On Immigration: From Tired, Poor, Huddled Masses to Trump’s Best and Brightest?

The immigration debate in America has taken a nasty turn of late with Donald Trump’s entry into the GOP Presidential nominating process and his remarks about those coming here illegally from Mexico and other places not being the “best and brightest.” His words seem to be catching on as a nativist movement is growing with Trump himself as the figurehead as he has taken a commanding lead in the polls for the Republican nomination. GOP leaders like Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, who leads the Senate Sub Committee on Immigration, are mirroring some of Trump’s rhetoric as there are emerging calls to limit even legal immigration. The claim is that even bringing in the “best and brightest” from other countries is a detriment to America and American workers. How might Christians see these developments?

These people claim to be “good Americans” who are looking out for the best interests of our country. I understand that a major problem with unfettered immigration is that we have a massive social safety net that is already overburdened and there is a concern about adding people to it who it is feared might not pay sufficiently into the system. And, I also get that there is a fear of foreigners coming here and taking jobs and depressing wages for Americans by providing cheap labor. In addition, there are security concerns that accompany any conversation on immigration that must be addressed.

But, these are all issues that we can solve as Americans working together if we don’t let fear control us. And, many of these fears are actually very much misplaced with the reality being far different from what anti-immigration activists say. Donald Trump has not expressed a traditional American view. In reality, the views that he has expressed are both unAmerican and unChristian. I’ll explain.

In 1883, Emma Lazarus wrote the poem, “The New Colossus” that was eventually etched into a tablet on the Statue of Liberty in 1903. It spoke to the American ethos of liberty and of being a refuge for the poor of the world and for those seeking freedom. The text:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “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!”

Donald Trump is upset because he says that we are not getting the “best and brightest” and all of the really “smart people.” He is not just upset about illegal immigration, but he is very clearly upset about the kind of people that Mexico is sending us as his focus seems to be on that country in particular. He claims to be a great American. He claims to be a conservative. But, the actual American, conservative values are summed up in Emma Lazarus’ words. The real, historic America wants the tired, poor, huddled masses and wretched refuse who recognize that their old country has failed them and they want to come live as free people here. The real, historic, conservative view believes that America is a great place – even a transformative place – where people can come from all over the world, throw off the chains of tyranny and oppression of all kinds, and work hard and make a life for themselves. We are a nation of immigrants and many of our ancestors came here with nothing but dreams for the future – dreams that they fought, worked, and died for to see come true.

The weakness and dearth of imagination from those who do not want immigrants to come here actually reveals an anti-American view. The idea that we have to be so afraid of the future that we must protect what we have and not let others into our country shows that the America that was once great and prosperous and generous has given way, in part, to a greedy, fearful, grasping, small-minded people focused on simply preserving their own “way of life.” That perspective exists in these days, but it is not traditionally American.

Trump says that he wants to make America great again. But, reclaiming the greatness of America means that we must reclaim our courage and optimism about who we are and who we can again one day be. It means that we believe in the values that made our nation great, many of which were etched in bronze on the Statue of Liberty that thousands upon thousands of “huddled masses” and “wretched refuse” saw when they came to America through Ellis Island a hundred years ago to work in our factories and coal mines and to build the nation that we now know and love. “American Values” are important as is making America great again. But, what values? Reclaiming the greatness that Trump is talking about means that we must reclaim the confidence and courage that we once had regarding who we actually are. When I read Emma Lazarus’ poem, I see confidence bordering on arrogance. She was essentially saying, “Send us whoever wants to throw off tyranny and come to these shores! They can join us in this amazing freedom experiment and together we will become the greatest nation the world has ever known!” When I hear Trump speak, I hear fear and weakness and anger and a complete lack of vision and courage. I hear a very small man with a lot of money who seeks to get his way through bluster and intimidation. He has no higher vision. His influence grows among the similarly fearful – those who have exchanged a vision of a great, welcoming America ascending for a weak, fearful America in decline just hoping to hold on to what it has and what it was. Trump is the kind of leader that appeals to a dying empire, full of bravado and big talk on the surface, but devoid of any real connection with what made the nation great in the first place.

America was great because she was good and because she was filled with people who believed in freedom and better days ahead and they were willing to work hard to make that new future a reality. They were often people of great faith in God and a willingness to work and suffer and persevere to build a life for themselves against great odds. Many of those people were immigrants or descendants of immigrants. Ronald Reagan tapped into this idea with his “Morning in America” campaign. People flocked to him and his leadership because he was optimistic, full of courage, and strong. Trump tries to imitate him, but he doesn’t have the internal moral compass to know what he is actually advocating for or why. To get this bearing, he should listen to and learn from the immigrants who are fighting to come here, not so they can sit and collect government handouts, but so they can work, be free, and make a better life for themselves and their families – real American values.

For the church in America, especially Evangelical Christians, giving into fear and protectionism is also a mistake. We welcome the immigrant not because we believe in the greatness of America but because we believe that God is sovereign and He directs the affairs of nations and moves people across the face of the earth where He wills. We open ourselves up to the stranger and the migrant because we see this as an opportunity to love others sacrificially and to minister Christ to people in need. We do not worry about the future or only want the “best and brightest” because we believe that all people are made in God’s image and bear His likeness and thus, have inherent worth and value – even the poor wretched refuse, whomever they might be. We recognize that Jesus said that the least will be the greatest and that we are to welcome the little children in His name. Trump wants the impressive and “smart” people, but we tell a different story and recognize that the Kingdom of God is open to the
humble and the weak – any who call upon Jesus. And, we also recognize that it is Jesus who then helps the weak become strong. Trump, who has said that he has never asked God for forgiveness for anything, represents not only an anti-American view, but also an anti-Christian view of the world and the value of people in God’s sight. We should tell a better story.

A nation has every right and the responsibility to set and enforce its own laws, including its border laws and defense. A nation has the right and responsibility to regulate who comes into it and who doesn’t. It has the right and responsibility to provide security and protection for its people. I believe in all of this and believe that our immigration system needs to be reformed to do all of these things much better so that people can come here legally and in proper order and that those who choose to try and break our laws will not be successful. But, in addressing these issues, if America gives into fear and protectionism and changes it’s very nature in regard to the “tired, poor, huddled masses and wretched refuse,” then what are we really trying to protect? Who will we have become?

We need an immigration system that works and that does not create a black market for cheap labor through anti-business growth visa restrictions. We need a secure border and we need to identify those who should be here and those who should not. We also need a plan for the 11 million people who are here but are undocumented. They are in the shadows and we need to find a way to grant them legal status so they can contribute to society openly. We will not deport them despite the desires of some. Many of them have been here for 5, 10, 15+ years and have no homes to go back to. Many have children who were born here and are American citizens. We will not and should not break up millions of families and see children left behind as their parents are sent away en masse. So, what will we do? How will we solve this dilemma for millions of people? The longer that we let 11 million people live here without legal status, the easier it is for violent criminals in their midst to go unreported because of the overall fear of deportation and lack of trust that exists in immigrant communities. Providing legal status for the otherwise law abiding and productive undocumented immigrants will make it easier for police and federal agents to work together to identify and deport those who are here to engage in violence or anti-social behaviors.

There are many questions that face us in this area, but people like Trump do not have answers for us. They are too afraid of what might happen to open their eyes and see the America that actually is – and that might one day be if we have the courage to build it together. As Emma Lazarus so eloquently said, America is the “Mother of Exiles.” That is who we really are. May that “mighty woman with a torch” shine bright again as a beacon to the whole world of what a free, strong, confident, and prosperous nation really is. And, may the Church in America shine her own light and tell of another, much greater Kingdom to come where all of the exiles, the poor, and the wretched and rejected can find their true home with God forever through faith in the saving work of Jesus Christ.

For more on the church, ethnic diversity, and living in the better way of Jesus, check out my book, When Heaven and Earth Collide: Racism, Southern Evangelicals, and the Better Way of Jesus, NewSouth Books, 2014.

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