The Hebrew Scripture tells us a marvelous story right at the origins of the history of the people of Israel. Jacob, who was later named Israel (Gen 32:28), had twelve sons. When, one of Jacob’s sons, Joseph, was trafficked into Egypt by his own brothers (Gen 37:18-46), he went on to become Pharaoh’s trusted advisor and second in command (Gen 41:37-44). Even though he was a foreigner and came to Egypt as a trafficked and helpless refugee, he was given a chance by a ruler who with did not share same religious faith as the Israelites.
(I delivered this talk at the University of Dayton Human Rights Vigil held on Dec 9th, 2018 at the Butler County ICE detention center. I am committed to the human rights of asylum seekers and to creating humane and comprehensive immigration reform. See Video.
The story gets even more hope-filled. When a severe famine struck the entire region (Gen 41:13-27), the very brothers who trafficked Joseph were compelled to cross the border into Egypt looking for food (Gen 42). The great Egyptian Empire had food stocked for decades because of Joseph’s divine insight. This Egyptian Empire, which once again did not believe in the same God as the Israelites, opened their granaries to feed the people of the region (Gen 41:57). Not only that, Joseph’s entire family were invited to immigrate to Egypt (Gen 46). Indeed, that is what human beings do. When they discover other human beings facing hunger, violence or war, they look beyond nationality, culture, race, or religion and come to their aid.
The fate of the Israelites changed in course of time. Rulers rose in Egypt who began to oppress the once immigrants and refugees! They made slaves out of them (Ex 1:8-14). But God saw their misery. God made a preferential option for the poor. God took notice of the suffering of the poor (Ex 3:9). When Pharaoh did not show the same compassion that God showed, God acted purposefully to set God’s people free. God sided with the suffering people and lead them to the Promised Land (Ex 6:6).
When the Israelites reached the Promised Land, the God who brought them out of slavery, gave them a very unique command. God said, “You shall not oppress a resident alien; you well know how it feels to be an alien, since you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt” (Ex 23:9). Today, this primitive legal system is passing judgement on us as a nation as we are challenged to take care of today’s aliens. That a developed, modern, and wealthy nation fails to address immigration reform in a humane way is a blot on our national identity. If the Israelites could create humane immigration laws three thousand years ago, a modern nation like ours should be able to do the same in this digital era. To treat immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers as criminals and naming them as “illegals” or “invaders,” is a violation of the God-given dignity of the human person. It is equally a denial of the human rights guaranteed by the UN Charter of Human Rights. Across the nation, many of the people who have approached our nation’s borders find themselves detained in facilities just like the one in front of us. No human being is illegal!
We are in the Advent season. We will soon celebrate Christmas. Mary and Joseph gave birth to Jesus as they travelled to enroll themselves in a census. They, like many people today, were also trying to prove their citizenship. On that beautiful yet tragic night, they did not find a home! (Lk 2:1-7). Later, when Herod unleashed a persecution on all families who had children two years and under (Mt 2:16-18), the Holy Family fled to Egypt as refugees (Mt 2:13-15). Is it not ironical that it was in Egypt, the very place from where their ancestors fled, that the Holy Family found refuge? The gospels do not give us any details about the Holy Family’s stay in Egypt. However, it is not hard to conclude that they found refuge and safety there because, scripture tells us they returned to Nazareth at the opportune time (Mt 2:19-23). While we find consolation in the fact that the Holy Family was able to escape, many other families were not that fortunate. Their children were persecuted and killed.
The Holy Family had fled from the very kind of violence that many families that come to our borders are fleeing from. Many families, just like Mary and Joseph, cannot find a home today. Jesus continues to come to us in families seeking refuge, love, compassion, mercy, and peace. Sadly, Jesus cannot find a home in our nation today. Our nation recalls the Christmas story each year and celebrates it with great glitz and glamor. Yet, we fail to give refuge to families and children facing persecution, violence, war, hunger, and death. Instead we choose to further traumatize them by separating them, putting them in detention camps, and later deporting them. We now know that many of these people are killed when they reach their homeland. What would have happened if the Egyptians had deported the Holy Family to the brutal Herod?
Perhaps, Jesus was aware of his immigrant and refugee past. I am sure his parents told him their story. While we do not have any evidence, we do know that Jesus too showed a preferential option for the poor. We have evidence for that. He began his ministry with these words:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring glad tidings to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.” (Lk 4:18-19).
Today, we are here to express our solidarity with entire families held in detention camps. We are here to express our solidarity with children separated from their families. We are here to express our solidarity with families on our borders who are seeking asylum from violence and war, poverty and sometimes sure death. We do so, because the God of Jesus Christ compels us to do so. We do so because Jesus Christ passed on the very mission that he began – the mission to “proclaim good tiding to the poor,” and “liberty to the captives.” Like Jesus, we too must proclaim glad tidings to the poor. Like Jesus, we too must proclaim liberty to the captives.
Today we appeal to our leaders, both national and local, that they create humane immigration policies that address the needs of immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. To those who do not want to hear our appeal in the name of the Divine, I want appeal to you in the words Lady Liberty proclaims:
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”