America has always been a nation of immigrants. Their religiosity, high birth rates and work ethic settled a continent, built railroads, populated our cities, filled our houses of worship and grew our economy.
Between 1840 and 1860, 1.7 million Irish endured an inhumane trans-Atlantic passage, though nothing compared with that of slaves brought here against their will. Italians, Greeks and Russian Jews fled poverty and pogroms in the late 19th century. Cubans risked a watery death on rickety craft to escape Fidel Castro. In our own time Mexicans, Indians, Koreans and others come to the USA for the same reason: They hunger to be free.
Economics and security, too
As Congress wrestles with immigration reform, it must realize that this is not only an economic and security issue; it also is a moral issue. It reveals our character as a people and our values as a nation.
The Bible instructs God's people to show compassion and love for the foreigner, a command based on the Israelites' harsh treatment as aliens in Egypt. Jewish identity was inextricably linked with their experience as a nomadic, sojourning people: Abraham was an alien in Canaan, and Jesus lived for a time as a child in Egypt after his parents fled the persecution of Herod.
"I was a stranger and you took me in," Jesus taught his disciples. How these principles apply to immigration reform is a matter of judgment.
First and foremost, immigration should strengthen the family. Today, there are an estimated 1 million spouses and children of legal U.S. residents awaiting green cards. It could take three to 10 years before they can join their loved ones. This delay is needless and heart wrenching. Sen. Marco Rubio has proposed reforms that would prioritize immediate family members before granting a green card to anyone who entered the U.S. illegally.
In Scripture, the obligation to care for the alien carries a corollary responsibility for the immigrant to obey the law and respect national customs. In the Old Testament, immigrants who followed the law shared in the inheritance of Israel. Amnesty violates this principle. Those who have come to the U.S. illegally must reform: Pay fines and back taxes, undergo a criminal check, learn English and wait before they can apply for a green card. Those who entered the country illegally should not be guaranteed a path to citizenship.
Foreign labor to achieve great national purpose is as old as human civilization itself. Both David's palace and Solomon's temple were built with skilled artisans from Lebanon and elsewhere. Today, our technology sector needs more scientists and engineers than we produce. We should increase the number of worker visas to meet our economic needs.
For these recommendations to be effective, we also must secure the border. Enforcement must be a success before anyone in the country illegally applies for a green card. Other measures should include funds for enhanced security along the U.S.-Mexico border. Modernizing the visa system to track those who overstay visas and fully implementing an E-Verify system to verify workers' identities will further enhance security.
As politicians seek to solve the thorny problem of U.S. immigration policy, they should sit down with the faith community and perhaps open their Bibles.