The Common Good

Immigrants Just Won't Go Away

"'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you drink? And when was it that we saw yo a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?' And the king will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.'"

           --Matthew 25. 37-40

All this immigration talk reminds me of an encounter my wife and I had at a fast food restaurant in Atlanta. The night manager was Hispanic. He came by our table to make sure everything was all right. We started talking. I told him how troubled I was over our immigration debate. 

That casual remark opened his door wide. He told me how scared many of his friends were. Some had already left the state. He told me they only wanted to work and send money back home where things were so tight. One very sick friend, he said would not go to the doctor or hospital because she was afraid of being deported. He told me he kept reading that these immigration laws had nothing to do with racial profiling. 

He shook his head. “I have been stopped six times in the last few months mostly because I was Hispanic.”

Immigration struggles are not a new problem for our country. About three years ago, my wife and I were in New York and decided to visit Ellis Island. We took the subway down to the ferry, stood in the long line, got our tickets and headed for the boat. We passed Lady Liberty with her torch held high and those words of Emma Lazarus inscribed below: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free ...” 

When our boat landed we toured the place where immigrants first landed in this country. Some fled terrible conditions in oppressive systems. Most of them came hoping for a better life.

One room in the museum displayed pictures of some of those who came from great distances and how they were treated in this country. Most of our ancestors must have been somewhere in that early crowd. I looked at their faces wondering. There were Irish that fled the poverty and hunger back home. There were Poles, Italians and Jews and Orientals. Thousands came from many ages and many cultures.

One photograph stopped me cold. It read: “Japanese sentiment on the West Coast peaked between 1911 and 1924. A ‘Swat the Jap’ campaign swept Los Angeles in 1922. In Hollywood there were signs and leaflets that read:

JAPS

You came to care for lawns,/
And we stood for it.
You came to work in truck gardens,
And we stood for it.
You sent your children to our public schools,
And we stood for it.
You moved a few families in our
Midst
And we stood for it.
You proposed to build a church in our neighborhood
BUT
WE DIDN’T AND WE WON’T STAND FOR IT.
You impose more on us each day
until you have gone your limit
WE DON’T WANT YOU WITH US
SO GET BUSY, JAPS, AND    
GET OUT OF HOLLYWOOD.”

Republicans and Democrats are reading the writing on the wall. Most of the Hispanics in the last presidential election voted for Barack Obama, so both groups are courting Hispanics for their votes next time. There is something much larger here than votes. Hispanics and other ethnic groups know the difference between genuine caring and manipulation for votes. They are not stupid. They came here hoping for a better life, to feel safe and put down roots and call America home.

Most of those who have come here have worked hard and made our country better. We see different folk in the grocery store wearing saris to cover their heads. I see Chinese having their own separate service in our church. I see Hispanics mowing our lawns and gathering our crops. Many have started their own businesses. Signs in Spanish and English are cropping up everywhere.

When the history of this turbulent age is written, I wonder what they will say about our leaders and us. Will they say that we tried to turn back the clock, to bar the door, to make suspect anyone who was not like us? Or will they say a new day dawned during those days? They took in those who came, they learned to appreciate the richness of other people very different than us, who enriched our country with their food, music, art and family values and strong work ethic.

No wonder Elie Wiesel once said the ugliest word in the English language is illegal. No one is illegal. I remember, he said, that illegal was the first step in Germany to the gas chambers. There is more at stake here than trying to manipulate people to win their votes. We talk a lot these days about our Constitution. The question is will we learn to say: “liberty and justice for all ...” The answer to that question may just determine what kind of a people we really are.   

Roger Lovette is a minister-writer who cares about the world and all God's children. He has pastored six churches and served as Interim Pastor for seven other churches since his retirement. He is an author and blogs at rogerlovette.blogpost.com

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