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Welcome the Immigrant You Once Were…

My friend John Lamb took some time with me this afternoon to chat about immigration issues. I was very convicted by our conversation and challenged by my own ignorance (my parents were immigrants!). I think there is something that is deep at the heart of this that perhaps will help me understand why our churches are the way they are and perhaps address some of systemic barriers there are to the gospel, not only in our mother culture, but in the country that fostered them.


John: I feel like God has given me His heart on this issue [of immigration] but when I speak about it I feel like it’s my agitation not His. MLK said not to judge on issues like this and to speak in love and I believe that’s right

me: i don’t think i know how you feel about immigration. could you tell me where your heart is on that issue?

John: here it is, succinctly: unconditional love

me: yeah thanks wow 🙂 too succinct? does that mean amnesty? sorry, i don’t really know what even the common positions are re: immigration

John: amnesty means someone has done something wrong. when we isolate people just because they’re foreigners or poor (immigration law does that), we’re the ones in the wrong and we need amnesty.

who are God’s most favored and protected types of people – the people that if you mess with them you mess with God? I’ll get you started: widows, orphans…

me: what is the point to restricting our borders to begin with?

John: in the 1880’s we passed our first immigration law: no more Chinese. if the argument against that Chinese law was “a nation without borders is no nation,” I guess it’s easy to justify outlawing the Chinese. [Put simply,] our border, we get to decide the rules

me: but there is some teeth to that argument, right?

John: but when God says don’t mess with the widows, orphans, poor, foreigners, and we pass laws that indiscriminately isolate the poor and foreigners, especially poor foreigners, we’re not going to get too many high-fives for that in heaven

me: i totally see where you’re coming from. i agree with the biblical mandate for that, but what is the motivation of those who feel that borders should be reinforced?

John: it’s not about borders (really) it’s not about borders

me: is it about jobs?

John: it’s about people who are here. isolating someone who is here is wrong. we isolate 12 million now – that’s twice as many people as there were slaves at the time of the Emancipation Proclamation. There were “good” reasons to isolate the slaves just as there are “good” reasons to isolate illegalized immigrants

me: wow, strong statement

John: it makes plenty of sense

me: so, if someone wants to live here, they should be able to live here. That’s the short of it, right?

John: wrong… or maybe right, but it’s not what we’re discussing. Instead, if someone is living here, they should be acquiring rights and be treated as a person like everyone else

me: agreed

John: consider this: we all know in our gut that someone who has been here for a long time and has friends and job histories etc. is for all practical purposes “one of us”. our law does not recognize that, however

me: i see. naturalization is a separate process than simply “living here”, correct? thus the process of visa, green card, citizenship, right? gosh, i’m a child of an immigrant and i have no idea! i apologize for my ignorance. in any case, please continue

John: If a one-month-old is brought here illegally and spends the next 95 years of her life as a normal person in America – doing everything right and having positions of leadership in the community, her profession, her church, her family, and has heirs in the dozens when she dies, would her family and her community view her as American? Yes. Would the law? No. The law is wrong. From George Washington to Abraham Lincoln, anyone who lived here three years was eligible for citizenship. Period. That was the right way to view what it means to be American. Some transition time, but otherwise everyone is a candidate. Now, it is like a camel getting through a needle’s eye.

me: So then, what is the citizenship process like now?

John: to even get here legally in the first place (even before you consider citizenship), you have to have either a job lined up, a desperately needed skill like nursing, a family connection, or money. That’s it. No general “are you healthy and do you promise to be good?” Nope. It’s “do you fit in one of these narrow categories?” If not, sorry Charlie. Nothing here for you. Plenty of people apply and are turned down just because they are poor and don’t know anyone in the U.S. Doesn’t sound like welcoming the stranger to me.

What we need instead is a systemic change to provide reasonably accessible methods to immigrate legally and also to convert to legal status after becoming illegal. Any immigration system that does not have those two features will forever condemn a large portion of the population to isolation and exclusion via illegal status.

me: hmm interesting

John: there is no general application process to immigrate legally – you have to fill out a specific form for the specific category of immigrant we want. For most people, the idea of “my ancestors immigrated legally to Ellis Island” is a misunderstanding in itself, because through most of the history of immigration to Ellis Island, there was no way to illegally immigrate there unless you were Chinese, sick, a criminal, a prostitute, or insane. Most peoples’ ancestors couldn’t have immigrated legally to the U.S. under the current system.

me: i see

John: Do you remember seeing Titanic? Leo DiCaprio just bought a freakin’ boat ticket and cheated his way past a health test – that was all you needed back then. If that was all it took now, we’d hardly have any illegal immigration. Latin Americans are paying hundreds or even thousands of dollars to get here illegally because there is no alternative to do so legally. They’d much rather pay Uncle Sam if we’d let them.

me: hmmm… so the driving force for immigration laws is…

John: We have people dying in deserts on the border because we’re too stubborn to provide an avenue for the poor to legally immigrate. Who does God look to when he cries over those deaths? We have people in the U.S. paying thousands of dollars for routine doctor’s visits because they can’t get health insurance because the government won’t allow them to work legally. Who does God look to when the rich society demands more from the poor than it does the rich?

me: why does it matter so much then? why are we perpetuating laws that do this?

John: We’re not very good at lawmaking when it’s just for the benefit of someone else. As long as voters aren’t suffering, aren’t struggling with a backward immigration system, who cares? And even if we did, have you seen the IRS code lately?

me: that’s where i thought the push back was coming from actually… tax and social burden issues

John: Red herrings. Article in the NYT today about how hospitals are giving free basic care to the uninsured (mostly Americans) because emergency room care is too expensive and basic care reduces emergency room visits. Crying about assistance to illegal immigrants actually costs us more if we exclude them, because we still acknowledge the moral duty not to turn away anyone from emergency care.

Tax is a red herring – state tax is all sales tax in TN – have you ever seen an illegal immigrant at Kroger not pay sales tax? And illegal immigrants pay billions in FICA and Social Security taxes, because 75% of them are in legal jobs with above-the-board employers but they are paying in with social security numbers that aren’t theirs, so they won’t see a dime in return. Is that stealing from the poor or what? We need a system that reflects other areas of the law that keep people from being stuck in dead-ends and failing to integrate.

Bankruptcy is an example – we abolished debtors’ prisons because we are better off as a whole giving people a fresh start in the worst of circumstances, even though we believe a person should pay his debts, because it doesn’t do us any good if someone is in a debtors’ prison and they have no hope of further contributing to society.

Any law student knows the concept of adverse possession – if you stay on someone else’s land for a long period of time, and they don’t challenge your open claim on their land, the law says that you are officially the owner after that long period of time. We currently have nothing like adverse possession in immigration law.

And consider crime, which we abhor. We recognize the benefits to society of plea bargains, probations, parole, and time off for good behavior. The concept of a statute of limitations, which limits the amount of time the government can punish a crime, contains this American value of balance. But currently, there is no statute of limitations for immigration violations – an arsonist can get in less trouble after a decade than a family of illegal immigrants! Immigration law is clearly out of balance with our American values in our other laws – the ones that apply to us.

me: excellent points john is there anything that i can do though?what resources do i have to speak up for immigration issues?


me: in your mind, why doesn’t the church take a position on this?

John: the church has taken a position on this – just not some corners of it
most religious organizations are in favor of moving the law from the harsh position it’s in to something more along the lines I discuss

me: the irony is that for a majority of my life, i’ve been attending immigrant churches and immigration policies are never addressed there. although i can say that immigrant churches are a social hub because immigrants find help and means to survive through the network. in fact, much of my criticism of nominal Christianity expressed in the immigrant church is probably due to such issues but nevertheless, i think it takes on a very different dynamic in the 2nd generation

John: my Hispanic Baptist church never discussed it either – they just acted it out – good for them

me: we don’t have to give much thought to it if we are born here.

John: that’s right. I didn’t until I spent two years in that Hispanic church with fellow citizens of the Kingdom (I say that with fear and trepidation, assuming that I’m a citizen of the Kingdom). I’m glad my illegalized Hispanic friends care more about their place in the Kingdom than whether this government accepts them. If my ranting makes them switch those priorities, I’ve lost sight of which citizenship should matter more to me, too.

sometimes I wonder whether God’s tug on my heart in this matter is really a call to be a welcomer to the foreigner rather than a voice to my fellow people. I write in a way to be both.

making both legalized and illegalized people feel welcome here has been one of the most rewarding experiences in my life lately. It goes back to what ElderJ said about the good reception you get when you speak someone else’s language.


Then it was back to work for the both of us…


About David Park

Christian 2nd-generation Korean American; Atlanta Georgia; more details to come.

2 responses to “Welcome the Immigrant You Once Were…

  1. You’re very quotable…in fact, I don’t know what else to say — unless you say it first. 😛

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