A Nation of Hypocrites?
by Kristyn Komarnicki
We are, as John F. Kennedy reminded us in his posthumously published book, a nation of immigrants. This is a fact we alternately laud and forget. When feeling expansive, like a person who has just enjoyed a delicious meal and a good glass of wine, we like to lean back and proudly recount how our foreparents made their arduous journeys to freedom, marveling at their courage, their resilience, their willingness to sacrifice for future generations.
But when faced with crisis—war, economic downturn, terrorism—we clutch at the smallest of straws, blaming contemporary immigrants for our current woes and quickly forgetting our ancestors’ tales of pain and glory. We round up the strangers and intern them in camps (as we did with Japanese Americans), we arrest and imprison with reckless impunity (as we have in Guantanamo Bay), or we panic and accuse them of taking our jobs (which our government exports every day) and bankrupting our coffers (as if we needed any outside help for that!).
My grandparents left the Ukraine in the early 1900s, endured the transatlantic voyage, and suffered the humiliation of Ellis Island. They worked tirelessly—as washerwoman and short-order cook—raising eight sons and two daughters on a wing and a (lot of) prayer: three kids to a bed, hand-me-downs, and a turkey delivered by the Salvation Army on holidays. Half their children would go on to earn college degrees (including two masters and a doctorate); they would become a librarian, a pilot, a pastor, businessmen, and educators. My grandfather was known to preach on street corners, witness in pool halls (where more often than not his rogue sons crouched hiding under the furthest table), and visit Ukrainian Orthodox priests, urging them to open the Bible up to their parishioners rather than guard it for themselves. My grandmother never learned to read or drive a car, but no one ever left her presence feeling hungry or unloved.
Their story is worth recounting, as are the tales of your ancestors, whether our plates are full or empty, whether there is war or simply rumors of war, because their stories are our history as a nation of immigrants, a tradition that continues today and will only grow stronger as globalization intensifies. Their stories are timeless, because they are lived out and relived in countless barrios across America today. New Americans are made every day.
Their story is worth recounting, as are the tales of your ancestors, because they are our history as a nation of immigrants.
But we are a forgetful, fickle people. From our vantage point as fourth-, third- or even second-generation Americans, it is easy to feel that recent immigrants are somehow different from our foreparents. But the newest Americans have come fleeing exactly the same terrors our ancestors fled—war, grinding poverty, oppressive governments. They have come seeking precisely the same freedoms our ancestors sought—freedom to work, freedom to raise their families in peace and sufficiency, freedom to thrive.
Sadly, we are also a nation of hypocrites. On the one hand we welcome immigrant workers. A study by the Pew Hispanic Center found that undocumented immigrants made up almost 5 percent of the total US labor force in 2005, including nearly one-quarter of all farm workers, 20 percent of construction workers, and 17 percent of leisure/hospitality employees—and that’s not counting the millions of legal immigrants. We welcome them into our military, where tens of thousands of non-citizens, the majority of whom are Mexicans, serve today, facing the same dangers as US-born citizens.
On the other hand, we allocate billions upon billions of dollars to patrol and fence our borders, execute oppressive raids, separate families, and even threaten to criminalize those who come to the aid of illegal immigrants.
Everyone agrees that immigration reform is desperately needed, but Americans cannot seem to agree on what a healthy and humane immigration policy looks like. I propose that before we do any further politicking, pontificating, or protesting, we begin by listening to the stories and looking at the faces of individual modern immigrants—for it is only from a foundation of understanding (and better yet, relationship, the only soil from which true understanding grows) that we are properly equipped to lobby for and craft good policies.
As Christians, we understand the spiritual realities of exile, adoption, amnesty, and new life. And we have much to gain from relationships with those who are living out the struggles and mercies of those political realities on a daily basis. May the God “who loves the strangers, providing them with food and clothing”—and who asks us to do the same (Deut. 10:18-19)—give us the grace to extend the conversation beyond rhetoric and hypocrisy to authentic alignment with today’s immigrants.
Kristyn Komarnicki is ESA’s director of communications.