Mother of Exiles

The history of US immigration must inform the current debate on immigration

by Matthew Soerens and Jenny Hwang

statue of liberty_222074251

photo by Andrea Izzotti /

…Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. … "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-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
~ Emma Lazarus


The current debate over immigration is an old story—a story  that  God's  people  encounter  repeatedly  throughout the biblical narrative, where we distinctly see God's hand in the movement of people and his special concern for the widows, orphans, and aliens. One great example of a migrant whom God used to carry out his purposes here on Earth was  Moses, a tricultural Hebrew-Egyptian-Midianite who empathized with the suffering of his fellow Israelites but was able  to  speak  before  Pharaoh because of his Egyptian upbringing.

American Christians share this immigrant history on two counts. First, as spiritual ancestors of the Israelites, we, too, are commanded to remember God's faithfulness to his people since the time that Abraham was called to leave his country and go to the land God would show him. Second, we are also a nation of immigrants, where nearly everyone can trace their ancestry to somewhere other than North America.

Our nation tends to view its immigration history, however, with what historian Roger Daniels calls dualistic thinking: "on the one hand reveling in the nation's immigrant past and on the other rejecting much of its immigrant present."(1) Our popular culture remembers past immigrants—from the earliest  colonists  to  the  waves  of  immigrants  who  poured  in through Ellis Island around the turn of the 20th century—with a degree of romantic nostalgia, celebrating their courage, their hard work, and ultimately their success in achieving a better life for themselves and their ancestors in the United States. However, many in our society—including many in our churches—view today's immigrants with a degree of wariness and, in some cases, outright hostility.

Much of that hostility centers on the question of legal status. Many resonate with the idea that immigration "ought to be done the legal way just like my ancestors did" it.(2) In reality, the migration situation today parallels other points in US history in many ways: Immigrants continue to come, principally, for economic reasons and, secondarily, to be reunited with family or to find the freedoms that we enjoy in the United States. Throughout the history of the United States, arriving immigrants have been welcomed by some and simultaneously resented and blamed for societal problems by others. The rhetoric that we hear today from Lou Dobbs or Bill O'Reilly on cable news sounds rather similar to statements that Benjamin Franklin made centuries ago about German immigrants to what was then the British colony of Pennsylvania. What has changed substantially—the reason that so many people today do not show up the legal way—is immigration policy. Quite simply, many of our ancestors immigrated "the legal way" because, prior to the 1880s, there was no illegal way to immigrate: There were no federal restrictions on who could immigrate, and there was no requirement of a visa to enter.

American churches have had a mixed role in the country's immigration history. In some eras, Christians were the foremost immigrant advocates, recognizing in newcomers an opportunity for ministry and evangelism. At other times, churches have been among the most stridently opposed to further immigration. As 21st-century American Christians, we do well to learn from our history—both that of our immigrant ancestors and from the history of our congregations—as we consider our nation's current immigration dilemma.

Immigration to the United States prior to the Civil War

While there have been voices wary of immigration since the colonial era, the general attitude toward immigrants in the United States into the first few decades of independence was one of welcome, at least as far as policies were concerned. George Washington told a group of Irish immigrants that the nascent country was "open to receive not only the opulent and respectable stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all nations and religions, whom we shall welcome to participate to all of our rights and privileges, if by decency and propriety of conduct they appear to merit the employment."(3)

Of course, a good number of the earliest immigrants to the United States came involuntarily. An estimated 645,000 African men and women were enslaved and brought to work in what is now the United States, with millions more sent elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere.(4) While some early British immigrants to the United States complained of the failure of other Western European immigrants to assimilate, African
Americans were kept enslaved and then, after emancipation, segregated, with integration into the larger society forbidden.

The rate of migration to the United States accelerated in the mid-19th century, when labor demands in the United States coincided with troubling circumstances in Western Europe. The potato famine in Ireland and a failed revolution attempt in Germany, in particular, led to mass migration during the 1840s. Between 1820 and 1860, 5 million immigrants entered the United States, about 20 times the number that had arrived in the previous 44 years since the nation's founding.(5) Beyond their sheer numbers, these newcomers were also distinct from previous generations of immigrants in that a majority of these Irish and German immigrants were Roman Catholic, not Protestant, and many felt that their arrival threatened the nation's religious identity.

stripping the cane

Survivors of slavery in the rural South of the 1880s. (Photo by Rudolf Eickemeyer, Jr)

Many Protestant laypeople, following the lead of certain religious leaders, saw this Catholic influx as "an invading enemy," and the response was sometimes harsh.(6) For several decades, there was a rash of arson against Catholic churches and convents. The anti-Catholic hysteria fueled a political party, nicknamed the "Know Nothing" party, which began to call for restrictions on immigration. Though they never amassed enough popular support to enact their stated goals, they did manage to elect seven governors, eight US senators, and 104 representatives by 1856. The movement fell apart only when its membership was divided by the question of slavery in the years leading up to the Civil War.

The treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo

In the midst of this first great wave of immigration from Western Europe, US military activity along the southern border was also changing the demographics of the country. Approximately 100,000 individuals became American citizens in a single day on February 2, 1848—not because they migrated but because, with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the US-Mexican border shifted south by several hundred miles. Residents of those regions—which included modern-day California, Nevada, Utah, and parts of Colorado, Arizona, Wyoming, and New Mexico—had the option to become US citizens by simply taking an oath, without any additional naturalization process.

The treaty ended the bloody Mexican-American War, which had raged since 1846. The war itself, which began when Mexico refused President James K. Polk's offer to purchase California and New Mexico for $25 million, was the result of the "Manifest Destiny" idea that God had given the United States the responsibility of expanding its territory—and with it liberty and democracy. Not all agreed that this was a good idea: Future president Ulysses S. Grant later called the war "one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation."(7) Abraham Lincoln, in one of his earliest speeches on the floor of the House of Representatives, declared President Polk's invasion of Mexico unjust and warned that he would feel "the blood of this war, like the blood of Abel…crying to Heaven against him."(8) Just or not, with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the United States received not just California and New Mexico but several other states as well for $10 million less than they had originally offered. The treaty also turned many Mexicans into Americans overnight—and their descendents have been Americans for nearly two centuries now.

Chinese migration and exclusion

Nine days prior to the treaty's signing, probably unbeknownst to the signatories, gold was discovered in California. The gold rush that ensued became a magnet for migration, both from European immigrants from the east as well as from Chinese  immigrants from across the Pacific. Thousands of Chinese migrants poured into California, lured by promises of unparalleled wealth to be had from the gold rush and, later, for the building of the transcontinental railroad. The Chinese were welcomed while their labor was needed, but the welcome wore thin as work became scarce. Public sentiment along the West Coast turned angrily against the Chinese, who were viewed by white Americans as racially inferior; many were forcibly driven from their homes or even lynched. The public outcry had political manifestations as well, first locally and then at the federal level. The state of California made it illegal for Chinese people to marry a white person, to obtain a business license, or to fish.


Chinese immigrants were welcomed while their labor was needed to build the railroad, but the welcome wore thin as work became scarce.

Anti-Chinese sentiment also reached Washington, where a congressional commission reported that there "was not sufficient brain capacity in the Chinese race to furnish motive power for self-government," and on that basis recommended that all immigration from China be discontinued. That recommendation became reality in 1882 with the passage of a bill  that  would  become  known  as  the  Chinese  Exclusion Act. It marked the first federal restrictions on immigration. It would not be repealed until 1943.

While Protestant churches had been wary of non-Protestant immigration from Europe, most California churches took a very different approach to the Chinese. According to historian Robert Seager, Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist  clergymen began churches among the new immigrants and displayed "stubborn courage in their advocacy of the Chinese," opposing local and national policies designed to exclude the Chinese even when this meant battling public opinion.(9) Church leaders saw the arrival of the Chinese as a grand opportunity for evangelization both amongst the immigrants themselves and, as many would return to China, of their homeland. Even when the Chinese immigrants were slow to embrace Christianity, church leaders acknowledged that anti-Chinese prejudice and violence on the part of some supposedly Christian natives was to blame, saying that "the Chinese, unable to distinguish between our mobs and our Christian workers, could not be expected to favor or tolerate our religion."(10)

A second great wave and another backlash

After the Chinese, Congress gradually began to exclude other groups of people from migration—"lunatics," "idiots," and those likely to "become a public charge"; later they would exclude the contagiously ill, and eventually the illiterate, among others. These additional restrictions came in response to public outcry over a new wave of immigration from Europe. An estimated 23.4 million people entered the United States between 1881 and 1920, most of them Italians, Russian Jews, and Poles—and most of them not Protestants. The scale of this wave of migration—which, beginning in 1892, was funneled through Ellis Island in New York Harbor—was unprecedented, and the percentage of the US population that was foreign-born hit an all-time high of 15 percent, several percentage points higher than during the first great wave of the mid-19th century and than it is today.(11)

hungarian mom and kids

This Hungarian woman and her children arrived at Ellis Island at the turn of the 20th century (photo courtesy of the National Park Service).

While  the  millions of Ellis Island immigrants  have entered into our national lore as hardworking, contributing members of our society who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, their arrival was met by many in their own time with great alarm. A nativist backlash was fueled by pseudo-scientific ideas that these new "non-white" Catholic and Jewish immigrants were biologically inferior to white, Western European Protestants. By the 1890s, most prominent Protestant Christians were united in their call for further restrictions on immigration.

In the early 20th century, however, while nativist calls for restriction continued in the general population, many Protestant believers experienced a change of heart. While still wary of the different faith traditions that the new immigrants brought with them, historian Lawrence B. Davis suggests that increased personal  interaction between native-born Protestants and the once-vilified new immigrants led to an evolution in perspective.(12)

The change came about as Christian men and, in particular, women, heeded the call of evangelical leaders such as Howard Grose, who in a series of popular books extolled the arrival of the "incoming millions" as "an opportunity" to "carry the gospel to [foreigners] in our own land" and provided a number  of  practical  suggestions for caring for one's immigrant neighbors, such as helping them to learn English.(13)

As immigrants, drawn in by the kindness of Christian neighbors, joined congregations and began to interact individually with the native-born Americans, they helped the native-born Americans realize that they and other immigrants were not "poor, illiterate, and superstitious" but "industrious, thrifty, accessible, and potential Protestants" (as a Baptist publication described Italian immigrants in 1896 and 1904, respectively).(14) There were even the beginnings of a rapprochement between Protestants and Catholics, as evangelical pastor Lemuel Barnes "called attention to the beliefs that Catholics and Protestants held in common," among them a belief in the divinity of Christ, the veracity of the Scriptures, and the reality of miracles.(15)

The  change in perspective toward immigrants affected Protestant attitudes toward immigration policy, as well. In 1924, the nativist backlash culminated when Congress passed a bill that set tight immigration quotas based on ethnic origin. Congress created the requirement of a visa to enter the United States for the first time and began to strictly control the arrival of immigrants whose national origins were not those most represented in the United States in 1890 (which basically meant restricting future immigration except for that from Western Europe). When the bill passed, though, many Protestant denominations denounced it. Their proximity to these new immigrants over the previous two decades through ministry had changed many opinions about the most appropriate policy direction.

1965 and beyond

The national origins-based quota system was the immigration law of the land for more than four decades. By the 1960s, in the midst of the Civil Rights movement, President Kennedy publicly called for a reform that would no longer be based on national origins but "reflect in every detail the principles of equality and human dignity to which our nation subscribes."(16) The resulting bill, which President Johnson signed into law in 1965, after Kennedy's assassination, reoriented US immigration law to be focused upon family relationships and employer  sponsorship. While the bill certainly did not return to the era of open immigration of the nation's first century, it did base immigration not on race or national origin but on the driving forces for migration then and today, which are family reunification and employment. Many evangelicals opposed the bill at that time; ironically, as evangelical historian Douglas Sweeney notes, Asian and Hispanic immigrants who might not be present if not for the 1965 reforms "have quietly contributed several million new adherents to the evangelical movement."(17) And, like their forbearers a century before, many evangelicals have reconsidered their support for restrictionist policies in recent years as they have gotten to know their new immigrant neighbors and begun to see immigration as a ministry opportunity rather than as a threat.

As Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, he supported immigration reform measures that would grant amnesty to a population of about 2.7 million undocumented immigrants at that time while also cracking down on employers who hired and  oftentimes exploited undocumented  immigrants for labor. The measure passed through Congress with many members of Reagan's own party supporting this grand vision of integrating these new Americans into society. In 1986, when President Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), he argued that "the legalization provisions in this act will go far to improve the lives of a class of individuals who now must hide in the shadows, without access to many of the benefits of a free and open society. Very soon many of these men and women will be able to step into the sunlight and, ultimately, if they choose, they may become Americans."(18)

Reagan's immigration policy embodied his conservative ideals of free trade and fair labor. What the amnesty did not do, however, was address the root causes of immigration. By cracking down on employers and providing amnesty to these  individuals but not expanding legal avenues through which future flows of immigrants could come to the United States, the 1986 amnesty was a stopgap measure that temporarily fixed the immigration dilemma but did not put into place effective mechanisms to regulate immigration in the future. Two decades later, we are repeating the same conversations once again.

Current debate on immigration

Since the amnesty of 1986, we have seen an increase in the number of undocumented immigrants in the United States. Currently, there are approximately 38 million immigrants who come from all corners of the world and are settling in communities throughout the United States, including rural and suburban regions that have traditionally not been immigrant-receiving communities. Like many of the immigrants who came to the United States in the past, these immigrants often arrive at our shores or borders with dreams of being able to live in freedom and pursue economic opportunities they lacked in their countries of origin.

comp immig reform sidebarWhile the majority of immigrants in the United States are here legally, there are about 12 million immigrants in the United States today who are undocumented. Most of those individuals are working: 8.3 million undocumented workers make up about 5.4 percent of the national labor force.(19) While many entered the United States illegally, nearly half of undocumented people entered legally but then overstayed their visas.(20) More than just a question of border security along the Mexican border, then, the current immigration dilemma requires a comprehensive response (see sidebar on right).

Recent debate about immigration has revolved around border security and immigration enforcement measures, where immigration raids and increased immigrant detention have been used to enforce immigration laws already on the books and deter further illegal immigration. The United States has doubled border security over the past decade, but illegal immigration has only increased since then. While border security is necessary for the United States to regulate who  comes in and goes out of the country, border security is not an immigration policy. A fundamental flaw in our current legal system is that there is no legal mechanism for many would-be migrants, particularly those coming to do "unskilled" labor, to obtain a visa to enter the United States legally, even though employers are eager to hire them when they arrive. A maximum of 10,000 permanent resident visas per year are available for low-skilled workers with an employer sponsor, a number that falls far short of the demand. New legal avenues through which immigrants can enter the United States are necessary to relieve pressure at the border and allow our border agents to target their efforts on those who intend to harm our country rather than those who are seeking gainful employment in the United States.

The other reality is that we have 12 million undocumented workers who are working in the shadows of our economy. Many of these undocumented immigrants live in families with children or spouses who are US citizens; in fact, undocumented immigrants are more likely than either US-born residents or legal immigrants to live in a household with children.(21) We can only create stronger families and a stronger US economy by creating mechanisms for the undocumented to come out  of the shadows, register with the government, get to the back of the line, and earn their right to stay in this country. Reform has been stalled in recent years because those most opposed to immigration have rallied against any sort of legalization as "amnesty," but the current situation is a de facto amnesty, where we are hypocritically  benefiting  from  immigrant  labor  but not doing anything to require these workers to come out of the shadows.

Because of the current economic downtown, the inflow of undocumented immigrants has slowed since its rapid growth between 1990 and 2006.(22) As the size of the undocumented population has stabilized, we have a chance in this moment in history to shape how we respond to immigrants in our communities. We have seen from history that while immigrants may initially challenge our sense of self and community, they often bring untold blessings in other forms, through  culture, language, food, and love of family. New immigrants are  integrating  into the fabric of American society, just as previous arrivals of Italians, Irish, and Polish immigrants did. In fact, there are waiting lists for ESL (English as Second Language) classes in communities across America, and studies have shown that second-generation immigrants today are integrating at a faster pace than did immigrants from generations past.(23)


An immigrant from Mexico picks grapes in the San Joaquin Valley of California (photo by Richard Thornton /

A nation of immigrants

Attitudes toward immigrants have varied through American history, both in the population at large and within the churches. As immigration has once more become a politically charged topic, with drastically divergent calls for policy reform, we would do well to follow God's call to his people to remember our own immigrant history. We need to recognize God's grace in bringing each of us to where we are, and then to consider how we can extend that same grace to others. Like a generation of earlier American evangelicals, we ought to invest our time and resources into getting to know the individual immigrants whose lives can be dramatically affected by policy changes, and act out of that proximity for just, compassionate, and sensible reform.

Matthew Soerens serves as the US Church Training Specialist for World Relief. He assists churches in understanding the complexities of immigration from a biblical perspective. Jenny Hwang Yang is the Director of Advocacy and Policy for the Refugee and Immigration Program at World Relief. In this position, she works with members of Congress, their staffers, and the Administration to improve refugee and immigration policy. Soerens and Yang co-authored Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion and Truth in the Immigration Debate (IVP, 2009).



  1. Roger Daniels, Guarding the Golden Door: American Immigration Policy and Immigrants Since 1882 (New York: Hill and Wang, 2004), 6.
  2. James Sensenbrenner, panelist on "CBS News' Face the Nation," CBS, April 2, 2006.
  3. Quoted in Daniels, 7.
  4. Stephen Behrendt, "Transatlantic Slavetrade," in Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, ed. Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates Jr. (New York: Basic Civitas Books, 1999), 1867.
  5. Brian N. Fry, Nativism and Immigration: Regulating the American Dream (New York: LFB Scholarsly Publishing, 2007). 39.
  6. William Craig Brownlee, Popery, an Enemy to Civil and Religious Liberty; and Dangerous to Our Republic (New York: Charles K. Moore, 1839), 4.
  7. Quoted in Juan Gonzalez, Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America (New York: Penguin Books, 2001), 44.
  8. Quoted in David Herbert Donald, Lincoln (New York: Touchstone, 1996), 123-124.
  9. Robert Seager II, "Some Denominational Reactions to Chinese Immigration to California, 1856-1892," The Pacific Historical Review 28, no. 1 (February 1959): 65.
  10. Quoted in Seager, 61.
  11. Daniels, 5, 30.
  12. Lawrence B. Davis, Immigrants, Baptists, and the Protestant Mind in America (Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1973), 90-94.
  13. Howard B. Grose, The Incoming Millions (New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1906), 106-107.
  14. Lawrence B. Davis, Immigrants, Baptists, and the Protestant Mind in America (Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1973), 126.
  15. Ibid., 155-157.
  16. John F. Kennedy, A Nation of Immigrants (New York: HarperCollins, 2008), ix.
  17. Douglas A. Sweeney, The American Evangelical Story: A History of a Movement (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2005), 182.
  18. Ronald Reagan, Statement on Signing the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (Washington, DC, November 6, 1986).
  19. Pew Hispanic Center, "A Portrait of Unauthorized Immigrants in the United States," April 14, 2009.
  20. Pew Hispanic Center, "Modes of Entry for the Unauthorized Migrant Population," May 22, 2006.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Jacob L. Vigdor, "Measuring Immigrant Assimilation in the United States," Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.
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