As an immigrant woman and a Christian, I’ve loved the book of Ruth ever since I realized Ruth was an immigrant, welcomed into the family of God. And I’ve often been surprised by the interpretations of the Biblical story, in which Boaz is the hero and no one else has any agency. I find this odd because, as I read Ruth, what I see is that Boaz did nothing more heroic than exactly what was required by God’s law: He welcomed an immigrant from a neighboring community.
“Any immigrant who lives with you must be treated as if they were one of your citizens. You must love them as yourself, because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt….” says Leviticus.
Granted, Boaz was exceedingly kind in his welcome. But as a follower of God, he was actually not free to act otherwise. So he welcomed Ruth, a poor foreign widow, into his field to glean what was left behind by his harvesters.
For her part, Ruth was a hard worker. The text tells us she gleaned and threshed until evening, collecting five gallons of threshed barley. Gleaning was the kind of work everyone did in the community — in other words, Ruth wasn’t doing the work that nobody else wanted to do. Leaving the leftovers for the widows, orphans, and immigrants is what the law asked of all God’s people.
Ruth was also entitled to a Sabbath along with the rest of the Judean community. Even as a foreigner from the despised community of Moab, she had a day off for rest, reflection, celebration, and worship.
What we see in the book of Ruth is a native-born citizen and an immigrant co-laboring, working together side by side, for the flourishing of their communities. Neither looks out just for his or her gender or ethnic group. Nobody becomes superior and subjugates the powerless. Everyone thrives. It’s a beautiful picture with a very happy ending: Ruth and Boaz marry, and Obed their son eventually becomes the grandfather of King David, in the lineage of Jesus of Nazareth.
Ruth was not only welcomed but accepted into Judean society. But consider what would happen if Ruth arrived at the U.S./Mexico border today:
Under our current immigration laws, even if her mother-in-law Naomi is a U.S. citizen, she won’t be able to sponsor Ruth, because Naomi’s son and Ruth’s husband has died. Also, Ruth is unskilled and uneducated, so she doesn’t qualify for a diversity visa lottery or the coveted work visa, which is generally given to highly-educated immigrants with specialized skills. She’s a family-based immigrant, fleeing due to a famine to be with her mother-in-law, so she doesn’t qualify for asylum or refugee status — which have very strict requirements, and economic hardship or reuniting a family aren’t among them.
In the non-profit legal clinic where I work, we see every day what happens to the Ruths in our system. Undocumented immigrant women are some of the most vulnerable people walking among us today. Studies show that 70 to 80 percent are sexually assaulted at some point during their journey to the U.S.
But the danger doesn’t stop for them once they’ve crossed the border. They are more likely to become victims of domestic violence, which includes physical, emotional, sexual, and economic abuse. Without power or resources, these immigrant women can become vulnerably dependent on husbands or partners who physically harm them or threaten deportation to control them.
Immigrant women are also more vulnerable to human trafficking, usually labor trafficking. It’s difficult to find accurate information on trafficking, but some organizations have said that as many as 80 percent of trafficking victims are foreign-born women and girls. It’s not uncommon to hear stories of women working in appalling conditions, under lock and key, for fifteen hours a day, without a day of rest.
For those fortunate enough to find work without documents, they often do the work that few of our citizens want to do. They provide child, elderl or disabled care; or clean homes; or provide the hard work that fuels the service industry. These are jobs in the informal labor market that are often unregulated by government agencies and are frequently out of public view. Thus, immigrant women are also vulnerable to exploitation and inequities in the work place — they can go unpaid or underpaid, and have less flexibility in the workplace to care for their own families.
What I find most distressing is that most immigrant women tell us that they came to the United States either to reunite their families or to provide for them. Yet it’s their undocumented status that jeopardizes their ability to keep their families together, either due to working long hours for little money or due to the threat of deportation that always hangs over them.
While many churches and Christian organizations serve and care for refugees, the same goodwill doesn’t seem to extend to undocumented immigrants. Hashtags read #WelcomeRefugees, not #WelcomeCentralAmericanMothers or #WelcomeMexicanAgriculturalWorkers. For many Christians sitting in churches across the U.S., the answer is as simple as Romans 13:1: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.”
And yet throughout the book of Ruth, the Bible affirms that in a godly society everyone is entitled to decent work for a decent income. Everyone — even the immigrant, whether she is documented or not.
Since our current system offers them little recourse, my fervent hope for undocumented women rests in God — that our God would bring us back to the picture we see in the book of Ruth; that the partnership of people can bring justice, peace, and flourishing to our communities.
In order for this to happen, we need Boazes at the national level who have the courage to enact comprehensive immigration reform. We need faith communities that serve and favor the vulnerable, no matter their immigration status. And we need men and women who co-labor for the kingdom of God, just as Ruth and Boaz did.
I can think of no better way to celebrate National Hispanic Heritage Month than by honoring the women who bring a heritage of hard work and sacrificial love.