Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion and Truth in the Immigration Debate

03.30.09 | Denver Journal, Christian Spiritual Formation, Daniel Seatvet | by Matthew Soerens | by Jenny Hwang

    Daniel Seatvet's review of "Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate" by Matthew Soerens and Jenny Hwang.

    Matthew Soerens & Jenny Hwang, Welcoming The Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009.  230 pages with index.  $15.00, soft cover.

    book-Welcoming the Stranger

    "In the 2008 elections, after the primaries, immigration was hardly mentioned by either Barack Obama or John McCain as it was considered detrimental to both candidates." (pg. 157) Why? Why is it that the immigration debate continues to be such a hot-button issue for political candidates, academia, and the American people? What is it about this issue, perhaps more so than others, that strikes at the core of America as a society, America as a democracy, and America as a nation that many think was founded on Judeo-Christian principles? And thus, why is it that people, including presidential candidates, are afraid to talk about it?

    For the ministry of World Relief (http://www.wr.org) and its advocate employees Matthew Soerens and Jenny Hwang, these perplexing questions are at the forefront of their minds and they want this complex issue to be at the forefront of political reform and more importantly, the Christians' minds and actions. In this highly engaging, well researched and documented book, Soerens and Hwang team up to survey and analyze the history of immigration in the United States and attempt to solve many of the problems that immigration faces through well-reasoned argumentation and personal experience. Most importantly, they do all of this not through the eyes of partisan politics, but rather through the lens of the Christian worldview.

    That is the main point that Soerens and Hwang want to get across to the reader; that we should be looking at the issue as Christians first. We should not let our biased political leanings or misinformed stereotypes get in the way of doing what is right. However, in an effort not to make this complicated issue overtly simplistic, the authors understand the tension that many Christians face. "On first glance at the issue, we recognize that immigrants are people made in God's image who should be treated with respect; at the same time, we believe God has instituted the government and the laws that it puts into place for a reason, and that as Christians we are generally bound to submit to the rule of law." (pg. 13)

    So then, what is a good Christian to do? In this instance, Sir Francis Bacon was correct when he opined that "knowledge is power". Soerens and Hwang strive for the vast majority of the book to inform the reader about where the immigration debate came from, where it is currently, and where (in their estimation) it should be going. Chapter one sets the parameters of what is to be discussed in the pages ahead. The ground rules are laid of defining terms and both authors contribute from their own lives about immigrants they know and their personal stories, a theme that continues throughout the book.

    One of the most foundational points the authors want to get across in this first chapter is also echoed in the foreword by National Association of Evangelicals president Leith Anderson, "You see, every immigrant story is a personal story. Behind the statistics and politics are stories of mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, husbands and wives." (pg. 10) In essence, this immigration debate is more than talking points created in academic ivory towers; this issue is first and foremost, and should remain, about people.

    That ideological generosity toward the issue being about people first, the next several chapters give a bounty of statistics that are at times surprising. The key questions asked in chapter two discuss who these immigrants are, and why they want to come to America. Stereotypes are knocked down in this chapter when the veil is removed from many of our preconceived notions and the truth about who these people are and what they aim to accomplish comes into full view. Many readers would be surprised to know that "While many undocumented immigrants cross the border illegally, nearly half--- between 40 percent and 50 percent--- enter the United States legally, on a valid visa, and then overstay or otherwise violate the terms of that visa." (pg. 37)

    Chapter three continues with many surprising factoids about the history of immigration in the United States through well-surveyed sections divided up in periods of time ranging from the founding fathers to the present day. For those who want to delve deeper into the policies and procedures of immigration today, chapter four describes in impressive analysis the quandary that is the American immigration system. One is left at the end of this chapter wondering if there is any sort of work that can be done at all, to sift through the bureaucratic red tape, partisan politics, and the bulk of Americans who are simply un- or misinformed about this whole issue.

    Fortunately, chapter five is a breathe of fresh air providing the Christian an excellent analysis about what the Bible has to say about immigration. The lingering question in one's mind continues to be implied "How should we respond to the immigration issue as Christians?" While the authors do give away their answers to the dilemma quite yet in this chapter, several hints are dropped to where that particular author might lean. Nonetheless, fairness and tact remain throughout the course of the book and in this chapter particularly the theme of the Greatest Commandment rings true: "However we approach immigration policy, we must first approach immigrants themselves as neighbors--- with love." (pg. 91) To which they then qualify that, "The love to which we are called is a conscientious decision based on commitment and trust, not simply a warm feeling or emotion." (pg. 91)

    The next chapter, chapter six, provides a look at the other piece of the puzzle, the legitimate concerns about immigration and immigrants that are often raised by scholars and the public alike. The usual concerns about immigration are discussed in this chapter, such as homeland security and having secure borders. But there are also other concerns about immigration that a person might not have thought about, such as immigration and the environment. These concerns and more are covered respectively and treated legitimately. However, it is apparent that the tone towards the end of each section concludes with a "Yeah, but..." implying the importance time and again towards the most important "concern" of all--- to love God and love others.

    As a strategically placed follow-up chapter to the previous and playing off of the "Yeah, but..." anecdotal arguments, chapter seven supplies the reader with some thoughts about the value of immigrants in America. Throughout the chapter, success stories are discussed about immigrants who came to America and fulfilled the "American dream". At one point, the discussion takes a slightly different bent and addresses a deeper philosophical question that needs to be raised: "Greater questions must be asked about who we are and what we want to become as a country that may be inherently more important when crafting immigration policy than any economic considerations." (pg. 133) It is a good question, and the reader might wish that the authors spent a little more time discussing this; although admittedly much has been written elsewhere on what it means to be American and what America should be. Undoubtedly for the authors, it is slightly outside the scope of the current discussion.

    The discussion moves nicely along in chapter eight where the authors outline very well what the modern politics involved with this debate, going right up to the most recent presidential campaign and the beginning of President Obama's term. An excellent analysis and discussion is had on the controversial Congressional bill HR 4437 as well as beneficial quotes from major political and religious leaders on that bill and on the issue in general. In the next chapter, chapter nine, the authors discuss and give examples about how parts of the Church in the United States are handling the immigration issue. This is the closest the authors have gotten to a conclusion for an answer so far. Much weight is put on the idea of the Church as well as the local church being distinct from the world around it, in an effort to show that regardless of what the laws in the United States are, churches and Christians are meant to obey a higher law from God. In many instances (the authors contrast immigration law to abortion law), God's law is polar opposite (and thus trumps) the law in America.

    The final chapter gives the long-awaited and much anticipated earnest thoughts about what each Christian can do to be a part of this important issue. The authors hold true to their form and posture throughout the book of not picking one political party over the other but rather give appropriate avenues for Christians of all political persuasions to partake in. In the authors thinking, prayer is the first thing that should be done, reaching out to immigrants in our neighborhoods in a loving and Christlike manner is second, followed by giving monetarily to organizations (notice the plug for World Relief here) that do work on a daily basis on the immigration issue. Christians can also be active in educating their churches and communities on this issue, to weed out the common stereotypes and misconceptions. The authors also suggest that people can advocate for immigrants in a political manner in a variety of ways. Lastly, the appendices are filled with helpful information including contact information for organizations that work on immigration reform, questions a person can ask in a small-group discussion, and further reading for those interested in pursuing more on the topic.

    Welcoming The Stranger is a timely and important book at a point in America's history where the immigrant population is considerably growing and many Americans seek to "do something about it." What it is that actually needs to be done is where the debate is at. Matthew Soerens and Jenny Hwang give an excellent and readable analysis of the immigration debate and encourage Christians to think about the issue through the lens of their Christian worldview first. This reviewer's only quibble was several times (pgs. 90, 112, and 137) the authors seemed to approach an "open borders" solution, but would then retract with a qualification. If your position is "open borders" and you feel as though that makes the most sense, then be proud of your position and defend it. Nonetheless, this is an engaging and well-done book on an issue that Christians need to be more informed and active about.

    Daniel Seatvet, M.A.
    Denver Seminary
    March 2009

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