Religion Made Me an Immigration Hardliner. Jesus Softened My Heart | Sojourners

Religion Made Me an Immigration Hardliner. Jesus Softened My Heart

My kids are the great-granddaughters of Chinese immigrants, but until recently, I hadn’t shared much about our immigration story or been a vocal advocate for immigrant rights. Instead, like many evangelicals, I had absorbed hardline views on the subject. I assumed that all laws were good; therefore, breaking them was bad. I was sympathetic to the stories of people fleeing hardship, but those feelings could not override my religious insistence on obeying the law.

Recent polling found that 85 percent of white evangelical protestants supported restrictive immigrations policies — compared to a national average of 56 percent. I suspect these evangelicals hold similar views about holding rulebreakers accountable. But as the next election approaches, I urge my faith community to think not exclusively about enforcing the rules, but also of Jesus’s radical generosity and loving care for all people, even when the law would dictate otherwise.

In 1936, my grandfather entered the United States at the age of 15, a stranger in an unfamiliar land. Due to foreign exploitation and civil war in China, his family had been living in extreme poverty and sent him to the U.S. to find work. He was a “paper son” – someone who circumvented the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 by purchasing false documents to claim blood ties to U.S. citizens. My grandfather later married in China and returned to the U.S. with my grandmother in 1949. They lived under a false surname for years.

I knew this history but didn’t dwell on it, since my family had gained proper documentation well before I was born. But as anti-immigrant rhetoric began dominating the airwaves, I realized that I needed to re-examine whether the conservative view was reflective of my own story and understanding of Jesus. I decided to pray about it during a community fast with my church. One afternoon while walking by a lake, my mind was flooded with details of my grandparents’ past: how they’d worked at my great-uncle’s hand laundry in Gary, Ind., before opening their own laundry in Chicago and, later, started careers as a chef and a beautician. They were upright people living under false identities until they were granted amnesty by a government program that acknowledged the racism of the Chinese Exclusion Act.

And suddenly it all made sense. Because my grandparents were victims of a racist law, the onus wasn’t on them to repent and pay the consequences, but on the government to recognize its wrongdoing and make things right. Similarly, instead of incarcerating and deporting undocumented immigrants, we need strong moral leadership to repeal current immigration laws still rooted in racism, and to extend grace to those who were trapped by them.

I have seen the transformative power of that grace first hand, both within my family’s own happy ending, and also through the Chicago City Key ID, a government-issued ID that also acts as a library, transit, and benefits card. In January, Rooted REPS, the social justice ministry that I co-founded, partnered with Communities United to host an event for community members to legally acquire the Chicago City Key, regardless of immigration status. Through this work, we saw our immigrant brothers and sisters experience validation of their identity for the first time, opening doors for them to meaningfully participate in our community without shame or fear.

Immigrants bring incredible value to our communities. As a physician, I see how vital they have been during the current pandemic. Immigrants comprise 16.5 percent of all health care workers, according to New American Economy. Two-hundred and eighty-thousand of these workers are undocumented. Nearly half of all Dreamers — 1.2 million people — are considered essential workers.

We all need to do our part to embrace these valuable members of our community. I’ve talked with my kids about our responsibilities as Americans and Christians: to elect leaders who, like Jesus, pursue justice by caring for the vulnerable instead of shutting them out. This November, remember the truth that found me as I was walking by that lake: Immigrants are not the “other” that deserve our scorn. They are human beings whose lives are more sacred than the rules designed to keep them out. They are our parents, our grandparents, and our ancestors. They are all of us.

The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and do not represent the official position of the church or any other organization mentioned in the text.

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