The US only took in 1,500 Syrian refugees last year, but President Obama has asked his administration to increase that number to at least 10,000 in the coming year. Sadly, the administration’s response to immigration is getting heat from a variety of groups in the U.S., including church groups and Christian organizations.

Personally, I’m grateful that the U.S. is stepping up to the plate and helping Syrian migrants trying to escape war. It seems that the U.S. would be a logical home for desperate people trying to escape war. After all, the well-known poem engraved on the Statue of Liberty reminds our collective American conscience that we’re a country of immigrants:

Give me your tired, your poor
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

However, for a country that has historically claimed to be a “melting pot” of immigrant groups, Americans don’t have a great track record of accepting immigrants. With each new wave of immigration, the newest ethnic groups tend to be demonized or stereotyped by “native-born” Americans who fear people that are culturally or religiously different.

Historical Response to Immigration

Our response to immigration should set the standard for the rest of the world. But here are just a few examples that punctuate how Americans have historically discriminated against immigrants based on ethnicity and/or religion.

  • In the 1850’s the “American Party” – a.k.a. the “Know Nothings” – discriminated against Irish immigrants with an explicitly anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant platform.
  • The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1892 restricted immigration from China to preserve jobs and higher wages because Chinese immigrants were willing to work for less money.
  • Italian immigrants endured discrimination and were even considered “sub-human” because of their darker complexions and stereotyped as “Sicilian gangsters.”
  • During World War II German, Italian and Japanese immigrants were detained – even “native born” Americans of Japanese descent were subject to detention camps..

Negative attitudes and actions against immigrants have always been rooted in fear. Fear of losing jobs. Fear of the financial cost to our society, including social services, education, law enforcement, etc. Fear about changes to American culture and the “American way of life.” Ultimately, all of these fears are rooted in a mindset of scarcity and competition for resources.

A Christian Response to Immigration

As Christians we can’t allow fear to influence our response to immigration – even when those fears are rooted in scarcity. Our faith demands us to trust God for all that we have. We serve a God of abundance, and it is this great God of abundance that has always showed compassion to the immigrant – the stranger in a strange land.

Scripture is full of references to immigrants and aliens, such as Deuteronomy 10:17-19, reminding the Israelites that they were immigrants in the land of Egypt:

For the Lord your God is the God of gods and the Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God who does not show partiality nor take a bribe. He executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and shows His love for the alien by giving him food and clothing. So show your love for the alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.

Again and again scripture reminds us to care for people who don’t have power — economic or political. These people who are on the margins of society include orphans, widows, the poor, and the alien. As Christians our response to immigration should be to walk alongside those who need our help, not build walls to keep them out of our sight.

As Christians, our first citizenship is in the Kingdom of God. This is a Kingdom that has no physical borders separating us from our brothers and sisters throughout the world. If our first allegiance is to this Kingdom and to the God who rules it, then it becomes much harder to turn our backs on immigrants.

A Christian response to immigration is to provide food, clothing and shelter. But even more importantly, it’s our Christian responsibility to give immigrants our love and acceptance.