Trump’s Anti-Family Approach to Immigration

By Russell Jeung 3-05-2018

Among President Trump’s many concerning stances on U.S. immigration policy is his proposal to end the long-standing family reunification immigration policy, the process by which nearly six out of 10 Asian immigrants enter the United States.

If my father-in-law hadn’t been able to sponsor his father and siblings from South Korea to join him, then this nation would have been deprived of a pastor, a radiation oncologist, and a successful business person. Trump calls such migrants “undeserving.” If his proposal had been in effect at the time, Trump’s own mother would not have been allowed into the U.S .

Trump’s plan instead privileges a merit-based immigration policy, in which migrants are scored by age, education, and English skills. This approach measures “merit” by one’s utility to building America’s economy.

Such an immigration system — which in fact determines who deserves to be an American — reduces migrants to commodities, that is, goods for capitalist markets. The biblical narrative, on the other hand, identifies Christians as migrants, faithfully journeying to a better country — one even better than the U.S. and its American Dream.

Migrants on the Way

My family’s immigration tale shouldn’t be understood principally by our successful assimilation in the United States, or by the ethnic narrative of overcoming hardship and discrimination to building to this nation’s wellbeing. Rather, the experiences of my Asian-American family in the U.S. are testaments to God’s grace and redemption, to God’s movement and our movement through history.

Our immigration policy, similarly, must not be based solely on an individual’s economic utility. Instead, we should consider migrants as fellow exiles, made in the image of God, and neighbors for whom we should be responsible.

Some Republican lawmakers promote the posting of the Ten Commandments in our schools and government buildings. The Oklahoma Republican Party website reads, “the Ten Commandments is part of the cornerstone of our system of government.”

I don’t mind the introduction of Judeo-Christian ethics into the public square. What I desire, in fact, is that policymakers and voters consider the depth and breadth of all of God’s commandments.

Leviticus 19 is part of the holiness code that outlined the ethical requirements for Hebrews in social, economic, sexual, and familial relations. In many ways, this chapter parallels Exodus 20, which lays out the Ten Commandments, but Leviticus 19 orders the commandments differently. After the injunction to be “holy because, I, your Lord God, am holy,” it requires that Israel “must respect your mother and father.”

God’s Policy that Focuses on the Family

This command for filial piety has long been a centerpiece of Christian moral values in the American political arena. Focus on the Family, for example, is a ministry states is belief that, “God has ordained the social institutions of family, church, and government for the benefit of mankind …” and that “Christians are called to support these institutions … and to protect them against destructive social influences.”

Confucian and other Asian ethical systems also encourage respect for parents and care for siblings. In practice, such an ethic among Asian Americans involves sending remittances back to the homeland, and sponsoring one’s relatives to the United States whenever possible.

Yet Trump’s policy hinders the biblical and ethical call for caring for family by eliminating the ability of American citizens to sponsor parents, siblings or children over 18. For many Asian Americans, distance from one’s elderly parents and not caring for them would be sources of shame. Similarly, for the Hebrews to be holy, the first thing that would set them apart was to be their respect for their parents.

Offering Economic Self-Sufficiency to Foreigners

Ethical practices that were as important as family loyalty in Old Testament times included responsible stewardship, hospitality, and generosity. After commandments to keep the Sabbath and follow rituals for sacrifice, Leviticus 19 required the nation of Israel to care for foreigners in their midst. In this policy, they were to leave the edges of their fields for foreigners and the poor to glean, so that they might have opportunity to work and means to a livelihood.

Instead of an economic tribalism in which the Hebrews only cared for their own, God required them to be holy by being welcoming, for in doing so they might recall God’s provision when they were foreigners. Tragically, the “Make America Great Again” ideology conceals America’s colonial settler past and neglects this ethic of offering self-sufficiency to others.

President Trump’s other proposed cuts to welfare policies, such as reducing food stamp allocations, further display an ungratefulness for what God has done for us; rather than seeking to bless others, such plans reflect only self-serving greed.

Posting the Ten Commandments and requiring prayer in schools are simply symbolic acts that do little to bring about God’s shalom in our communities. What if our nation’s policies — including our welfare and immigration policies — actually reflected biblical tenets?

If we applied the words of the Bible, then we would support DACA youth who came to the United States with their parents. They may be likened to Ruth, whose mother-in-law brought her to a new land under unfortunate circumstances. Boaz allowed this foreigner to glean his fields, and she subsequently was able to care for herself and her mother-in-law (not to mention become an ancestor to Jesus).

Were we to respect our parents as enjoined by Leviticus 19, then perhaps we would support family reunification policies and encourage immigrants to bring their elderly parents under their care. In that way, we would be like Joseph, who sponsored his father, Jacob, and all of his brothers to migrate to Egypt, where he would provide for them during a famine.

And if we were to give dignity to the poor and allow them to work, rather than considering them as “undeserving,” we might better fund public education that integrates marginalized communities into our economy. In this way we would emulate Jesus, who healed lepers who were socially outcast and couldn’t work in Jewish communities. Jesus especially acknowledged the Samaritan leper, whose faith — not his merit — made him well.

Be Holy, For I am the Lord Your God

Although President Trump employs a racialized, political discourse about the deserving and the undeserving, and about the utility and assimilability of the Other, God’s public policy uses very different language.

God commands us to be holy — set apart in for God’s uses and purposes — in our social, economic, and political relationships. We honor our parents, invite the foreigner, and care for the poor simply because these ways are the holy, right things to do. We do them as acts of worship in reflecting God’s holiness. Accordingly, our political principles and policy approaches would do well to reflect God’s holiness.

To sum, whether serving as pastors or receiving Medicare, whether becoming physicians or obtaining food stamps, my immigrant relatives bear the image of God. God’s holiness demands that we see and treat them in this light.

Professor Russell Jeung is the chair of Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University. His spiritual memoir,  At Home in Exile: Finding Jesus Among My Ancestors and Refugees Neighbors (Zondervan 2016), shares his experiences living among the foreigner and the poor.

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