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Would Jesus Oppose Immigration?

by Johnny Ramirez-Johnson, Fuller Theological Seminary (August 6, 2017)

            My grandfather, on my mother’s side, Johannes Nyroos left his place of birth, one of the smallest of the Åland Island Archipelago. He was evading Russian Imperial Army obligatory conscription. He had turned seventeen and was an army conscript candidate. The year was 1898. His destiny was New York. Being healthy and capable to work qualified him for immigration and papers for United States citizenship upon arrival to Ellis Island.

           In contrast, my mestizo Puerto Rican grandmother had a different process.   The USA migrated to her. In 1898 the USA invaded Puerto Rico and took over its government. However, it took twenty years before Puerto Ricans would be granted statutory US citizenship on March 2, 1917. Grandpa Johannes had no difficulty migrating into the USA, in fact every European that could read in their language, was healthy, and able to work (no particular skills required) was admitted freely! After he arrived to Ellis Island, he moved to Boston where he learned the basics of metal bridge building and became Mr. Johnson. From Boston he accepted an invitation to Puerto Rico, seeking new financial opportunities building bridges that the newest USA territory greatly needed. His immigrant pathway was simple and easy: arrival on the shores, learning new work skills, moving into a new job in Puerto Rico, becoming an American citizen. Like all other European migrants that were willing to work, my grandpa, Mr. Johnson, experienced no government resistance on his pathway to American citizenship.

           The experience of Pastor Noe Carias-Mayorga a Guatemalan immigrant who crossed through Mexico and the Rio Grande, a different waterway than my grandfather’s Atlantic Ocean, has had a very different reception and storyline. Pastor Carias-Mayorga entered the USA to work in order to financially support his family who were living in Tijuana. After his last entry twenty years ago he became a follower of Jesus in an Assemblies of God Church. Upon receiving the Holy Spirit and a call to ministry, getting married, and having two children (all but him being American citizens in his household), he began the long process towards citizenship. As part of this process, he is to report annually into the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) local offices. On his last visit to ICE a few weeks back he was detained and deportation process began.  With the new laws of the current administration, he is now seen as a criminal for issues related to having entered the USA as a child. Why was Pastor Carias-Mayorga’s arrival into America so different from the arrival of my grandpa, Mr. Johnson? It should be noted, that European immigrants of the time of my grandfather’s arrival were welcomed as families, though my grandpa came alone, he could have brought any and all family members the only requirement was a working guardian.

            In the 1800’s many millions of White Europeans migrated with expedited citizenship privileges. While in the 20th Century (when Noe Carias Mayorga arrived as a child over 25 years ago), Mexicans—even if they had the same qualifications as my grandfather of good health, minimal education, and an able body for work—were denied legal papers.[1]

            In my mind, there are two main legal “reasons” for opposing immigration: the idea that all should wait and enter legally and the idea that immigrants are a safety concern and a terrorist threat to the population of the United States. My grandfathers, as well as the vast majority of European White immigrants, were “legal” simply by arriving, not because they applied from their homelands and waited patiently. Their papers were filled out upon entry into the USA. Those that claim—We are not against immigration! Just come here legally, like my parents did! – are simply ill informed of what it meant to arrive legally for most white immigrants. It meant arriving – period!

            The idea that we want to make America safe does not seem to qualify either. In fact, I assume that the reader cares about facts, facts and crime statistics kept by the FBI and other government agencies, say the opposite—“We find no evidence to indicate that immigration leads to more crime and it may, in fact, suppress it… 2.5 times as many findings that showed immigration was actually correlated with less crime”[2] Pastor Noe Carias-Mayorga is not a terrorist candidate. His Assemblies of God congregation along with his American wife and children are all good citizens contributing and defining the America of today and tomorrow. Why is it that Mexicans arriving via land are treated differently than the Europeans who arrived by seaports?

           Jonah the Jew was a racist bigot against the Nineveh inhabitants, he happened to also be a prophet called by God to help the very people he despised, and he succeeded. I believe we need to read Jonah’s reasoning to understand the difference in logic. We care about people and things to which we have a tie, be it familial or property-related. Jonah loved the shade of the bush:

But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” (Jonah 4:9-11, NRSV).

God has a creator’s bond to all people, all animals; God cared about their lives. God invited Jonah to care for the Ninevites as Jonah cared about the bush. Was Jonah capable of caring?

            But immigrants take the jobs of citizens… says the anti-immigrant advocate. Well, if that individual is a Christian, she or he, like Jonah, has a choice to make between the ingrained bias of his culture and the call of God.  A Christian in the United States can believe the rhetoric of those who hate Mexicans for being “bad hombres” or the message of the Apostle Paul, whom most Evangelicals quote to explain their free salvation:

From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring’ (Acts 17:26-28, NRSV).

God is the one who determines borders and the movement of people, God “allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live.” If the Pauline message of salvation of faith has power over our lives and whom we understand ourselves to be in God, should not we also be bound to see the brotherhood with all nations and our homelands as determined by God? Reading Paul, how can one deny that

           Mexicans are your sisters and brothers? Would God not bear responsibility for their showing up at our southern borders? Just like God brought my grandpa to this country, God also brought Pastor Noe and his family. God even brought your ancestors too.

            It is not that difficult to reason out. It is about believing, caring, and embracing our brothers and sisters. In the end, God calls us all—immigrant or not—to the same reality: if we are to be delivered, we will be saved by faith in Jesus.  “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God” (Romans 5:1-2, NRSV).

        It is a matter of faith to accept salvation granted by Jesus and the love of God for us. After all, embracing immigrants means believing and trusting that God is the one who has drawn us together just as God is the one who delivers us from sin. The same faith that invites us to accept salvation in Jesus also invites us to accept our Guatemalan, Mexican (and all who show up at our borders satisfying the same requirements as my grandfather did) brothers and sisters as members of our faith-family. After all, embracing immigrants means believing and trusting that God is the one who has drawn us together just as God is the one who delivers us from sin. Matters of faith are also matters of love as we respond to our faith in the love of God. It is a matter of love and faith to embrace Pastor Noe Carias-Mayorga.

         So the next time, you are tempted to ask someone or ask yourself truly, “Have you accepted the salvation of Jesus by faith?” consider who else in this world you have truly accepted and believed to be welcomed into the brotherhood and sisterhood of Christ, called by God to live and serve with you.



[1] See: Pastor Noe Carias-Mayorga, https://www.matthew25socal.org/noevigil/

[2] Charis Kubrin, “Fact check: Immigration doesn’t bring crime into U.S., data say”, PBS News Hour, By The Conversation, February 3, 2017. Taken on 08/03/2017 from: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/fact-check-immigration-doesnt-bring-crime-u-s-data-say/

To see an academic fact finding article comparing new immigrants crime rates to American born citizens see: Bianca E. Bersani, “An Examination of First and Second Generation Immigrant Offending Trajectories”, Justice Quarterly, Vol. 31, February 2014, pages 315-343. Access at a price or check your public library: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/07418825.2012.659200

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