Welcoming the Stranger

Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate

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Matthew Soerens, Jenny Yang, Leith Anderson
  • Downers Grove, IL: 
    IVP Academic Press
    , July
     2018.
     240 pages.
     $17.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780830845392.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion, & Truth in the Immigration Debate is an examination of the current and historical complexities of immigration in the United States from a biblical perspective through personal narratives. The book seeks to encourage and motivate Christians, namely evangelicals, to have a factual understanding of immigration, with the desired result of “inspiring appropriate and prayerful action” (202). Both authors, Matthew Soerens and Jenny Yang, work for World Relief, a Christian ministry that serves refugees and immigrants. Soerens is US director of church mobilization and national coordinator of the Evangelical Immigration Table, Yang is the senior vice president of advocacy and policy.

Significant events since the first edition was published in 2009, such as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program created under former US President Barack Obama in 2012 and the charged rhetoric around immigration in the election and administration of current President Donald Trump, make this 2018 revision relevant and necessary for the same target audience. Also explored in this revision is the impact of evangelical voters on the 2016 presidential election and the correlation between these voters and issues of immigration. The Muslim Ban, Syrian refugees, the refugee admission ceiling based on the Refugee Act of 1980, change in immigration enforcement priorities, increased immigration detention in what are now private facilities, and the Trump administration’s planned closure of the Office of Detention Policy justify the expansion. 

As self-proclaimed evangelicals, Soerens and Yang’s book presents a compelling viewpoint and a call to their faith community to lead from within its own ranks - in addressing the issues around immigration from a place of compassion and truth. Their style is persuasive without condemning those who do not share their perspective, have access to their depth of knowledge, or benefit from their daily work and ministry. They combine a refreshingly honest historical account of immigration in America, with testimonials from, and in some instances their own personal interactions with, immigrants and refugees, to paint a more nuanced picture of the state of immigration in the US as well as the role of the church and Christian believers. 

The book begins by establishing there is an immigration dilemma in the US and naming the polarized perspectives with examples of frustration from opposing sides. Refugees are quickly identified as a new category of controversary in the immigration debate emerging since the first edition. Groundwork is laid to encourage moving from these polarized and often partisan positions of right versus wrong, us versus them, to a less vocalized but growing middle that recognizes the complexities of the issue (5).  The content is engaging until concepts such as the US having a national character and Christians being generally bound to submit to the rule of law are introduced, which easily lead to unaddressed questions. Does the US have a national character, and if so, who sets that accepted narrative? Which Christians? What laws? Do these laws currently and historically justify submission from followers of Christ? A vantage point that included marginalized voices from across Christian denominations would likely produce less consistent responses than the evangelical authors appear to presume.

Fortunately, the book goes on to address some questions of perspective in the next three chapters. Chapter 2 defines who is considered undocumented, chapter 3 presents a historical perspective of the US as a nation of immigrants, and chapter 4 critically evaluates both the legal pathways and deterrents to immigration. These chapters equip readers with a greater understanding of widely misused terminologies and an expanded vocabulary of lesser known concepts and terms necessary to get a fuller picture of immigration. Most notably, the historical account of immigration goes beyond being a timeline most primary school students could follow, but actually reveals the intentional and fluctuating demarcation of which groups of immigrants are favored and disfavored, and when, why, and who benefits from such blurred lines (66). The authors do not censor the dehumanizing impact of oppressive and xenophobic targeting of Germans, Italians, Poles, Chinese, French, Irish, Mexican, Russian, English, Indigenous, Jewish, Catholic, and non-Protestant persons when their presence was deemed threatening or no longer desirable for a host of justifications grounded in self-interests. Surprisingly, the historical account of US immigration includes enough global analysis to demonstrate the impact of a growing global economy on global migration, but this comes in the latter portion of the book.

The last six chapters work together to frame the immigration dilemma in a biblical context. Chapter 5 emphasizes biblical application of thought, while chapter 6 addresses concerns around immigration and how those concerns should be viewed through a theological lens. These concerns are countered by expressing the value of immigrants in chapter 7. An initial hesitation to embrace placing measurable value on humans was quickly dispelled as immigrants were presented as image bearers of God with more value than economic impact and labor. Rather, as people with innate worth and qualitative value of culture and humanity not easily captured on capitalistic ledger sheets. Most importantly, the premise was supported that we should examine how we measure value from a biblical perspective. Immigration policies and politics were covered in chapter 8 which flowed into where the church stands today, and the authors close the book with seven clear, bulleted, and actionable suggestions on how the church should respond. 

The tools do not end with the suggestions. After the acknowledgments, the appendix begins with discussion questions for each chapter, with the objective to encourage deeper reflection and guide small groups. These are followed by further information on the authors’ organizational affiliations, downloadable and printed books, websites, and film resources. Just in case you are completely motivated and ready to personally engage and actively support, they also include tools for political advocacy.   

The authors succeeded in their stated goals of encouraging Christians to reflect on how faith should form opinions on the immigration issue and go beyond understanding, information, and analysis to faithful action. With the looming changes in the US Supreme Court, decisions in international trade, ongoing protests along US borders, investigations into deaths at immigrant detention centers, and questions of sanctuary being considered by faith communities, the content and tenor of this book is vital in expanding the rhetoric and response to immigration in the US beyond epithets and denigrations.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Vahisha Hasan is Assistant Professor of Human Services and Director of Mental Health Advocacy Institute at teh Memphis Center for Urban and Theological Studies (MCUTS).

Date of Review: 
February 15, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Matthew Soerens is the US Director of Church Mobilization for World Relief and the national coordinator of the Evangelical Immigration Table. Previously, Matthew served as a Board of Immigration Appeals-accredited legal counselor with World Relief's local office in Wheaton, Illinois.

Jenny Yang is the Senior Vice President of advocacy and policy for World Relief.

Leith Anderson is Senior Pastor of Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. He is the author of eight books including Dying for Change and A Church for the 21st Century. He is the president of the U. S. National Association of Evangelicals.

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