How much should we worry about people from other countries coming to the United States without proper papers? We call them illegal; we imagine them taking jobs from those of us who were here earlier. Some of us have nightmares of being “overrun” by “aliens” who expect us to take care of them.
Shouldn’t we do more to keep them out, with no excuses about danger where they come from?
That is not the way our religious tradition says we should treat the stranger and the alien. Moreover, folks in the tiny Middle Eastern country of Lebanon would not be impressed with our worries. We look like crybabies.
What they are doing to shelter people running from the terror campaign in Syria is beyond imagining for us. We would have to take in 100 million refugees — 100 million — to match what Lebanon has done. This is a country so small in size that three of them could fit in the territory of our diocese in the southeastern quadrant of Iowa. Yet its 4.5 million people have accepted an estimated 1.6 million Syrian refugees, some documented and some not.
The Lebanese people alone are not assuming all responsibility for their Syrian guests: United Nations agencies and other organizations provide most of the shelter and care. Still, Lebanon’s citizens show their heart in very challenging circumstances. Nearly a third of all people within their borders are foreigners.
Circumstances here in the United States are not like those in Lebanon. The undocumented people coming over our southern border are not fleeing the kind of religious/ethnic cleansing that afflicts Syria. Those refugees want nothing more than a return to peace in their homeland. The Mexicans and Central Americans coming here, in contrast, seek a new life that promises safety and opportunity for human flourishing that is scarce in their homelands. They want to set down roots here.
Most of us could find echoes of this story, this desire, in our own families if we go back a few generations – often only two or three. Our ancestors from Germany, Italy, England, Poland, Ireland and elsewhere across oceans moved here for exactly the same reasons that drive a poor young man from Guatemala to make the long, dangerous journey today. He wants a better life, a more human life, and he sees this as a land of promise.
Are we overrun? Is there no more room here? That is nonsense. There are challenges in our economy, especially for maintaining a strong middle class, but those challenges aren’t made worse by immigrants. Our problems are mainly political. We have allowed money so much influence in politics that the people and institutions with money have gained a practical monopoly on power. As a result, they hold more and more of the benefits of life in the United States at the expense of the great majority.
It should be a scandal to us that over the last three decades most Americans have made no gain at all in income or wealth after inflation is considered, while all increase in national wealth has flowed to an insular top 10 percent.
A fresh influx of people who know the value of good community life might be just what our politics need in order to reawaken the virtue of solidarity and rebuild a healthy middle class.