The biblical mandate to take special concern for foreigners is frequently paired with God’s injunction to the people of Israel to remember their own history. They knew how it felt to be strangers living in a foreign land—Egypt—and God said that their own immigrant experience should inform how they were to treat sojourners in their land.
The problem, God knew, was that we human beings are apt to forget our own history. Often, when we move out of difficult places, we tend to forget the grace that brought us through. To help keep their immigrant history in front of them, God imposed on the Israelites something of a liturgy, to be repeated to the priest when bringing forward an offering:
When you have entered the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance and have taken possession of it and settled in it … you shall declare before the Lord your God: “My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous. But the Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer, subjecting us to harsh labor.
Then we cried out to the Lord, the God of our ancestors, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our misery, toil and oppression. So the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with signs and wonders. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey; and now I bring the firstfruits of the soil that you, Lord, have given me.” Place the basket before the Lord your God and bow down before him. Then you and the Levites and the foreigners residing among you shall rejoice in all the good things the Lord your God has given to you and your household. (Deuteronomy 26:1, 5-11)
The Israelites were commanded to rehearse their history, lest they forget it and then treat immigrants who would come into their land as badly as Pharaoh had treated them as foreigners in Egypt.
American Christians are in a unique position in that, as spiritual descendants of the Israelites, we too are commanded to remember and learn from the Israelites’ history as immigrants in Egypt. At the same time, we have the unique distinction of being a nation of immigrants, where more than 99 percent of the population—everyone except for those few whose ancestry is entirely Native American—has an immigrant history. It’s important to remember that the first immigrants did not come to a land undiscovered but to a land already inhabited by Native Americans, who were forcibly displaced, disenfranchised and sometimes killed for their land. It took the systematic and targeted displacement of Native Americans and their subsequent dehumanization for the first European immigrant pilgrims to inhabit a land that was deemed “free” for the taking.
As did the Israelites, we need to remember our history—where God has brought us and our ancestors from—to remember God’s grace, especially as we think about how God would have us interact with immigrants reaching our country today.
Immigration has always been and will remain a defining issue for the United States of America. Whether we trace our roots to the original peoples of the land, to the early Western European colonists, to the Africans who were forced to migrate as part of the slave trade, to the Southern and Eastern Europeans who journeyed through Ellis Island, to the more recent waves of immigrants from Latin America and Asia, or to some combination of the above, each of us has an individual immigrant history.
Understanding the history of immigration to the United States will help us have perspective on how to view and act toward newer immigrants entering the United States. The distinctive immigrant-rich history of the United States demonstrates that the lines drawn around favored and disfavored immigrant groups are constantly shifting; groups deemed unassimilable when first arriving to the United States are now often considered fully American. Our history also reminds us that the immigrants of today are driven by the same motivations that drew the earlier colonists to come to the United States: the journey is never easy, and by sheer resilience, courage and fortitude, many immigrants have established themselves as contributing, successful members of society for themselves and their families.
Like the Israelites, whose ancestors were immigrants in Egypt, we each have a story that can—and, Scripture suggests, should—inform the manner in which we treat immigrants entering our country today.