Nebuchadnezzar instructed his highest official Ashpenaz to choose royal descendants and members of the ruling class from the Israelites-- good-looking young men without defects, skilled in all wisdom, possessing knowledge, conversant with learning, and capable of serving in the king's palace. Ashpenaz was to teach them the Chaldean language and its literature. (Daniel 1:3-4 CEB translation)
I have been thinking a great deal about the process of immigration. It has dominated this month’s news, whether in our reflections on DACA, or what constitutes a shithole or shithouse country, or whether we should continue to build a wall or whether it is appropriate to shut down the government while we fight over these issues. Issues of immigration are consuming us right now.
I am also thinking of the families I have known who have come to this country. Honestly, most of them have come through the proper channels. They came here on visas, and then went through the process to become citizens. I walked with two families more closely than others, one family from Brazil and one from Kenya. The process of becoming citizens has cost them in the tens of thousands of dollars, has involved leaving the country to change status (a requirement) which also costs money and a tremendous amount of risk, and has been an arduous process that ended in them renouncing their home countries (something that is not required by all oaths of allegiance but certainly is in ours). These two families took these risks knowing that if anything went wrong they could be deported. Well, all except the two children (one in each family) who were born in the United States. If they got deported, their children would not be deported – you can’t deport citizens.
I am also thinking of the woman from Zimbabwe who came here on a student visa to study to be a pastor. She had to leave her 17 year old daughter in Zimbabwe while she came here to study because our government felt that if the whole family came here (she already had a son in college here) that they would try to stay in the country. Even when her daughter received a full scholarship to come to the US and study, her student visa was denied twice because we didn’t want them to try to be citizens here.
I want us all to understand that these people went through this process years ago. This is not new. This is our legal system. Our broken legal immigration system.
I also want us to remember that at least two of these families, and possibly the third, come from the so-called shithole countries. All of them, to the best of my knowledge, remain here, and do so legally. And here is what we have as a result:
A special education teacher
A mechanical engineer
A medical doctor
4 children who are growing up as Americans and as the children of these amazing people – wonder who they will turn out to be?
If we judged these people based solely on how we perceive their countries, though, well, my life would be poorer. And so would my country.
What is being talked about amidst this debate is a question of who “deserves” to be an American. This is called merit-based immigration, and we didn’t invent it. Countries and peoples have been practicing it for quite a while. In fact, sometimes merit has been enforced. In the biblical passage given here, the Book of Daniel talks about how when the Babylonian empire crushed Judah, the Babylonians exported people – they took, as the text says, good-looking young men without defects, skilled in all wisdom, possessing knowledge, conversant with learning, and capable of serving in the king's palace. In other words, they determined who was worthy of serving in the capitol, and they left everyone else behind. But notice what their first criteria was – they were good-looking. The empire doesn’t really look deeply into a person’s soul, but evaluates based on superficial characteristics.
The problem here is the implication that some people are better than other people. That is what is behind policies that restrict us from accepting immigrants from certain countries and not others. But first of all, on a practical level, how can we predict potential? The lawyer I mention above was a lawyer in Brazil, but the teacher worked as a clerk at a hotel. Who could have predicted the change?
We are not the be-all, end-all of helping people reach their potential, but we certainly have mechanisms in place that make it easier than in some places (maybe not Norway, though – the Scandinavian countries beat us on practically every measurable point). If we restrict people from access to such possibilities, are we cutting them off from being who God has called them to be? Will we bear ultimate responsibility for that?
Additionally, if we stand in judgment of others, if we say certain people are better than others, is that not the height of hubris, and have we not made ourselves out to be God? That is idolatrous, and I know we will pay the price for that one.
Look, I know we don’t live in the reign of God. I know that this world is imperfect, and that governments have to make less than ideal decisions out of responsibility for their citizens. I know that is why we have all these checks on our immigration system. But I strongly caution us from making blanket judgments, from condemning people en masse, or from judging people by how they appear or by what assumptions we make about them - superficial things. That is what the Empire does. If the Bible tells us anything, God comes to tear down the empires, and to raise up the ones that the empire seeks to trample.
May we be on the right side of history. May we be on the right side of God.