? [Benjamin Franklin, Franklin: Writings, (1751), p.374]

cf. The Chinese Exclusion Act, 1882

That same year the federal government also passed, for the first time, laws banning the immigration of any “lunatic, idiot, or any (46) person unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge”—excluding precisely many of the tired, poor, huddled masses that Lazarus would write about the following year. (47)

cf. Indian Removal Act, 1830; Jeremiah Evarts; “Trail of Tears.”

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo: 1848. … putting an end to the Mexican-American War that had raged since 1846 (50)

“Manifest Destiny,” which claimed that the United States had the God-given responsibility to expand its territory—spreading democracy in the process. (50)

With the prominence of Mexicans in (50) today’s immigration debates, it is important to remember that not all people of Mexican descent are recent immigrants: some are living in the same locations that their ancestors have lived for centuries. (51)

This phenomenon, as immigration attorney and policy advocate Fred Tsao points out, demonstrates a reality that is important to the current immigration debate: that “if you set up restrictions,…particularly restrictions on established patterns of immigration, you’ll find [that] people will find ways to get around them.” (53)

While the Italians came primarily for economic reasons, Russian Jews came to New York fleeing political and religious discrimination.  (54)

In 1907 alone, 1.25 million immigrants were processed at Ellis Island, which was the highest number of immigrant arrivals in a single year until the late 1980s. (54) … Today an estimated one-third of all Americans can trace their ancestry to immigrants who entered the United States through Ellis Island. (55)

The quota system: 1924-1965. The Immigration Act of 1924…allowed the admittance into the United States of no more than 2 percent of the foreign population from a given country that existed in the United States in 1890. The 1890 census data was used, rather than the recently completed 1920 census, precisely because the older census predated the most recent wave of immigration, meaning the earlier baseline date would more tightly limit the immigration of new Italian and Jewish immigrants. The effect was to cap new immigration at about 180,000 people.

Race and eugenics played a major role in US immigration polices at the turn of the twentieth century. …that the “American” gene pool was being polluted by a rising tide of intellectually and morally defective immigrants—primarily from Eastern and Southern Europe. … When President Calvin Coolidge signed the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924, he commented that “America must remain American.” (56)

The act also introduced, for the first time on a permanent basis, the requirement of a visa to enter the United States of America. (56)

The importance of this new rule should not be understated. While it sounds reasonable to expect that today’s immigrants come legally, the way that many Americans’ ancestors did, the rules have changed entirely. For those of us whose ancestors came prior to the 1920s, without the requirement of a visa, to proudly note that our ancestors came legally to the United States is quite like a basketball coach bragging that his team scored 120 points in a game while a baseball coach’s team scored only six—the boast is illogical, because the rules are completely different. (57)

Beginning in 1942, when World War II led to shortages in the labor market, the United States and Mexican governments agreed t implement a specific guest-worker program known as the bracero program, which lasted in various forms until 1964, with as many as 400,000 Mexican agricultural laborers entering in some years. (95)

As the civil rights era was bringing questions of racial and ethnic discrimination to the forefront of the public discussion, the blatantly racial nature of the existing law was called into question. Kennedy argued, in a book on the topic of immigration, that the United States should have an immigration policy that was generous, fair, and flexible, allowing the nation to “turn to the world, and to our own past, with clean hands and a clear conscience.” To Kennedy, this meant a system based on a series of preferences, based primarily on family relationships and job skills. (60)

The days of unlimited immigration are past. But those who do come will come because of what they are, and not because of the land from which they sprung. – President Johnson

Though there have been significant modifications—some of which have been generous toward new immigrants and some of which have added further restrictions, usually in response to the public sentiment of the era—our current immigration system, which is described in chapter four, is still modeled after the 1965 law. (60)

cf. The Refugee Act of 1980

The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 had three significant components: employer sanctions, which required employers to verify their employees’ immigration status; increased enforcement of immigration laws and border security personnel; and a legalization program that allowed individuals who entered the United States before January 1, 1982, and were continually present in the United States without a criminal record, to be able to acquire legal status. (63)

Our history also reminds us that the immigrants of today are driven by the same motivations that drew the earlier colonists to come to the United States: the journey is never easy, and by sheer resilience, courage, and fortitude, many immigrants have established themselves as contributing, successful members of society for themselves and their families. (66)

4 Immigrating the Legal Way: Our Immigration System Today

…immigration today is not so simple, and most undocumented immigrants are undocumented not because they choose to remain in that state but because there is no process for them to enter legally or obtain legal status. (68)

In general, there are three basic statuses that a foreigner residing in the United States can have: legal nonimmigrant, Lawful Permanent Resident, or US citizen. (69)

…about 42 percent of the estimated eleven million people who are undocumented came on a valid visitor visa but overstayed,… (70)

Employment-based immigration. Employers may petition for immigrants to come as permanent resident workers or temporary workers, filling positions within their companies, with the intention of meeting the labor demands of the US economy. (74)

The current employment-based immigration system has little to offer, though, to the low-income, relatively low-education migrant,… (75)

WAITING YOUR TURN IN LINE: The Current Family-Based Immigration Preference System

Spouse of a US Citizen (from any country): No wait time, beyond the six months to two years usually required to process all required paperwork

Spouse of a Lawful Permanent Resident from Canada: Two years

Minor child (unmarried) of a Lawful Permanent Resident from China: Two years

Brother or sister of a US citizen from India: Fourteen years

Unmarried adult child of a US citizen from Mexico: Twenty-one years

Brother or sister of a Lawful Permanent Resident: No option to immigrate

Unmarried adult child of a Lawful Permanent Resident from Iran: Seven years

Unmarried adult child of a Lawful Permanent Resident from Mexico: Twenty-one years

Married adult child of a Lawful Permanent Resident: No option to immigrate

Parent of a US citizen: No wait time, beyond the six months to two years required to process all required paperwork

Parent of a Lawful Permanent Resident: No option to immigrate

Brother or sister of a US citizen from the Philippines: Twenty-three years

Unmarried adult child of a US citizen from Italy: Seven years

Married adult child of a US citizen from Ghana: Twelve years

Married adult child of a US citizen from the Philippines: Twenty-three years

Both refugees and asylees, according to the definition accepted by the United Nations and the (80) United States, flee their home country based on “a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.” (81)

Asylees are individuals who arrive in the United States as nonimmigrants but, once here, request asylum based on fear of returning to their home country. (81)

Almost all Lawful Permanent Residents and naturalized US citizens living in the United States today received their status through one of these four manners: for family unity, employment, by winning the diversity visa lottery, or seeking protection from persecution. (82)

That immigrants should wait their turn an immigrate the legal way sounds entirely reasonable, but the realities of our present immigration system complicate this truism. (84)

5 Thinking Biblically About Immigration

Welcoming the stranger (the “immigrant,” we could say today) is the most often repeated commandment in the Hebrew Scriptures, with the exception of the imperative to worship only the one God. And the love of neighbor (especially the more vulnerable neighbor) is doubtlessly the New Testament’s constant command. … Whatever the cause of immigration today, there can be no doubt as to where the Church must stand when it comes to defending the immigrant. – Theologian Orlando O. Espin

Based on the textual, historical, and archaeological evidence, scholars believe that ger (in the context of the Hebrew Scriptures) refers to “a person not native to the local area” and thus often without family or land; the same term is used to refer both to the Israelites when living (whether as welcomed guests or resented laborers) in Egypt as well as to non-Israelites living among the Israelites. (86)

The term usually translated as foreigner or sojourner appears repeatedly in conjunction with two other categories of people of special concern to God: the fatherless and the widow. (90)

Daniel Carroll Rodas notes that such frequent and specific injunctions in the Mosaic law toward care for the sojourner are unique in that the law codes of other nations in the ancient Near East “are almost totally silent” about how to treat immigrants. (91)

God does not suggest that we welcome immigrants; he commands it—not once or twice, but over and over again. (92)

We, who now “are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household” (Eph 2:19), might remember the grace we have received on a cosmic scale and, corporately, seek appropriate ways to extend to those who seek it the much smaller grace of being allowed to pursue citizenship in the United States. While we need not necessarily advocate open borders—there is an appropriate role for the government in monitoring and controlling those who enter our country—we ought to have a strong bias toward generosity in light of the enormous blessings we have received. (93)

To many North American ears, to “do justice” implies law enforcement, whereas to “act justly” implies doing what is right and fair. We believe the latter understanding is closer to the justice that God calls us to. (95)

The question for us if we are to seek God’s justice, then, is not only what the law is and is it being followed, but is the law itself just? (95)

With the exception of employing someone who is undocumented and not authorized to work (which is quite clearly unlawful) none of the ways that a church as an institution or an individual Christian would interact with undocumented immigrants…is against the law. There is no legal requirement or expectation that a citizen report someone they suspect might not be lawfully present in the country. (96)

[via: I thought of this story: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/05/us/tucson-border-activists-conviction-reversed.html%5D

Here’s what we are sure of: we can exercise the responsibility inherent within a democratic system of government to advocate for changes to law, such that individuals in this circumstance could make things right, paying a fine or completing whatever restitution might be necessary for having overstayed a visa or entered the country within inspection, but stay with their families, where so many are also contributing to our local churches and to our national economy.

| Ultimately, the Scriptures guide Christians to respect the rule of law, but our current immigration legal system actually makes a mockery of the law. (98)

Christians who advocate for immigration reform are not elevating compassion over the rule of law, but seeking solutions that would restore the rule of law, while also keeping families unified and affirming the inherent human dignity of all people. (99)

6 Concerns About Immigration

Indeed, while the secular government may have a particular responsibility to its own citizens, Christ-followers are called to love indiscriminately. (104)

“Nazareth First” might have won Jesus a local election, but it would not have been faithful to the universality of God’s love. (105)

[via: Nice.]

…almost all (81 percent of economists surveyed by the Wall Street Journal) believe that there is either no impact or only a slight impact on the wages of US citizens. A study by the conservative American Enterprise Institute concludes that “Overall, when looking at the effect of all immigrants on employment among US natives, there is no evidence that immigrants take jobs from US-born workers.” (105)

[via: The problem with this is that statistics are not compelling. The sliver of circumstances in which immigrant labor does make a difference are powerful rhetorical anecdotes.]

It’s not as simple as competing for a slice of the pie: immigrants actually expand the overall size of the pie. (105)

In reality, those who enter the United States as refugees are already the most thoroughly screened of any category of immigrant: each comes at the invitation of the US State Department and only after completing a vetting process that usually takes at least eighteen (106) months (and often much longer) to complete, including in-person interviews with trained officers of the US Department of Homeland Security, multiple biographic and biometric background checks, and a medical exam. Since the Refugee Act of 1980 established the current refugee resettlement framework, there has not been a single lethal terrorist attack in the United States perpetrated by an individual who entered the United States through the US refugee resettlement program. (107)

In reality, there has never been a documented case of a terror attack perpetrated by an individual who entered the United States by illegally crossing the US-Mexico border. (107)

[via: I appreciate the argument, the weakness of absolute statements is that it only takes one exception to disprove the claim. In addition, “documented” cases may not be the full reality, and we should be careful in how we argue these particular points because threat and fear are the most weighted emotions in this debate.]

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. – Fourteenth Amendment, Section 1, 1868

In reality, the birthright citizenship guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment does not provide any direct benefit to the US-born citizen’s parents. (109)

The ultimate question may not be whether that US-born child should be able to benefit the parents, but whether the baby should gain the benefits of being born a US citizen. (110)

As we consider who should come to the United States and who should not, family values and the societal benefit of intact families should be central to the debate. Rather than trying to minimize family-based immigration, we should try to quickly reunite families who have been waiting years for their applications to be processed and visas to become available. Any policy that undermines the ability of families to be together can only weaken our society. Immigration based on market needs will strengthen our economy, but immigration based on family will strengthen our social fabric and culture. (112)

More immigration would mean more Democrats. One need not be a partisan or a cynic to believe that the term “undocumented Democrat” is not merely a conservative epithet but in fact exactly the way…Democratic leaders look at illegal immigrants in the U.S. today. – Jason Richwine, “More Immigration Would Mean More Democrats,” National Review, October 3, 2017

[via: Did they say that out loud!?]

While we both have strong opinions on a range of political issues—for example, we’re both unabashedly pro-life—our goal with this book is not to help either the Republican Party or the Democratic Party. World Relief is a strictly nonpartisan organization, and we believe that the question of how the church responds to immigrants is of much greater importance than merely a political calculus. (113)

Those whose primary concerns are electoral will be more successful if they employ rhetoric and embrace policies—including on immigration issues—that will make their party appeal to the growing Hispanic (as well as Asian) electorate, rather than seeking to block immigrants from becoming voters and alienating those immigrants’ US-born relatives and friends in the process. (114)

Many studies have looked carefully at this question, and they consistently find no correlation between immigrants and crime; in fact, immigrants (with and without legal status) consistently have lower crime rates than native-born US citizens. (115)

| One way to measure the relationship between immigration and crime is by examining incarceration: in 2014, based on US census data, 1.53 percent of native-born US citizens between the ages of eighteen and fifty-four were incarcerated, but only 0.85 percent of undocumented immigrants and 0.47 percent of immigrants with legal status of the same age cohort. (115)

[via: Again, the problem is that the value is >0. Unfortunately, that’s all it takes.]

…many local law enforcement agencies have enacted policies that prohibit police officers from asking anyone about their immigration legal status… Such cities and towns (116) sometimes profess to be (or are labeled by critics as) “sanctuary cities,” though this term does not have a legal or universally accepted definition. (117)

While Christian principles informed the writing of the US Constitution and Declaration of Independence, and the majority of Americans are Christian, the United States is not a Christian nation. The US Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, allowing all to practice whatever faith they choose without government interference. Having religious freedom as the bedrock of US democracy means religious plurality will be a core part of the identity of the United States. (120)

7 The Value of Immigrants to the United States

From a Christian perspective, these questions ought not to be primary: the scriptural witness is that we are to care for the immigrant stranger living among us, without any caveat that exempts us from this responsibility if it is not in our individual or national economic interest. (124)

From the founding of our country until now, peaks in immigration have often happened during periods of fundamental economic change in the country, playing a key role in helping us through these economic transitions. (125)

…trade policies like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) were expected to stop illegal immigration by developing a more robust Mexican economy. In actuality, illegal immigration increased in the years after it its implementation, though it has slowed in the past decade. NAFTA opened up Mexico’s market to American imports—including subsidized agricultural products—and displaced many Mexican farmers who, for years, had worked in the agrarian economy but, now unable to compete with American imports, found themselves migrating north. (144)

| Migration is often spurred not only by a lack of economic development but also is due to the onset of development itself. (144)

Immigration in and of itself is not a panacea to all of our country’s economic needs. Nor should immigrants’ value be measured only by their economic benefit to our country. Greater questions must be asked about who we are and what we want to become as a country that may be inherently more important when crafting immigration policy than any economic considerations. Indeed, as Christians we must be wary of valuing persons solely on the contributions they can make to our affluence. We should also recognize their inherent dignity as a person made in God’s image (Gen 1:27) as well as the personal and cultural contributions they can make to our country. If our measuring stick of success is affluence, we become blinded to or devalue the blessings God has poured on us in other forms. (145)

8 Immigration Policies and Politics

cf. Refugee Act of 1980

We believe that the program should continue to accept the most vulnerable refugee who are selected for humanitarian and foreign policy interests, and that the United States should be doing more, not less, at a time when the world is facing the greatest refugee crisis in recorded history. (158)

[…a border wall is] a first century B.C. strategy to confront twenty-first century challenges. – Arturo Sarukhán, Mexican ambassador to the United States

To erect a wall now between two countries not at war would send a hostile message to our neighbors south of the border and to the rest of the world. Just as important, it would probably not work: past wall-building efforts have only redirected border crossings from large urban areas to the dangerous deserts of the American Southwest, without decreasing the overall number of illegal crossings. (170)

It’s often said that you can identify a politician in a crowded room; they’re usually the ones sticking one of their fingers in the air, testing the direction of the wind. Our job as constituents is to change the way the wind is blowing. (175)

This means that immigration is not necessarily a policy problem to be solved; it’s a political problem. Economically, socially, and politically there could be wins for both the Democratic and Republican parties because the immigration debate reveals an unusual facet of this contentious public debate: the core of commonality is greater than the edges of difference. (177)

Because voters have multiple and often competing associations to “immigrants,” successful messaging on immigration reform requires deactivating or uncoupling associations that make people hostile toward immigration and instead linking “immigrant” to networks associated with positive values and emotions. – Drew Westen

Voters connect words, images, values, and emotions, and these connections, otherwise known as “networks of association,” influence receptiveness to political messages more strongly than facts and rational arguments. Dr. Westen observes that “voters respond less to facts, figures and rational arguments than to the emotions associations created.” (178)

The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. – MLK

We live in the aftermath of the greatest political event in history, when Jesus rose from the dead and turned upside down the ideas of power, privilege, goodness and grace. If Jesus left all of his power and privilege to enter (179) into our brokenness, we have a responsibility to enter into the brokenness of others. (180) … “Being political,” in this sense, is a mere act of pursuing justice and shalom that encompasses the fullness of individual flourishing. Advocacy has to become a core part of our discipleship because Jesus was the ultimate advocate on behalf of humanity. (180)

9 Immigration and the Church Today

The Center for the Study of Global Christianity finds that the fastest growth among Americans evangelicals has been among independent (non-denominational) immigrant congregations. (184)

While millennials are walking out the front door of US congregations, immigrant Christian communities are appearing right around the corner, and sometimes knocking at the back door. And they may hold the key to vitality for American Christianity. – Wesley Granberg-Michaelson

Hospitality only takes us so far. How do we move from being simply hospitable to one another to actually becoming a family? … You will have kimchi on the table for that one meal when you entertain me as a guest. But what if you have to stock kimchi in your refrigerator every single day?” [Soong-Chan Rah, The Next Evangelicalism: Releasing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009).

[via: YES PLEASE!!! 😋]

On a policy level, a LifeWay Research poll in 2015 found that 68 percent of evangelical Christians would support a bill (such as the Senate’s 2013 effort) that combines increased border security and an earned pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. However, on a values level, the same poll found that most evangelicals think of immigrants as a “threat” or a “burden” of some sort, and that (by their own admission) they were significantly more likely to take their cues on immigration primarily from the media than from the Bible. (199)

cf. The Evangelical Table

The Stranger 40 min. documentary

10 A Christian Response to the Immigration Dilemma

Many organizations and ministries that serve the poor are prohibited from serving undocumented immigrants,… (208)

Perhaps the greatest need in terms of education is having Christians develop a biblical worldview on immigration. (209)

Advocacy can be defined as amplifying the voices of those who are marginalized, standing in the gap to present the realities of injustice around the world to those in positions of influence who can help change the situation. (210)

In “For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility,” The National Association of Evangelicals outlines the basis for evangelical engagement in government,… (211)

  • Find out the position of your local congressperson and senator on immigration issues.
  • Write a letter to your local congressperson…
  • Schedule a meeting with your congressperson…
  • Write and editorial in your local newspaper…
  • Identify church leaders in your community who support immigration reform and provide forums…
  • Have an “Immigrant Sunday” at your church… (212)

About VIA


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