"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door."
I lift my lamp beside the golden door."
These famous words are inscribed on one of the most famous of the world’s statues as an open invitation to the world’s people – “Come, we welcome you here.” Such an invitation to the "tired," the “poor,” the “huddled masses,” the “homeless” of humanity, yearning for the freedom we still do have in the United States was once a banner to our nation’s unique place in history - a place of “liberty for all.” Today, it would seem, for some at least, those words should be covered over with a sign that reads “Closed.”
How did this happen? Have we forgotten, again, the blessings of welcoming those who long to be free?
The 2014 Super Bowl featured the above advertisement from Coca-Cola that celebrated the new ethnic diversity of our nation. Conservative groups have taken issue with Coke, declaring the commercial an attempt to promote multiculturalism and responded negatively to the ad. Social Media lit up in hyperbolic vitriol once again, as #BoycottCoke became a global trending topic on Twitter and a new Facebook group calling themselves Boycott Coke for Anti-Americanism added to the response.
I thought it was the best 60 seconds of a 3 hour celebration of Americana we call Super Bowl Sunday.
Immigration is certainly a hot-button issue that divides even Christians. There seems to be four reasons that people oppose immigration. First, and probably the most prevalent is the issue of “illegal” or “undocumented” immigration. Of course, “illegal immigration” is only part of the larger immigrant picture but it gets the most press and needs to be handled fairly. The legal and sociological issues are complex and there are no easy answers. I have previously blogged about this issue here.
Second, is economics. The claim is that immigrants take jobs away from Americans. This is demonstrably false for two reasons. First, nearly 1 million immigrants, on average, become legal residents each year. They are therefore Americans and deserve the same rights to pursue the American Dream as any other American. Second, under scrutiny this argument does not hold up, especially when considered from a Conservative free market position. Most immigrants are ambitious people, they would not have taken the risk to come here otherwise, and many create businesses and employment opportunities contributing much to America.
Third, is the cost to government. The claim is that immigrants, especially undocumented immigrants, cost the government in terms of social welfare programs. This too is reported as false. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office finds: “On balance, the economic impacts not included in the cost estimate would have no significant net effect on federal budget deficits during the coming decade and would reduce deficits during the following decade” (Source). In other words, the cost to our government is negligible and after 10 years will be a net gain. Why? Because people once in the shadows will now be tax-payers.
Finally, and perhaps most profoundly, there is a human aversion to ‘multiculturalism.’ This is not just an American phenomenon but it is however fear-based and betrays a level of ignorance of the “other.” Think about the parable of the Good Samaritan. The dominant culture would not help the person in need but a despised “other” did so. This would have come as quite a shock to Jesus listeners, who thought themselves superior to the lowly Samaritans.
“Othering” is any action by which an individual or group becomes emotionally classified as “not one of us.” Then the “other” can be dismissed as being in some way less human, and less worthy of respect and dignity, than we are.
Many complained about the multilingual rendition of “America the Beautiful” that it should be sung only in English, after-all this is America. While English is the dominant language, there are today hundreds of languages spoken in the U.S. In Dallas, my nearest major city, in over 40% of the legal residents English is the second language of the home. But this is nothing new. Go to Brooklyn, New York and in many homes, for decades now, Italian was the language spoken. Go to any Chinatown and you’ll hear Chinese. English has never been the official language of the United States, just the most commonly spoken.
Immigrants to America do have a great desire to learn English, but it takes some time. Many immigrants already speak two or more languages when they arrive. Many internationals want to learn English as it is a global business standard. Many seek to learn the language and what a great opportunity ESL affords Christians to be a blessing to international here in the process. But, sadly, the visceral reaction to a beautiful rendition of a beautiful song displays a level of “othering” that Christian Americans especially need to consider carefully – and repent of.
There is much to understand about the immigrant experience, and I am still learning. As I reflect back across my own life experience, I am reminded of the immigrant experience of my own family. My maternal great grandmother came from Poland, with my grandmother, through Ellis Island in the early years of the 20th Century. Great Grandma spoke only broken English her entire life, preferring to speak in her heart language. My Grandma was what could be considered a 1.5 generation kid, being born in Poland but coming here as a young girl. She spoke both languages fluently. My mom then is a second generation American, she spoke limited polish. Now as a 3rd generation American, on my mother’s side, I have no knowledge of Polish but my life is enriched by my heritage.
On my Father’s side, my great grandfather came to this country during the Irish potato famine. It was a time when American businesses would hang signs that read “No Irish Need Apply.” I guess this unwelcoming attitude also has deep American roots, at times. But somehow we managed to progress as a people.
As you travel across the USA you encounter cultural enclaves of the early 20th Century, or even earlier in some case. People came seeking the American Dream but wanted to hold onto to some of their cultural heritage. There are Chinatowns in both New York City and San Francisco. There is Koreatown in Flushing, NY and if you’ve ever walked those streets you would swear you were in Korea. There is Little Italy, Germantowns, and Polishtowns in several cities. The fact is that America has always been rich in and blessed by our cultural diversity. But why do we then see this pushback against the recognition of our new cultural diversity as depicted by a Coke commercial?
I believe one of the major reasons is that many of these New Americans are different - they look different and have different religious beliefs – they are the “other.” The “other” creates anxiety. Many are also other than European Protestant or Catholic (although a large percentage are Christians from places where our brothers and sisters are being persecuted). The European immigrant assimilated well into our “Christian” nation and gave expression to it the 20th Century. The Koreans were mostly Christian when they came, and many Chinese became Christians here. These newcomers however desire to hold onto their strange foreign beliefs. Not only do they want our jobs, they want to build their mosques and temples, and they want to speak their own languages. But this is Christian America!
Yes, it is and for that reason we must revisit the inscription on the statue of Liberty. If as Christians we care about welcoming and serving the “tired,” the “poor,” the “homeless”, and we must to call ourselves Christians, then we need to think well about how to respond in Christ-like manner to these “strangers next door.” It goes beyond simply serving however for as Christians we must seek justice for the immigrant, desire mercy for their plight and walk humbly before our God. We must pursue human flourishing for all as we are all God’s people created in his image. That calls us to a Christ-like response. When we love our neighbor as ourselves there is no “other.”
America should not simply be a place where Americans born here thrive. That is selfishness, a hording of our blessings. We are called to a higher standard as a people. America must be a place of opportunity too for the foreigner who comes here. Yes, we have internal issues today, and yes there must be intelligent immigration policy reform but if we hang out a “Closed” sign on Lady Liberty we lose the benefits that these New Americans can bless and enrich our nation with, as every generation of immigrant has done before. Worse, I believe, we lose the blessings of God who calls us to be a blessing to the nations among us. Jesus said, “I was a stranger, and you welcomed me in” (Matthew 25:35). How will Christian America respond?
I want to leave you with this video and will blog more about this important issue in future posts.