In 2000 a book entitled The Gift of the Stranger: Faith, Hospitality, and Foreign Language Learning was widely read by Christian instructors of foreign languages. The authors argued that the work of a foreign language instructor in a Christian setting has to necessarily go beyond the conjugation of verbs and an occasional festive nod to such visible cultural phenomena, in my case as a Spanish professor, as Mexican sarapes or Spanish paella.
The authors Smith and Carvill remind their Christian readers that there is a biblical mandate throughout the Christian Bible to show kindness to the alien and stranger and that, by incorporating this biblical mandate in our teaching, we deepen students' experience of the language they are learning by using it as an open window into the daily experiences of the speakers of that language, whether they reside in their native land or in the United States. The incorporation of hospitality into the foreign language and culture curriculum can serve as an antidote to long-standing American fears surrounding the alien, particularly the one living in one's own neighborhood. In this sense, hospitality to the stranger, as Smith and Carvill put it, is "an overarching metaphor and spiritual virtue in foreign language education." (82)
One could go a step further to say that this overarching metaphor extends to the American Christian church and its members as they participate in the current debate surrounding these most recent immigrants from over the U.S.-Mexico border.1 That there are Christians who heartily agree as well as disagree with showing kindness and generosity to the alien, will be seen as we look at the attitudes of American Christians toward the Latino immigrant.
In the United States where I was born and raised by Christian Latino immigrant parents, Christians are living the challenge of dealing with the alien, particularly the immigrant alien from just across the U.S.-Mexico border. Torn between concepts of national identity, national security, and isolationism, fueled by fear inspired by historic nativism and the more recent threat of terrorism, American Christians have become divided among those who would associate true patriotism with resistance and even hostility toward this alien and those Christians who belong to a longer tradition of providing "sanctuary" for these newcomers to the U.S. Armed with the justification of "illegality" provided by American immigration laws that no longer serve the interests either of Mexico or the U.S., certain Christians, whether clergy or laity, have made these "illegal aliens" the target of the most vitriolic and contrived accusations of labor market subterfuge, undermining of American culture, and criminality, leaving other Christians either uncertain or silent in their response to such rhetoric and yet others, determined to uphold the American Christian church's historic role as protector and provider for newly-arrived immigrants.
For Morris Dees, founder/director of the Southern Poverty Law Center (hereafter SPLC), a human rights watchdog organization, the current acrimonious tone of the debate surrounding Latino immigration is nothing less than a test of the American spirit. He states that the Federal Bureau of Investigation reports that hate crimes against Latinos have risen by 35% and Center investigators have confirmed that 888 hate groups are now active in America, almost a 59% rise in their numbers since the year 2000. (2) In Attorney Dees words, "This unprecedented growth is the result of an escalating anti-immigrant fervor that is contaminating our nation's very soul." (2008, 3) He continues: "While people of good will can have different opinions about our nation's immigration policy, hatred, racism, and violence should have no place in the debate." (Ibid.)
This paper attempts to address the following questions: What are the moral implications of the current immigration debate for American Christian churches, organizations, and individuals? What are the attitudes of American Christians toward this most recent immigration? What role are/should Christian churches play in addressing issues brought up in this debate?
Mexico's Unique Migration
Although Mexicans share with other immigrants many points in common, the history of immigration from Mexico has, nevertheless, been quite a unique one, dating back to when more than a third of what is now the Southwestern United States actually belonged to Mexico. When the Puritans arrived on our northeastern shores in 1620, the Spaniards still owned the area of the U.S. formed today by the states of California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Nevada, Utah, and parts of Colorado and Wyoming. Spanish, was spoken widely in this area called northern New Spain up until the Independence of Mexico from Spanish rule in 1810.
Later, when the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed in 1848 and Mexico lost these territories, the coming and going across the newly established border continued because the Treaty provided that Mexican citizens living in the former New Spain should continue to enjoy full property rights (See Treaty, articles VIII and IX). However, the American government slowly took over these lands from Mexican citizens living in these areas and the attitude of Americans toward Mexicans who, from this time forward would be "guests," began a trajectory ranging from reluctant acceptance to outright rejection together with an overall ambivalence arising from economic necessity, on either side of the border, and fears of what some have characterized as a new Latino "Reconquista" or Reconquest (Kennedy 1996, 5).
The reasons for Latino immigration have coincided with those of other groups of immigrants that have come to our shores: 1) civil and/or political unrest (the 1960s refugee immigration from Communist Cuba and the 1980s rush from war-torn Central America) and 2) economic distress. The more recent immigration over the U.S.-Mexico border, however, is due to a complexity of factors, mostly economic. And the resulting numbers in which Latinos are arriving have alarmed certain sectors of the American public as well as the American Christian church. Although studies indicate that every immigrant group will assimilate by the second or third generation, (3) the recent flow of immigrants from "a single cultural, linguistic, religious, and national source" (Kennedy 1996, 15) has set Mexican immigration apart from other groups in its ability to produce what no other immigration has succeeded in doing, to this extent, in the past: the creation of significant, widespread social unrest. (4) Whether due to political framing of this immigration or media hype, there is an unusually widespread malaise surrounding this particular immigration. To be sure, concentrated largely in California and Texas, two of the most economically and politically influential states, Latinos from all over Latin America, but mainly from Mexico, constitute 28% of the population in Texas and 31% of California's. California holds nearly half of the U.S. Hispanic population and more than half of the population of the Mexican-born population in the entire country (Kennedy 1996, 15). However, U.S. history with Mexico and Latin America make these numbers logical rather than alarming.
The impression of being overrun by immigrants5 has to do with the fact that most of the recent immigrants to the U.S. settle in just six states: California, New York, Texas, Florida, New Jersey, and Illinois. It is also related, as pointed out earlier, to 9/11 and fears related to historic discomfort with U.S.-Mexico border immigration. As for the border immigration specifically into California and Texas, one might wonder if the prosperity and influence of these two powerful states can be attributed, at least in part, to immigrant labor from and through Mexico. That was the compelling thesis of Sergio Arau's 2004 controversial film, "A Day Without a Mexican." It is also the premise which many Christian individuals and organizations use to bolster their role in advocating for and protecting the border immigrant, a role they consider derives not only from American economic realities, but from the Christian Bible and Christian teachings.
American Ambivalence toward The Immigrant
Christian attitudes to Mexican immigrants belong to the larger context of America's historically conflictive views of immigrants in general. On the one hand, when the nation was in need of growth, such notable voices as that of Abraham Lincoln, on proclaiming Thanksgiving Day as a national holiday, thanked God for having "largely augmented our free population by emancipation and by immigration" (Kennedy 1996, 1). Immigrants, from this perspective, were hardworking, noble, and freedom-loving peoples whose blood ran through the veins of true Americans. This view of immigrants would generally persist up until the 1960s when immigration began to come in large numbers from developing nations in Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East.
On the opposite side of the "noble immigrant," there arose another immigrant in the national imagination, one that elicited suspicion and disdain. This immigrant arose in the context of the phenomenon of "nativism." Nativism, understood as any form of antipathy towards aliens, their institutions (including churches), and ideas (Higham 1988, 3), began to take on racist elements in the mid-19th century in response to new immigrations not only from Eastern and Southern Europe, but from Asia and Mexico. Originally linked to anti-Catholicism among the early Puritan settlers, American nativism soon became tied to nationalism in the years leading up to the Civil War. As John Higham puts it, whether it was a "workingman or a Protestant evangelist, a southern conservative or a northern reformer," (Ibid., 4) nativism was associated with the incipient national identity. Eventually nativism expanded to include fear of foreign radicals (Ibid., 7) and disdain for non-Anglo-Saxon ethnic groups (Ibid., 9). At first, the affirmation of Anglo-Saxon roots was a form of distinguishing the new nation from others, but soon it turned into a way of determining who was a "true" American.
In the post Civil War era, what Higham calls "Anglo-Saxonism" became a kind of "patrician nationalism" which he attributes to social climbing during the Gilded Age and its accompanying pride of ancestry (Higham 1988, 32). Even so, Anglo Saxonism still welcomed the immigrant because it was believed that Americans had the remarkable ability to assimilate peoples from a wide range of racial origins. By the 1880s, the ingenuous conception of America as a homogenous culture begins to give way to the creation of an immigration "problem" among certain social critics who gave "intellectual respectability to anti-immigrant feelings" (Ibid., 39). And it was a Christian clergyman, Josiah Strong, who sent out the first and most telling salvo in this battle. In his book Our Country, Strong focused on the perils of class strife in the cities and led his readers to believe that immigration was contributing to the impending struggle between the rich and the poor …