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Commentary: America’s open door has been its strength

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Rev. Takayuki Ishii
April 11, 2006

A UMNS Commentary
By the Rev. Takayuki Ishii*

One of the things I love best about America is the way she opens her doors to people of other nations.

I have a pretty personal reason for appreciating that. I was born in Japan and immigrated to the United States when I was 22 years old. My parents are Japanese, not American. Yet I am an American citizen.

Our nation allows people who were not born here, whose parents were not born here, to come to this country and eventually to become citizens, with all the privileges and responsibilities that entails — save one. I cannot become president of the United States, but at this point, I am not sure whether I count that as gain or loss.

I think it’s amazing that I was able to become a citizen. That could not have happened in Japan. You’re only a citizen in Japan if one of your parents is a citizen of Japan!

The words are not empty. Go to Ellis Island, and see how many of the world’s tired and poor were received into this nation. Read through the phone book, and notice the rich international heritage that is represented in our own community. Go to New York City, and learn what it means to see a Korean grocery next to a Columbian restaurant, next to an Indian sari shop. Hear the languages on our subways, and we know that the invitation has not been an empty one. I believe God smiles on America for many reasons, this openness not the least among them.

You might imagine my distress, then, at the proposed immigration laws being debated by the House of Representatives and Senate Judicial Committee.

What makes America so great is that it provides public education and medical care to children even if the parents are undocumented immigrants. We all know that much of our economy depends on the labor of undocumented immigrants. Our society finds those willing laborers not among American citizens but from those south of the border. We want the porous border because that is how we get laborers to fuel our economy.

Furthermore, it is not true that undocumented immigrants pay no taxes. If they spend money, they pay sales taxes. If their employers are honest, taxes are withheld from the workers’ pay checks.

Undocumented immigrants have not been drawn to this country by our rich social services. They have been drawn here by the promise of work. And work they have been doing. They have filled in the gaps and continue to fill in gaps in the labor market — gaps that are unattractive to Americans. They are farm workers and nannies, lawn care workers, construction workers and restaurant workers.

The undocumented immigrants get jobs with forged papers and pay taxes under assumed names. But they rarely draw on social services because they are too afraid of drawing attention to themselves.

It seems that we want it both ways. We want undocumented immigrants to continue coming, continue working in our grape fields and orange groves, continue caring for our children, continue paying taxes, but we want to deny the vote and government services to those workers and those taxpayers.

One of the proposed new immigration laws will require churches and other social organizations to ask immigrants for documentation before providing them assistance. Churches and other institutions that fail to comply could be penalized with up to five years in prison for individuals and the seizure of assets.

Are the churches to become immigration enforcers in the name of “national security”? Do I have to ask my parishioners and clients of the soup kitchen to show me their immigration papers, and if I were to serve undocumented immigrants, am I going to face a jail sentence and would my church’s assets be seized?

We Christians are called to serve the poor and needy regardless of who they are. We do not ask people how much they contribute to the church, nor do we ask about their immigration status when they come to me for help. Can you imagine how awful it would be if pastors had to ask about people’s immigration status when they come forward to receive communion and receive anointing during a healing service? How awful it would be for us to ask the immigration status of people who come for the soup kitchen!

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A UMNS photo by John C. Goodwin

Supporters of immigrants crowd the streets of lower Manhattan during an April 10 march for immigration reform.

I could not help but wonder what Jesus must think of this proposed immigration law. What must Jesus think of the Congress that decides to wield the power of the majority vote to put down people who cannot vote? What must Jesus think of people who encourage workers to come to this country, undocumented, but who want them to leave their families across the border?

There are similarities to this and the situation of blacks in South Africa before the end of apartheid. They were allowed to work in South Africa, but the workers’ families were not allowed to live in South Africa. What will Jesus think of this proposed immigration law?

Pilate may have assumed that Jesus was before him because he had gone too far in pressing the boundaries of his power. If so, Pilate was wrong. Jesus was before Pilate precisely because he knew no boundaries. He ate with sinners; he healed outsiders; he ignored the privileged positions of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

Jesus offended people because he failed to recognize the boundaries between the entitled and the unentitled. This was the nature of God’s reign, a reign that does not belong to the world but which most certainly belongs in the world.

As the church, as the body of Christ, we must be vigilant against this proposed immigration law. If we aren’t, what will Christ Jesus think of us?

*Ishii is pastor of First & Summerfield United Methodist Church in New Haven, Conn. He is the author of One Thousand Paper Cranes: the Story of Sadako and the Children’s Peace Statue.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or

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