On Immigration and the Immigrant Other

[1] Generally speaking, we humans are what I call “narrow-minded knowers.” In our striving to put together a perspective about the world and other people, or of the world in which we live with other people, we create ideas about this world and relationships with which we can feel rather comfortable. We build knowledge about things, ourselves included, in a supposedly “objective” way, but what we end up doing is putting together a picture of reality that is manageable for us. We use this picture, an attempt to represent human reality for ourselves, as an instrument that we can use as many times as necessary to make sense of the world and others. We do so with such regularity—automatically, one might say—that we lose track of and are seldom aware of our own cognitive processes on this regard.

[2] These are some of the thoughts that come to mind when I reflect on current national worries and obsessions about immigration and immigrants. Immigration has once more become an “issue,” whether a real or perceived one—a threat to national security, a challenge to our so-called “way of life.” The “immigrant,” has become the source of many of our social anxieties—the one taking our jobs, committing crimes, changing the landscape of “Main Street” America—and the one who brings out the worst of our insecurities and malaise. In nearby cities and townships from where I live, those running for public office on either side of the political spectrum seem to compete with each other for the use of the strongest anti-immigrant rhetoric that they could profess.

[3] It is that immigrant other, he or she, who is my concern here, but for different reasons. It is his or her situation, amidst the misrepresentation of their character as a group, practiced by so many in so many ways across the board that worries me. My preoccupation is with our relationship with this “other,” to use the nomenclature that social critics like to use nowadays. It is the ways in which even a number of our church members—so as to start with an in-house analysis—seem to misunderstand and worse yet to misconstruct the reality, not to say the humanity, of that immigrant other.

[4] In my line of work, as an ordained minister and teacher of theology, I am regularly invited to speak to church groups on a number of topics, on questions theological or otherwise. Due to my own ethnic background but also because of my teaching responsibilities, I am often asked to address concerns about mission and ministry among Latinos. Being asked to speak on tenets of Latino culture, as well as reflections on Latino religion and worship, are commonplace for me. And, time and again, I feel appalled by people’s ignorance and prejudice concerning Latinos. The lack of basic information and understanding of who Latinos actually are is truly shocking. And that’s putting it mildly.

[5] What I find most disturbing is the easiness with which Latinos are the “misrepresented others,” that is, the caricature that many build of Latinos either as individuals or as a group. There is almost consistency in the way in which a number of church members pretend to know what these others are all about: their character, beliefs, practices, and worldviews. The immigrant other is pictured in a way that strengthens our fears while also providing reasons for society’s biases. The spread of misinformation and the ensued misrepresentation of the other are dire ethical problems for church and society alike.

[6] Take, for example, an actual exchange—schematically summarized for our present purpose—in an urban Lutheran congregation where I was invited to speak. There was a general concern in the congregation about the surrounding community becoming a predominantly Latino neighborhood. Being asked the what-to-do-about-them question, we tried to turn it into an opportunity for a dialogue on mission and ministry, which certainly was what their pastor had in mind in the first place. If I suggested inviting Latino children to Sunday school or Vacation Bible School as an initial outreach strategy, the counterargument was that the “average Latina” had three kids from three different fathers and, therefore, they did not want to get involved with that. If I insisted on them getting out and meeting their neighbors and, moreover, inviting adults to Sunday worship, the counterargument was that “everybody knew” that Latinos party all night long on Saturday and therefore are unable to come to Sunday worship. And so on.

[7] The practice of name-calling against minority groups seems to be commonplace in society, but I find it more disturbing when one sees it in the church, a people who, by definition, try to live up to Jesus’ model of humanity and, why not, civility. More attuned to Jesus’ example is Luther’s advice to all Christians in the Large Catechism, when he calls to make the best possible construction of other people’s lives and of what they are saying.[1] Misconstruction of what others say and represent is to be avoided, especially, I may add, in the case of those who are most in need and are most vulnerable in society. These are the ones who are often obligated to live at the very margins of society. And, unless someone is prepared to argue that the presence in our midst of the undocumented immigrant count as a peculiar type of “public” and “notorious” evil (to use words in two translations of Luther’s text), society’s current practices of alienation and scapegoating need to be analyzed and challenged.

[8] An opportunity is missed when we do not invest in getting to know and listening to those already considered “other than us,” the different ones in society’s perceptions. Our immigrants, all of them, documented or otherwise, are like windows to other worlds: worlds of experience that might be similar and yet different from our own. Their world might be attractive or unattractive, understandable or incomprehensible, inspiring or scary; but in any case, it is a world telling of the broadness of the human experience. These are worlds of many a pilgrimage, of difficult but also expanding realities, worlds where the action of God through the Spirit is also at work, as we believe and proclaim.

[9] Prejudgment and misrepresentation should not be allowed to rule in our openness to others and in our relations with anyone. These tend to hide our part of responsibility on the misconstruction of the other as someone who needs to be feared and resisted. In a sense, these misrepresentations are products of a mind that refuses to criticize its own failure to understand or to even bother about understanding.[2] It becomes a feeble way for minds to cope with their own insecurities and fears. Awareness as well as self-criticism of the ways in which these “vices of the mind” (as I like to call them) work, and the role that they play in our construction of the being of others, is needed badly.

[10] “Immigrants will always be among you,” to paraphrase one of Jesus’ sayings. Immigration is a fact of human history since times immemorial. The causes of immigration, as we can guess, are varied and complex. Geo-politics definitely plays a significant role. By this I intend to refer to the ways in which nations come into close contact with one another, especially during times of conflict and disaster. When a nation gets involved with another, interfering somewhat into their internal affairs of others, a relationship is forged which will in all probability produce consequences for years to come.[3] Matters of military intervention along with such strategies as nation building, for bad or for good, are sure to create new immigration patterns and movements.

[11] Immigration is told of in the Scriptures. From Abraham to the Hebrew people as a whole, the movement of people on earth has been a compelling story. Jesus’ own family, if we attend to the story that Matthew presents for us, went through the migrant experience, at least for a while. It is no wonder that the Scriptures are adamant about the practice of hospitality and the need to offer refuge to those who migrate. Scriptures know of this experience first hand. Reference to the story of those who move around is not merely peripheral but rather at the heart of the biblical narrative.

[12] One of the most remarkable stories I’ve heard of Christian hospitality to those who move around in search of survival and a better life is one telling of the “water ministry” that groups of mostly Latina women carry out at the borders.[4] Most of what they do is leave water stations, gallons of drinking water, along desert paths. I do not believe that I need to say more, except that such a simple yet powerful action saves many people’s lives every year, among them women and children. I find such witness quite faithful to Christ, or Christ-like, in its very radical simplicity. We can say that in cases like these, all judgment of people has been put aside and therefore the pitfalls of misrepresentation. Instead it is the dire situation of many that is being judged and dealt with in a humane way. The immigrant is then not so much treated as other but as one with us.

[13] Despite hurdles and opposition from a few quarters inside and outside the church, Latino ministries are providing a strong witness to the Christian message of grace by going out of their way to reach to the immigrant by offering help and care. Many have become safe havens for the poor and desperate and the persecuted in one way or another. These practices do carry some risk, but going beyond our comfort zone is what it’s required here. It’s a labor of love that I find quite often very much and simply gospel-oriented.

[1] “It is a particularly fine, noble virtue to put the best construction on all we may hear about our neighbors (as long as it is not an evil that is publicly known), and to defend them against the poisonous tongues of those who are busily trying to pry out and pounce on something to criticize in their neighbor, misconstructing and twisting things in the worst way”; Large Catechism, The Book of Concord, ed. R. Kolb and T. J. Wengert (Minneapolis: Fortress) p. 424 (289).

[2] “Failures [to understand and misinterpretations] occur when one refuses to interpret things in any way other than what is made possible by one’s current prejudgments. One just can’t make sense out of what has been written… [said] or is being done.” See Henry L. Ruf, Postmodern Rationality, Social Criticism, and Religion (St. Paul: Paragon House, 2005), p. 111.

[3] Here I have in mind the U.S.-Mexico War of 1846-48, and the Spanish American War of 1898, historical events that have marked U.S. relationships with peoples of Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Cuban origin, in one way or another, to a greater or lesser degree, to this day.

[4] From a presentation on “Public and Prevailing Theologies of Mission” by Dr. Carlos Cardoza-Orlandi, with the assistance of Ms. Claudia Aguilar, as part of the Conference on the Future of Mission at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, on June 2, 2006; these women have been called “new agents of mission” and “emerging leaders of the Church.”

Nelson Rivera

The Rev. Dr. Nelson Rivera is Associate Professor of Theology at Moravian Theological Seminary in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.