Yesterday in the midst of a national debate around immigration policy, I and other Americans celebrated our national Independence Day. On July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress ratified the Declaration of Independence, asserting their independence from King George III and the British Empire. At the core of their complaint was what they perceived to be violations of rights to which they were entitled—not by the writ of any king or government but because they had been “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”
The Declaration’s bold statement that “all men are created equal” has been revisited at various times throughout our country’s history as a correction to injustice. When it was drafted in 1776—primarily by Thomas Jefferson, a slaveholder—the ramifications of the statement had clearly not been fully worked out. Abraham Lincoln invoked them at Gettysburg, as our country battled over the legality of slavery. Martin Luther King echoed them a century later as he declared his dream to the crowds gathered on the National Mall in Washington: that the nation would “rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed.” At their heart, the statement points to a biblical truth: that human beings have inherent dignity, potential, and rights because we are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27).
As our elected officials debate the value of immigration to our country and decide upon how they will respond the millions of undocumented immigrants living within our borders, we would do well to remember that these people’s dignity and rights are defined not by a green card, Social Security card, or any other document conferred by a government, but rather by their humanity. Those rights are “unalienable,” says our nation’s founding document, and though we might classify these people as “aliens” and think of them as wholly different than native-born U.S. citizens, both this central creed of our nation’s creation and the Holy Scriptures that are the ultimate authority for followers of Jesus insist that they immigrants (even those without legal status) are equal in value to every other human and equally deserving of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Immigration is, in most cases, all about that pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness. For some of the immigrants in my community, migration was really not a choice at all: their lives were threatened by a tyrannical government or they literally faced the possibility of starvation if they did not leave their homes and move. For others, they might have survived where they were, but they were not free: they were drawn to this country by their internal yearning for political, religious, and economic freedom. Many have come to this country betting that the American dream, that those willing to work hard can improve their lot in life and that of their families, is still possible. Folks in pursuit of that dream have been coming to the United States since even before that Declaration was signed 237 years ago this week, and they’re still coming.
Even in that pre-colonial era, though, not everyone thought migration was a good thing. Consider the fears of Benjamin Franklin that the Germans arriving into Pennsylvania in 1751 would “never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion.” Old King George apparently had some reservations about migration, too, at least in the eyes of the Continental Congress: one of the specific complaints contained within the Declaration of Independence was that he had “endeavoured to prevent the population [by further emigration] of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither.”
This nation certainly has a mixed history in terms of immigration. The earliest migration led to the mistreatment and eventual slaughter of many of the original Native American inhabitants of this land. Hundreds of thousands of people were forced to migrate involuntarily from Africa as slaves. Many others came voluntarily, seeking opportunity and freedom, and were met by a mixed reception: some of those already here (mostly just a few generations removed from their own ancestral immigration experience) responded with welcome, others with hostility. And yet: the founding principle of the nation, grounded in the eternal truth of Scripture, has always been true, even if, as Dr. King lamented, we have not always lived up to its promise: all people are created equal, endowed by God with unalienable rights. Much of the rhetoric around immigration pits immigrants against U.S. citizens with the implicit premise that U.S. citizens are inherently more worthy of protection, opportunity, and happiness. The Declaration of Independence rebuts that presumption: the Mexican campesino struggling to feed his family, the Syrian refugee forced to flee her home because of persecution, the Filipino nurse or the Nigerian software engineer who believes that if she just make it to this land of opportunity, she will be able to realize her professional goals—each is of equal worth to me and to every other person who happened to be born as a citizen of this great country.
In the spirit of the 4th of July’s picnicking, parades, and fireworks, take some time to read through the Declaration that got this whole, exciting experiment of a nation started. Then take some time to thank God for making us in his image and giving flawed human beings the tenacity to found a nation on his principle, and to ask him to remind the Members of our Congress of the ramifications of each being made equally in his image as they reframe U.S. immigration policy.
Matthew Soerens is the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009) and the US Church Training Specialist at World Relief. His blogs appear here on Mondays.
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