IT'S ALMOST THANKSGIVING, WHEN WE REMEMBER how God blessed, and some Indians helped, a group of new immigrants to America. A month from now comes Christmas, when we celebrate the most sensational immigration of all time, the birth of Jesus.
Those events are worth considering as we examine the arguments about immigration today. Is it possible to take wise precautions against both terrorism and future disunity while honoring the pro-immigration flavor of American and biblical history? Let's look at the four types of anti-immigration arguments.
Type 1 criticizes not the immigrants themselves but a culture no longer committed to helping them assimilate. Some schools do a poor job of teaching immigrant children English, and thus limit their social and economic mobility. Some schools emphasize America's faults, instead of teaching that this country has accorded immigrants liberty and opportunity unprecedented in world history. Concerns about what we teach immigrants are valid if America is to become not a divided nation, but one still living out the phrase e pluribus unum.
Type 2 arguments emphasize homeland security. These also are generally valid. Given the backgrounds of the Sept. 11 perpetrators, extra caution is in order when reviewing visa applications from countries that grow terrorists and do not crack down on them. The federal government must make our borders more than paper lines if it is to fulfill its constitutional function of providing for the common defense.
Type 3 arguments that favor restricting immigration to limit population growth are not as strong. Sure, we are to be stewards of God's creation and not overcrowd it, but this country still has a wealth of wide-open spaces. Urban areas are congested, but many small towns and rural areas are facing depopulation. Ironically, the doors for immigration and abortion opened in the 1960s at around the same time, and in some ways the number of immigrants has merely replaced many of the babies who were killed before birth.
Type 4 anti-immigration arguments are really anti-immigrant arguments. We don't want those people, some say or suggest: They're not our kind. Among the murmurs: They're not used to democratic government, so they'll be easy prey for potential dictators. They're used to big government, so they'll vote for Democrats. They'll undermine America's Christian traditions.
This argument goes against American historical experience, which shows that those who have been denied liberties usually appreciate them the most. Yes, Democrats have gained most of the Hispanic vote in elections past, but they have also asked for those votes far more fervently. A survey by Latino Opinions shows two-thirds of Hispanics identifying themselves as pro-life. Now that President Bush is making Hispanic outreach a prime GOP task, voting patterns are beginning to reflect Latino values.
More fundamentally, surveys show three-fourths of Latinos, compared to 60 percent of Americans overall, saying that religion (almost always Christianity) provides considerable guidance in their lives. Hispanics are bolstering both Catholic and Protestant churches, with over one-fifth having converted to evangelical Protestantism. The recent influx of Asian immigrants has also helped churches. Korean-Americans are 10 times more likely to be Christian than Buddhist, and other immigrants from Asia also often have Christian backgrounds.
But Christians have a reason deeper than such pragmatic considerations to welcome immigrants. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were temporary immigrants in Egypt. Their ancestor, Ruth the Moabitess, had been welcomed to Israel over a millennium before. Christians, like Jews, are commanded to show hospitality to "the stranger within your gates." The New Testament emphasizes that "in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek," and that we are to love our neighbors, regardless of national origin, like ourselves.
If Christianity is losing support in the United States, native-born Christians looking for culprits should look in the mirror. Two Zen Buddhist centers I visited recently were peopled by white Anglo-Saxon former Protestants. The Catholic priests involved in recent sex scandals rarely have Hispanic names. Liberal denominations that are losing members-Episcopalians, United Methodists, and others-have been rocked by dissension over ordaining gays, not accepting immigrants.
The position I'd suggest on immigration is this: Set up anti-terrorist safeguards. Teach potential citizens English and American ideals. But don't close the gate. Those who complain that more immigration will move America from its Christian past should realize that it might lead to a Christian future.