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Making immigration work

Thankful for those who came before us while welcoming those who truly seek refuge

A woman cries after becoming an American citizen during a naturalization ceremony in August in Miami, where 142 citizenship candidates from 33 countries took the oath of allegiance. Associated Press/Photo by Wilfredo Lee (file)

Making immigration work

Thanksgiving month: A time to celebrate pioneers who came to America, natives who were hospitable, and the sweet land of liberty that resulted.

The immigration debate rages hot, and here are three columns (from 1994, 2002, and 2008) from the WORLD Magazine vault that I wrote in relation to that debate. I don’t at all minimize the concerns many Americans have in regard to radical Islamists or MS-13 gangsters in our midst. I would like to suggest that our basic predisposition should be pro-immigration for historical, sociological, and theological reasons.

Not ignoring the difficulties and protecting both national security and the rule of law, we should try to find a way to make immigration work for those who seek refuge in America and those who are grateful to our ancestors for coming.

Don’t close the gate (2002)

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 9/11 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 George W. 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 more than 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.

Hispanics are bolstering both Catholic and Protestant churches, with more than one-fifth having converted to evangelical Protestantism.

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 more than 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.

A pro-immigrant theology (1994)

It’s almost Christmas, and the debate over immigration during this Christmas season reminds me of how I am three times an immigrant, and how one person who has befriended me is the most unusual immigrant of all time.

First, I am by blood a civic immigrant. My grandparents courageously came to America early in the 20th century from thousands of miles away, leaving behind family and familiar environs. They came from an empire of unchecked tyranny and pledged allegiance to a Constitution devoted to limiting government; they learned the customs of their new country. One of my earliest memories is of my grandfather taking me to baseball games.

Second, I am by ideology a political immigrant. Two decades ago I moved from the left to the right. I knew then and I’ve seen since that some conservatives who preach about virtue may be hypocritical, but at least they do not use governmental force to push others to sin. That’s the key: Although non-Christian conservatives do not understand the origins and true nature of sin, they see its consequences and are unlikely to buy government-surplus stain removers that in practice grind the evil deeper into the social fabric.

Third and most important, I am by grace an immigrant to Christianity; not until 1976 did I first celebrate Christ’s birth. Now I know, theologically, that everyone is an immigrant to Christ—each believer must be born again—but I still say, to parallel Paul’s words in Romans 3, “What advantage is there in growing up in a Christian home? Much in every way. First of all, they have been entrusted with the very words of God.” To grow up with the gospel, to absorb from an early age the great hymns and confessional statements of the church, and even (on a far lower level) to have warm memories of Christmas, is indeed a great privilege.

I’m struck, however, by the number of people who grew up in these three groups and now are embarrassed by them.

Some native-born Americans are chagrined at this country’s prosperity. The counterculture urge to blame America first and praise China, Cuba, or Albania has diminished, but this month singer Pete Seeger received from President Bill Clinton a “medal for lifetime achievement in the performing arts.” Seeger at mid–20th century was at least an FOCP (friend of the Communist Party) and apparently has not changed, except that the decrease in Marxist countries to praise has left him chasing fantasies in the fourth dimension: “When anybody says I’m a communist,” the New York Times reported him as commenting, “I say, ‘Yup, just like the American Indian.’ There was no thievery … among the Indians.”

Some conservatives so crave the praise of the liberal press that they “grow in office.” Look at Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy—now known as “Flipper”—who changed his position on abortion in order to please the editors of The New York Times and The Washington Post. Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., speaks undiplomatically at times, but you can bet that he won’t stop dancing with the people and principles that brung him.

Some Christians despise the rich history of the Christian Church. These days lots of people demand Scripture songs rather than the great hymns, and times of sharing rather than Bible studies. Some pastors become ministers of entertainment and worry about using un-cool words like “sin.” The excuse that’s sometimes offered is: We don’t want to scare away potential immigrants. What “church lite” promoters do not understand is that true immigrants want the real thing.

To an immigrant like myself, the abandonment of birthright seems incredible—but I know that those who have been home all their lives may not realize that they live in the “better place” that immigrants fight and die to come to.

To an immigrant like myself, the abandonment of birthright seems incredible—but I know that those who have been home all their lives may not realize that they live in the “better place” that immigrants fight and die to come to. We all know that immigrants do not deliberately move to a worse place. Bangladesh does not have a problem with illegal immigrants. Border guards at the Berlin Wall did not have their guns turned on West Germans trying to move from powerful affluence to chained poverty.

That’s what makes the Christmas history so compelling. It is a story of reverse immigration: From omnipotence to helplessness. One of the central Reformed documents, the Westminster Shorter Catechism, summarizes the matter in its answer to Question 27, “How was Christ humiliated?” The response: He was humiliated “by being born as a man and born into a poor family; by being made subject to the law and suffering the miseries of this life, the anger of God, and the curse of death on the cross; and by being buried and remaining under the power of death for a time.”

Here’s to a reverse immigrant who deserves all the power and glory and honor. Merry Christmas.

Pro-immigration, pro-civics (2008)

It’s back-to-school time, and an opportunity to consider what America’s schools and colleges are teaching about America. Are they training students to become more aware of what divides us than what unites us? Is the United States in danger, as a new Bradley Project report suggests, of becoming not “from many, one”—e pluribus unum—but its opposite, “from one, many”?

I contributed slightly to that Bradley report, titled E Pluribus Unum, along with a diverse group that included journalists such as Michael Barone and Charles Krauthammer and academics such as William Galston (University of Maryland) and Amy Kass (University of Chicago). We came from different backgrounds but became aware of dire studies: Most eighth-graders cannot explain the purpose of the Declaration of Independence. Only 5 percent of seniors can describe how Congress and the Supreme Court can check presidential power.

Many students know little about American history, and what they know is grim: The Puritans were bigots, George Washington owned slaves, Andrew Jackson’s actions led to the Trail of Tears, Andrew Carnegie fought with workers. Those statements are true, but if they are not balanced by teaching about the Puritans’ strength of purpose, the courage of Washington and Jackson, the generosity of Carnegie, and so forth, schools are producing “Hate America First” voters.

The Bradley Project noted that “schools should not slight their civic mission by giving students the impression that America’s failures are more noteworthy than America’s achievements. They should begin with the study of America’s great ideals, heroes, and achievements, so that its struggles can be put in perspective. A broad-minded, balanced approach to the American story best prepares young people for informed democratic participation.”

Why are we producing high school graduates with either no knowledge or a distorted knowledge of American history? One cause: “boring textbooks that lack narrative drive and ignore or downplay America’s heroes and dramatic achievements.” Another cause: “teachers unexcited about history who talk more about America’s failings than its successes.”

Furthermore, “Teachers must depend on state curriculum frameworks that are wary of facts and chronology. A foundation for understanding American history should be laid in the primary grades by including national holidays, heroes, songs, and poems. … The teaching of American history should be strengthened by including more compelling narratives and primary texts, such as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the great speeches and debates.”

Another problem with K-12 history teaching is the tendency to emphasize ethnicity, even though that’s not what parents want. A Bradley-commissioned Harris Poll found that 80 percent of Americans (including 70 percent of Latinos) believe our schools should focus on American citizenship, not ethnic identity. Eight out of nine African-American parents, according to a Yankelovich survey, say, “There’s too much attention paid these days to what separates different ethnic and racial groups and not enough to what they have in common.”

Regardless of parental wishes, some teachers suggest that “the United States is no longer ‘we the people,’ but ‘we the peoples.’ The new attitude favors dual citizenship, multilingual ballots, and bilingual instruction rather than English immersion. Instead of one America, there are voices for many Americas, or even no America at all.” Bradley Project participants agreed that “we should not adopt policies that perpetuate division or that compromise our national allegiance.”

Bradley Project participants agreed that “we should not adopt policies that perpetuate division or that compromise our national allegiance.”

Does college make up for what K-12 schooling lacks? Sadly, no: “College does little to close the civic literacy gap.” Most college seniors, even at elite universities, cannot correctly identify major national figures such as James Madison. The Coming Crisis of Citizenship, an Intercollegiate Studies Institute study, reported that most college seniors could not identify the opening words of the Declaration of Independence. Most were unable to define representative democracy or the separation of powers.

Losing America’s Memory, an American Council of Trustees study of seniors at 55 top-ranked colleges and universities, showed that 99 percent could identify Beavis and Butthead and 98 percent Snoop Doggy Dogg, but less than 1 in 4 could identify the phrase “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” as coming from the Gettysburg address. Only a third of graduating seniors knew that George Washington was in command at the Battle of Yorktown, the culminating battle of the American Revolution.

One problem at colleges is that professors prefer to teach their specialties rather than introductory courses, and cowed administrators don’t insist on covering the basics. Former Harvard dean Harry Lewis put it this way: “Students are much more interested in taking courses on the American Republic than professors are in teaching them. At research universities, especially, where the rewards come for creativity and novelty, the subject is not trendy enough for most professors.”

The history that is taught is often fragmented history, a history of this or that group, not of the nation as a whole.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is the former editor in chief of WORLD, having retired in January 2022, and former dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism.



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