Turning over a New Leaf in the Immigration Conversation

A couple of weeks ago a viral tweet reminded those of us paying attention that there is a wonderful mutuality in welcoming policies for immigrants. Newly elected representative from Minnesota Ilhan Omar, tweeted

According to her campaign website, Rep. Omar and her family fled their native Somalia’s civil war when she was 8; spent 4 years in a refugee camp in Kenya; and came to the U.S. as refugees, settling in Minnesota.

I don’t know the specifics of Rep. Omar’s resettlement, but having worked for an organization that resettles refugees, I’m aware of the great needs that refugees have when they arrive in our country. Depending on the situation, they need help learning English, accessing medical services, applying for a social security card, receiving job training and finding a job, enrolling their kids in school, and so many more.

Organizations like mine come alongside refugees to assist them with needed services and to help them with their adjustment, but our services only last a short time. A few months after their arrival, refugees are expected to be self-sufficient and, in most cases, they are.

Like all immigrants, they work; they go to school; they raise families, giving themselves fully to their adopted country. They receive the gifts of welcome and compassion, and they give the gifts of their work, their talents, their entrepreneurial spirit, and also their faith. They give, and they receive. They bestow a blessing, and they receive a blessing–that’s the beautiful mutuality of welcoming policies for immigrants.

This mutuality reminds me of the immigrant Ruth’s story in the Hebrew Scriptures. Many Christians are familiar with the story of Ruth—we may have heard Ruth 1:16 read at weddings, “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.” Often when Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi’s story is told the focus is on Boaz, the man who honored God’s law and fulfilled his duty to them.

The unknown writer of Ruth doesn’t give us much background on Ruth—all we know is that she was a Moabite who married one of Naomi’s sons; she was barren after 10 years of marriage; and she became a young widow that chose to leave her home out of love and loyalty to her mother-in-law, who is also widowed.

Following Naomi to Bethlehem, Ruth does the only work available to foreigners like her: gleaning in the fields after the workers have gone through and taken the bulk of the harvest. This gleaning was the provision in the law that God laid out to provide for immigrants and other people on the margins. It was a part of the law not always followed, but Boaz feared God and obeyed the law. So it was that Ruth gleaned in his fields and brought the many leftovers home to feed and care for Naomi. It is a poor, foreign woman from a despised community that reveals to the people of Bethlehem what sacrificial love looks like.

At the end of the story we find out that the people of Bethlehem accept Ruth as one of their own; she marries Boaz and gives birth to a son, Obed. Naomi’s fellow countrywomen go so far as to proclaim: “Your daughter-in-law who loves you has given birth to him. She’s better for you than seven sons.” Naomi took the child and held him to her breast, and she became his guardian” (Ruth 4:15-16). What does it take in a patriarchal society suspicious of foreigners to say that an immigrant Moabite woman is better than seven sons?

Often, we also miss the remarkable mutuality in the story of Ruth–the reality that she both bestows and receives a blessing. We focus, as many people do: on Boaz’s actions, even though he was only following the law. We seem to forget that Ruth, too, brought the gift of her hard work, her kindness, her commitment to integrate into her new community, and her love for Naomi to her adopted country. In fact she is one of four women named in Jesus’ genealogy, as King David’s great-grandmother.

Mutuality is also missing from the conversation surrounding immigration in our country. Often those who speak in support of welcoming policies, emphasize our benevolent duty as human beings to show mercy; to open our doors to asylum seekers and refugees; and to share from the bounty of our economy.

Even Christians often emphasize “welcoming the stranger,” a phrase that recalls the many verses in the Hebrew Scriptures that command God’s people to treat strangers, also known as aliens, foreigners or immigrants, with dignity and hospitality.  These advocates affirm the needs immigrants have, the need for refuge and economic opportunity, and encourage American citizens toward compassion to their immigrant neighbor in need. Many of these Christian supporters of just and humane immigration policies focus primarily on the ways the U.S. economy will benefit from immigration and the need to embrace diversity.

To be sure, this welcome narrative is important, but it misses an important part of the conversation: the mutuality of receiving immigrants into our midst. Welcome, compassion, and embrace are certainly the beginning of the pro-immigration narrative but not the end. Because like Ruth and Rep. Omar’s family, immigrants bring gifts. And those gifts are revealed after their welcome. They bring their rich cultural traditions, their hard work, their talents, their faith, and often also a family that fully integrates into American life. Like Rep. Omar who has dedicated her life to public service, they give to their adopted country because they bear the image of their God, who also works, creates, loves, and gives.

It’s precisely because immigrants bring gifts that we need to extend the narrative to recognize the mutuality of welcoming immigration policies. In the same way that Ruth both received and bestowed blessings, immigrants receive the blessing of welcome and bestow a blessing on our country by giving us their very selves.

Photo by Fabian Fauth on Unsplash

Karen González

Karen González is a speaker, writer and immigrant advocate. She is also an immigrant from Guatemala, now living in Baltimore, Maryland, where she enjoys writing, cooking Latin food, traveling, and watching baseball (in that order). Karen is a former public school teacher and attended Fuller Theological Seminary, where she studied theology and missiology. For the last 10 years, she has been a non-profit professional, currently working for an organization that serves immigrants and refugees. Karen writes about spiritual formation, Latinx identity, race, gender, and immigration and is currently writing a book about her family's immigration story.
Karen González