FEATURED: WELCOMING THE STRANGER by Hwang/Soerens. [Vol. 2, #26]

June 26, 2009

 

“Love the Immigrants”

A Review of
Welcoming the Stranger:
Justice, Compassion and Truth
In the Immigration Debate.

by Matthew Soerens and Jenny Hwang.

Reviewed by Debra Dean Murphy,
(Author of Teaching That Transforms).

Welcoming the Stranger:
Justice, Compassion and Truth
In the Immigration Debate.

Matthew Soerens and Jenny Hwang.
Paperback: IVP Books, 2009.
Buy now:   [ CBD ]

What a difference a recession makes.

A year before the election of Barack Obama, conventional wisdom held that U.S. immigration policy would be the wedge issue of the 2008 presidential campaign. Congress had helped set the stage for a political showdown by failing to pass the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act in the spring of 2007. In a primary debate that fall, Hillary Clinton stumbled over a question about driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants, leading many to predict an early end to her presidential aspirations.

But by the time candidates Obama and McCain met for three debates just weeks before Election Day, it was clear that immigration reform was not a pressing issue for either campaign. And if the candidates weren’t talking much about immigration, neither was the electorate. A tanking economy and a looming recession were jangling nerves all across America, creating a whole new set of worries and anxieties. Now nearly six months into the Obama administration, the economic recession continues to preoccupy the President, the news media, and most Americans.

In their new book, Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion and Truth in the Immigration Debate, Matthew Soerens and Jenny Hwang draw our attention, thankfully, back to the urgent questions surrounding U.S. immigration policy. With compelling personal stories, up-to-the-minute statistics, and an impressive command of the history of immigration patterns, practices, and policies, Soerens and Hwang remind us that there is no neat and tidy separation between immigration and the economy—whether the latter is floundering or flourishing.

More importantly, though, these authors issue a bold challenge to Christians—an invitation, really, since their style is devoid of any scolding or bombast—to consider immigration through Scripture’s clear call to welcome the stranger and to see ourselves as a people in exile: sojourners in a foreign land who live not by claiming “our rights” over and against so-called outsiders, but solely by the mercy and grace of a generous, hospitable God.

The book’s ten chapters outline the current immigration “dilemma” in all of its social, political, economic, and moral complexity. Both Soerens and Hwang work for World Relief, an agency formed by the National Association of Evangelicals in the aftermath of World War II. For sixty-five years World Relief has been dedicated to refugee resettlement and, according to its website, “to empowering the local church to serve the most vulnerable.” The authors’ day-to-day experiences with the quagmire that is current U.S. immigration policy (and the real people caught in it) make them credible, reliable guides through the thorniest immigration problems and lend their book a fresh immediacy often lacking in more abstract treatments of immigration reform.

The power of their simple argument (that Christians must understand this issue, first and foremost, through the lens of Scripture and the call to discipleship) rests in their ability to link matters related to legislation, work visas, border patrols, ICE raids, and green cards to the Hebrew scriptures’ insistence that “Israel’s very identity was tied to how they treated the foreign born” (86) and to the truth that the New Testament’s “most notable refugee was Jesus himself” (85).

Equally important are the many myths and misconceptions that Soerens and Hwang dispel along the way:

•    that undocumented immigrants don’t pay taxes
•    that they come to the U.S. to take advantage of social services and benefits
•    that they should just wait their turn and immigrate the legal way

The truth, of course, is that most undocumented immigrants do pay taxes—payroll taxes and sales tax. But they are ineligible to receive any benefits for the money paid into Social Security or Medicare, since they must use a false Social Security card to be able to work in the first place. Soerens and Hwang note the irony inherent in such a system:

“It is probably not coincidental that the Social Security card, unlike most government documents such as a driver’s license or passport, employs very little modern technology that would make it difficult to falsify; in fact, it looks like it was made on blue construction paper with a typewriter. While there has not yet been the political will to grant employment authorization to undocumented workers, at least in recent years, many politicians have also been wary about imposing a nationwide verification system. Such a system could result in millions of undocumented immigrants losing their jobs and have, as a result, potentially disastrous effects on the American economy, many of whose companies rely on low-wage undocumented labor” (34).

Probably unknown to most Americans is the fact that many undocumented immigrants actually file tax returns each year. They do this, of course, with a false Social Security Number, but the Internal Revenue Service offers a special Individual Taxpayer Identification Number to anyone who does not have a valid SSN and promises not to file a report with immigration enforcement authorities. The authors quote an IRS commissioner: “We want your money whether you are here legally or not and whether you earned it legally or not” (35).

The common complaint that immigrants should enter the U.S. legally is countered by Soerens and Hwang with the stark truth that there is in fact no viable process for immigrants to pursue: “They can repeatedly line up at the U.S. consulate, pay a substantial fee, and apply for a visa, but for the majority, especially those without substantial education or financial resources, they will leave the consulate disappointed, finding there is not even a line in which they can wait” (66). The cruel irony of all this is that if immigrants had “substantial education or financial resources” in the first place they would not leave family and loved ones and risk life and limb to find (back-breaking, low-paying) work in the United States.

While the authors share the stories of particular immigrants they know (and in the case of Hwang, her own parents were immigrants from South Korea), more of these personal narratives—interspersed throughout—would have strengthened the book. The authors’ target readers are persons who live by stories and who understand themselves to be saved by the story of God’s love for all the world, so more flesh-and-blood accounts of actual immigrants and their families would have only fortified the compelling case made throughout the book.

But this is a minor quibble. Soerens and Hwang have written a remarkably usable book. In targeting evangelicals, particularly, they have also deflated many of the pieties that arise from evangelical circles, i.e. that the “rule of law” must be primary or that deporting immigrants is the “loving” thing to do. It is not by accident, I suspect, that Charles Colson is an oft-quoted ally of the book’s central argument.

Welcoming the Stranger concludes with a substantial collection of appendices: group discussion questions, resources for learning more about immigration, tools for political advocacy—all this and more give the reader plenty to do when the book is finished. Which is as it should be; this is not a book that will leave you indifferent or unchanged. Action is called for.

At the end, I was drawn back to the beginning: to the foreword by Leith Anderson who, after recounting his own personal story of the immigrants who cared for his dying mother, makes this plea: “When you read about all the complexity of immigration and think about what needs to be done, love the immigrants.”

This important book invites us to that kind of action: to love the immigrants.