A most powerful biblical story centers on the fear, coercion and rejection of the Israelite community in Egypt some 3,000 years ago.
The Exodus story begins with a new king, who, fearing the growing numbers and potential power of foreign Israelites within Egypt, declares the need to oppress them through forced, bitterly hard labor in every kind of field work. It ends with that king’s desire to remove all the Israelites from Egypt, finally enabling their self-deportation at chariot and sword’s point. Out of that brutal story grew the deep biblical concern for all aliens, sojourners and strangers who by God’s own command are to be treated as full citizens and welcomed neighbors.
God frequently reminds the Israelites of their own painful experience and status as foreigners in a strange land and to not duplicate it against others.
American history, as recent as the mid-1800s, reveals a similar nativist tone when it comes to the fear and rejection of immigrants. The Know-Nothing American Party emerged from secret societies made up of born in America white folks deeply opposed to immigrants coming to America. Violent encounters between those American-born and foreign-born — especially Irish Catholic immigrants — were common. Disparaging comments were cast publicly against “the drunken, lazy, violent Irish who were taking jobs away from native-born citizens.”
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Efforts were made to change citizenship laws so that only immigrants who had lived in America for 25 years at least could become citizens and would have kept the vote away from the Irish-bloc for a long time.
Over our history, fear-filled nativist cries have been raised against freed African Americans slaves, imported Chinese laborers, Jewish merchants, suspected German and Japanese citizens during WWII, among others. Current public and political rhetoric sounds similar alarms with familiar language against Mexican and Central American immigrants; loss of jobs, fear of voting access, perceived criminal activity, cost to government coffers, with ensuing threats of mass deportation and incarceration, loss of citizenship by birth, limitation of basic rights, continued violation of labor laws, and violent public rhetoric by nativist-leaning politicians — all contributing to a heated and divisive debate.
Once again nativism has raised its hue and cry of fear, forgetting that those nearly one million Irish peasants in the 1800s who emigrated to America for a better life, trying desperately to escape widespread famine and violence in their homeland, and became firefighters, police officers, soldiers and solid citizens given the chance.
Hundreds of thousands of similarly desperate men, women and children are fleeing to the United States in our time with the same hope. Already they too are proving to be good, hard-working, loyal members of American society. But given the current virulent acrimony regarding immigration, it seems many among us remain slow to learn from our own history and faith theology.
Anti-immigrant feelings and fears may be nothing new to human history. But this time around, none of us can claim to know nothing about its effect, or worse yet, to do nothing to welcome those who seek the same opportunities our own families sought when they came as immigrants, too.
Kim Latterell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.