The history of the United States is also a history of racial, ethnic, and religious prejudice and persecution.
I know, the United States is also “the land of the free and the home of the brave”; the land of “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
But hidden between those lines of freedom and opportunity are indisputable facts: immigrants have always had to fight their way into the mainstream of United States society. Our original pilgrim forbears had to deal with immigrants from Scotland, Ireland, Germany, and Sweden. Those original Protestants soon were forced to absorb Roman Catholic immigrants. Struggles between those two branches of Christianity were often violent.
Most cities in the United States now feature neighborhoods known as “Germantown,” “Little Italy,” “Chinatown.” Those weren’t neighborhoods where people went to eat foreign cuisine in quaint restaurants—they were places where people who shared a common heritage lived without fear of physical or emotional abuse based on their ethnicity.
Waves of legal immigrants have settled in the United States, first from Northern Europe, then Southern Europe, then Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Immigration is nothing new.
What is new (at least for this generation) is the backlash against immigrants from parts of the world where Christianity is not the dominant religion. The same tropes used against German immigrants 100 and 85 years ago, and against Japanese 75 years ago, are now made to apply to Muslims.
What’s different now is that immigrants aren’t seeking entrance to the United States so they can eat at McDonald’s and shop at Target. In many cases they are fleeing conditions that are intolerable in terms of life, safety, and security. Imagine living in parts of the world where people simply disappear. Sometimes mangled, dismembered corpses appear; often they’re just never seen again.
That’s why people are willing to risk their lives in dangerous journeys. They want what every United States citizen takes for granted: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
God’s people know something about being pilgrims, strangers, immigrants, foreigners. After God rescued His people from Egypt, He told them: “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God” (Lev. 19:34).
Ruth, a Moabite, became part of Jesus’ genealogy by accompanying her mother-in-law, Naomi, to Israel.
Mary and Joseph had to flee a murderous despot after Jesus was born. “And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘Out of Egypt I called my son’” (Matt. 2:15).
Some people resist immigration because they think society will change; that even legal immigrants will bring new and strange customs, foods, traditions, languages. And they will. Nearly 400 years of immigration to the United States has proved that each new wave of immigrants brings something new to our culture.
That’s what makes America great.
Stephen Chavez is an assistant editor of Adventist Review.