Flag-waving patriots protest against thousands of children illegally crossing the Mexican border into the U.S. Tea Party activists, some who are also conservative Christians, slow traffic at overpasses. Their placards wrapped in Old Glory instruct passers-by to stand against immigration policies that allow homeless Central American children to border-cross. Some Tea Party Christians criticize the Obama administration for not deporting almost 50,000 children from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala who aim to cross U.S. southern borders.
What protesting conservative Christians ignore is a biblical perspective on immigration. The Bible is composed of a series of migration stories, from Abraham to Jesus. Scripture swings on two hinges: the Hebrews’ exodus from Egypt, which tells of an odyssey in which God’s nomadic people were refugees from Pharaoh; and, Jesus’ migration into Egypt with his parents.
In the first story, ancient Hebrews migrated to a new land of promised opportunity. These escapees from slavery learned a hard lesson that shaped their identity. God expected them to meet refugees’ needs. “You shall not oppress a stranger, alien, or sojourner, for you were like them escaping Egypt” (Exodus 23: 9). In the second story, Matthew depicts Jesus as the new Moses. Both migrated to foreign lands. Jesus’ family fled to Egypt to escape King Herod’s genocide (Matthew 2:13-15).
These scriptural migrant stories side with those on-the-run who are fleeing despots and homeland devastation. Pope Francis reflects biblical imagery to describe chaos occurring at the Mexican and U.S. border as a “humanitarian emergency” demanding that young immigrants be “welcomed and protected.”
Christians who blame this tragedy on President Obama’s lax border control use harsh rhetoric that avoids the prime reason these children keep streaming north. The Wall Street Journal blundered when its editors chimed in, agreeing with Tea Party Christians’ anti-immigration chants. “The President is also responsible for the current spectacle of federal incompetence at the border with Mexico,” opines a WSJ editorial playing the blame-game. “Many of the children are fleeing poverty and mayhem in Central America, but many have been sent by parents who heard rumors that once they get here Mr. Obama will let them stay” (“The Immigration Reform Collapse,” July 2, 2014, p. A14).
WSJ editors then printed a retraction of sorts in Mary Anastasia O’Grady’s commentary, “What Really Drove the Children North” (WSJ July 21, 2014, p. A-11).
Four-star Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly, who leads the U.S. military’s Southern Command, reports why thousands of Central America’s children are heading north. U.S. policy has done a good job of disrupting drug cartels’ supply lines into the U.S. Now, these crooks have opened new routes. They kidnap children and force them into street gangs to do the cartel’s violent work.
Parents must pick their poisons: either allow the drug cartel to enslave their children; or, send them on dangerous routes into the U.S. Parents pick hope over despair for their youngsters.
Gen. Kelly for 19 months scrutinized the “transnational organized crime networks” in the Central American countries where migrant children’s flights for freedom start. His conclusion refutes strident slogans on Tea Party placards about lax border policy. “Drug cartels and associated street gang activity in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, which respectively have the world’s number one, four and five highest homicide rates, have left near-broken societies in their wake” (The Military Times, “Central America Drug War a Dire Threat to U.S. National Security, July 8, 2014). Consequently, refugee children seek life over slavery by migrating to the U.S.
Harsh indictments against newcomers aren’t a new phenomenon. “Nativism” is a name U.S. historians give to a 19th century anti-immigration backlash. In 1855, a majority of New York City’s residents had been born abroad, most immigrating from Roman Catholic portions of Germany and Ireland. Crammed into hovels in overcrowded ghettoes of East-side Manhattan, crime spiked. A run of public aid out-paced what churches and government services provided.
Nativist white Protestants on Manhattan’s 1850s social register blamed especially Irish Catholics for social mayhem. Immigrant proprietors opened taverns. Rampant alcoholism broke down traditional families because fathers deserted wives and children. A nativist pamphleteer objected in 1855 to undocumented immigrant Catholics flooding Manhattan’s borders. Their drinking and heretical faith “had lowered the standard till it was beneath the average level of human nature.” Do these tirades against law-breakers have a contemporary ring?
During the 1850s, conservative Christians who voted for only Protestant office-holders hid political biases by responding to questions with “I know nothing.” This “Know-Nothing” Party swelled to one million prior to the Civil War and carried political clout against immigrant Catholics in northern cities.
The Know-Nothing Party’s religious convictions and political agenda sound remarkably similar to Tea Party rhetoric. They rejected the government making citizenship easier for immigrants who weren’t of their kind. Princeton University historian Sean Wilentz describes their biases. “Know-Nothings despised the established political parties as corrupt dispensers of patronage, interested more in gaining power and distributing spoils than in governing for the common welfare. Their own aim, as one Ohio nativist newspaper declared, was to ‘free our government from the … hordes of political leeches that are fattening their bloated carcasses in the people’s money’” (The Rise of American Democracy; Jefferson to Lincoln, 2005, pp. 682-683).
Immigrants formed the U.S. They desired dignity, worked hard to get ahead and didn’t rely on government hand-outs. Support the American way. Give similar opportunities to Central American children migrating north.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.