Katharine Jefferts Schori

The 26th Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church

Immigration and Border Issues, NACO border procession: Crossing Over

April 16, 2012
Katharine Jefferts Schori


I’ve been to Korea twice, most recently a few weeks ago.  The first visit included a border procession somewhat like what we’re going to do later today.  Anglicans from around the world, who had gathered to study peace-making, went into North Korea to bring aid to a North Korean village.  We traveled by tourist bus on an immaculate, one lane, newly surfaced road walled in by electrified fences topped with razor wire.  We could see the dirt roads the North Koreans used – but we saw no cars or buses, only saw thin people, walking or riding bicycles.  We stayed in a lovely hotel in a national park, where the meetings of family members long divided by war had begun a few years before.  Those meetings have stopped in the last three years, and it is no longer possible to travel to that tourist area from South Korea.

When I went to Korea this February, we joined another peace pilgrimage, and made one stop at a tunnel dug by North Korea under the DMZ and ending in South Korean territory.  Four of these infiltration tunnels were discovered between 1974 and 1990.  We walked about half a mile down a steep underground ramp and then through a damp and dripping tunnel so low that I had to bend over.  We went several hundred yards until we met a solid steel door with a very small window in it – like the windows in prison isolation cells.  If you got close enough to the window you could see another couple of dozen yards to where the whole tunnel had been blocked off with steel and barbed wire.  The tunnel is reportedly big enough to have allowed passage of a couple of thousand soldiers per hour.

I continue to meditate on that border and what it represents.  There is a kind of fascination that emanates from North Korea, both desiring and rejecting what lies to the south.  There is an equal hunger coming from the South, both to tear down the wall and to replace the regime to the north.  Families on both sides pine for relatives they hardly remember or have never met.  The church and its partners stand with those in both worlds, yearning to tear down the walls and build peace.

Korea is a parallel to North American divisions between gringo-landia and Viejo México in ways that reach beyond the wall and fences to cultural separation and even odium.  The world has known other walls like these:  the Great Wall of China, built to keep a land and people hermetically sealed against western invaders; the Berlin Wall, which collapsed in a nearly miraculous way in 1989; the walls built around ancient cities; and the wall that is still being built between Israelis and Palestinians.  Those walls are built and rebuilt even when there is no rational reason for them.  As Robert Frost put it, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” yet his neighbor insists on rebuilding the stone wall between their two territories every spring even though

My apple trees will never get across

And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.

He only says, “Good fences make good neighbors”[1]

Human beings, in their fear and terror of those who differ, erect all sorts of barriers against those others.  We wall ourselves off, and others out, because of fear.  Not only doesn’t it work, it diminishes us as well as those we attempt to keep out.  Human beings are built for movement – we have two legs for a reason – and we are equipped with minds to learn and explore, and hearts to expand our understanding and capacity for love.

Migration from place to place, and across borders, is as old as humankind.  Hominids have been wandering in search of food, mates, and better living conditions for millions of years.  All of us probably owe our origins to one or more groups originally resident in Africa – and therefore everybody in this room is in that sense an immigrant or the descendant of immigrants.  We have all come from elsewhere, even if some can count the generations of their family in this part of the world for 10 or 20 or more generations.  The first evidence of human beings around here is about 10-15,000 years old, and until about 3000 years ago they were all migratory.  The settled indigenous peoples we associate with this area today are more recent.  The irony is that even many of those settled indigenous peoples have been forced to migrate from their historic homelands, and the migratory groups have been barred from traveling – like the Tohono O’odham.[2]

That migratory reality is true for all of us sitting here.  We, or our more recent ancestors, heard the call to “get up and go” for a variety of reasons – famine in Ireland, war in Sudan, love for a foreigner, the lure of gold, as slaves brought to these shores, or, for Moses and others like him, a word from God to go and help people flee from injustice.  Arizona is only 100 years old, yet the stories about where her residents have come from and why, could not be told in a year.  There is enormous irony in an upstart collection of newcomers trying to outlaw a certain kind of migration.


Our story as people of the book has everything to do with migration.  Adam and Eve started the wandering when they left their beautiful garden, which the Bible locates somewhere in western Asia.[3]  Their descendants kept moving around, trying to make a living from the land.  Abram emerges from Ur, probably down in Mesopotamia, and answers a call to leave home; he migrates to Canaan.  Famine sends him and Sarai to Egypt, but Pharoah eventually evicts them and sends them packing.  They move on, back to Canaan, but Abram and his nephew Lot start competing for grazing land, and they divide up the territory and build some of those ‘neighborly’ stone fences to keep their flocks apart. 

Outside forces stir things up over territory and resources, and after he rescues his nephew from the neighbors, Abram gets a promise of land, and descendants, and a legacy to be a blessing for all nations.  No heir is immediately apparent, so Hagar enters the scene – you know the story. 

In the next scene, three heavenly migratory messengers turn up to promise a child to Abraham and Sarah, who only laughs.  Abraham keeps moving around, pretending Sarah is his sister, and eventually she does bear a child, Isaac.  After a while Sarah gets jealous of Hagar and then she and Ishmael have to migrate as well.

Isaac and Rebekah produce Jacob and Esau, in the course of the familiar family adventures.  And then famine strikes again.  Isaac moves to the land of King Abimelech, the Philistine, as an alien, where God promises to renew the promises made to Abraham.  Abimelech throws him out when his family and farming operations get too big.  Isaac migrates down to Beer-sheba.  He gets old and wants to ensure his posterity, and sends his son Jacob off to get a wife in another land.  It takes him a while to marry the one he really wants.  He stays there for years as an alien, and eventually his father-in-law’s behavior drives him out.  His wives even claim openly that their father is treating them all like foreigners.  But it puts them on the road again.

Eventually they settle as aliens in the land of Canaan, where Joseph and his brothers are out minding their flocks when they decide to sell Joseph to some tr aders going to Egypt.  Commercial traffic in shady labor practices is hardly new.  Joseph has his challenges in Egypt, but succeeds at dream interpretation.  Meanwhile, famine has driven his brothers to come seeking food aid from Egypt.  Joseph, the alien, ends in being the savior of his family and people, and indeed, of the people of Egypt as well. 

After Joseph and his generation die, a new king in Egypt gets worried about the birth rate of these aliens.  They are put to work in the fields and in Pharaoh’s construction business.  But Pharaoh’s attempts to prevent them from raising families and living in decent human dignity are thwarted by his own daughter.  She defies her father’s orders and fosters a child who will eventually liberate his people.  That child Moses grows into a man and one day sees an overseer beat one of his kinfolk, so he kills the overseer and hides the body.  Now he is completely beyond the bounds of the law, and runs away to escape Pharaoh’s soldiers.  Eventually, God brings him back to be the liberator and savior of his people.

The journey continues, as the people wander for years and years in the desert, searching for water and enough to eat, and to find their way to the promised land.  Moses took his people as far as the border, but no earthly coyote was going to get him across.

The people who had become Israel struggled with the local residents in their promised land, and eventually settled there.  They grew into tribes who claimed different parts of that land.  Centuries passed, and tribe began to struggle with tribe, nation against nation.  Neighboring kings and their soldiers cross borders to steal and pillage, and eventually deport the leaders of Israel.  Those deportees were sent to a foreign land they had never known.  Eventually God brought another deliverer or savior, named Cyrus, who opens the city gates and lets them return to the land they had called home for several centuries.

Everywhere the patriarchs and matriarchs went, they lived as aliens, until they reached the promised land.  Then they were thrown out or carried out or disappeared in mestizaje, which is what produced the Samaritans – but that is another and later story about walls and borders.

But the migration story doesn’t end with the return from exile in Babylon.  Other conquering nations descended on this people, took over their local government, imposed taxes, and put down intermittent rebellions.  Again God heard the cry of his people.  This time the savior was the cosmic border crosser, Jesus.

When we claim God poured out divinity into human flesh, we are saying that Jesus had two passports.  He bridges the border between heaven and earth, for all humanity and all creation.  In the crisis that emerges after his birth, his parents take him and migrate to Egypt, as refugees.  As an adult, Jesus is an itinerant laborer, with no permanent place to lay his head.  He is executed for challenging government injustice.  His resurrection demonstrates God’s rejection of the border between life and death.  God goes on crossing borders, sending the Holy Spirit, who wanders and migrates with us, wherever we go.  As the psalmist says,

            Where can I go then from your Spirit? where can I flee from your presence?          

            If I climb up to heaven, you are there; if I make the grave my bed, you are there also

            If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,

            Even there your hand will lead me, and your right hand hold me fast.[4]


God is not much interested in borders except as our flimsy excuses – to be crossed, bridged, and transcended.  What is the greatest word in our story?  The central word, according to Jesus, is “love God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.”  Love is what gets past the fence.  Love is what gets us past the fence.

The overwhelming witness of the scripture is about loving God and neighbor, particularly the neighbors who have no family member or tribal structure to look after them.  The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the god of aliens and migrants.  We hear over and over that “the Lord your God is the one who executes justice for the orphan and widow, and who loves the stranger, providing them food and clothing.”[5]  When the Israelites take up their harvest, they are charged to leave some “for the alien, the orphan and widow, so that the Lord shall bless your undertakings…. Remember that you were a slave [and an alien] in Egypt.”[6]  It gets even more explicit, “‘Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice.’  Let all the people say, ‘Amen!’”[7]

The prophets continue the litany, ‘care for the widow and orphan, and the stranger or alien in your midst, for you were strangers in Egypt.’  Those who seek God’s blessing will not find it unless they remember the alien and the sojourner, the migrant who needs justice.


Human migrants have usually recognized themselves as outsiders when they’ve entered a new territory.  They may have gone as conquerors, like the Normans did in entering England, or as wandering looters, like the Vikings, or as kingdom builders, like Alexander the Great or Genghis Khan.  When European explorers came to the New World, they came with the religious understanding that they could claim these lands and any human beings and resources because there weren’t any Christians here.  They had papal authority[8] that said they could take over any geography that did not already belong to a Christian nation, and enslave the peoples in perpetuity.  Spanish occupation of these lands and in other parts of the Americas was based on those principles.  Most European colonial occupation relied on these “principles.”  Much United States law in issues involving indigenous people and their expulsion from their ancestral lands is based on the same foundations.[9]  Our national mythology is tied up with these realities of expropriation of land, slavery, and the subjugation of those who were already present on these shores.

The aliens who were the European colonizers changed the definition of outsider.  The native inhabitants were defined out, and became commodities for forced labor or sale, rape, or extinction.  Hispaniola and the islands of the Caribbean were virtually purged of their native peoples.  The mainland fared a little better, though most survived as the spoil and offspring of conques, like the resident people in ancient Israel/Palestine who gave rise to the Samaritans.  In most parts of Latin America today, the residents are a mix of native peoples, colonial invaders, and later immigrants.  In Mexico, at least half of the population is descended from indigenous peoples.[10]

That mixture is part of the challenge of immigration into these United States.  Our immigration policy has set quotas for decades, based on country of origin.  Our own history of struggle with issues of race complicates public attitudes about immigrants, as do es what kind of immigrant we speak of, or encounter.  Engineers from Austria are received differently from the “Lost Boys” of Sudan, who are received differently from braceros from Mexico, or babies adopted from China.


Today we live in a world that is even more intensely interconnected:  economically, by communication, and through ease of travel.  Migration is the way of the world today.  It has been that way here for centuries.  It will not stop because of laws passed by angry or fearful legislators.  People will move for all the reasons they have always moved – for food or livelihood, to reunite families, in search of better living conditions, to escape persecution or injustice.

United States immigration policy is clearly dysfunctional.  We need labor, and Latin Americans, Asians, and many others want work.  We need skills and capacities that are not present in adequate quantities here.  Yet we have had a highly protectionist attitude toward immigration, even temporary worker immigration, for a very long time.  Our policies have been colored by racial and ethnic prejudice, beginning with the Chinese exclusion act in 1882.[11]  Today, Brazilians can get visas to visit here, but many stay and end up working as nannies and childcare workers.[12]  Filipinas can get visas to work as nurses or school teachers[13], but not nearly as easily if they wish to start businesses.  Even internal migrants’ lives, like Hawaiians,’ are made difficult by exclusionary ordinances – Las Vegas is considering one that will force food trucks to park a quarter mile away from any restaurant, this in a city where most food trucks serve food of non-Anglo ethnic origin.[14]

We need migration policies that can welcome willing workers, that will permit those who have been willing workers here to regularize their status and ultimately become citizens, that will permit families to live together, and that will serve the cause of justice, rather than continued exploitation.

Immigration is not an evil.  Indeed, migration almost always has to do with seeking greater health, for the migrant him or herself and for the migrant’s family and community.  Biologists will affirm that diversity in a community is a marker of health; monocultures are more prone to illness and death.  In a culture like ours, where the wider social valuing of community is rapidly being lost, immigrants bring a yearning for communities of mutual support – like the biblical expectation, that strangers, widows, and orphans are cared for.  Healthy human communities care for their weakest members, so that none goes hungry or is thrust out into the cold.  This nation hasn’t been doing too well in that regard, especially in the midst of current political struggles over care for the poorest and the weakest among us.

In Buffalo, New York, a refugee resettlement agency has been helping people from Africa, Iraq, and Burma transition into American society.[15]  Some have been housed in a part of the city that was quite blighted.  The immigrants have a different understanding of community, something that some of us may remember from an earlier day.  They’ve taken back the streets and made them safe to live in, safe for children to play in.  They’ve brought order out of a good deal of chaos in that place, and the work has been so successful that the resettlement group is moving into another part of the city that needs a similar kind of healing.

There are over 200 million migrant workers in the world, about 3% of the world’s population.[16]  They help to support families at home, and the United States is the largest source of these remittances, which flow to India, China, Mexico, the Philippines, and France.[17]  Migrants are everywhere, and come from everywhere.  Fifteen percent of Ireland’s population today is foreign-born, and the largest sender is the United States.[18]

If Americans could look at the issues around migration with less fear, we might realize that this country is already a significant exporter of funds to other nations.  Reuniting families, and regularizing the status of workers already here would undoubtedly have a positive effect both on our economy and on our tax rolls.  It is also abundantly clear that immigrant young adults from many parts of the world are increasingly filling our universities and graduate schools.  Those students are a significant part of the creative brain power available here – and the question is how they can and will bless this nation and the world. 

We are not going to get out of this political morass around immigration reform until we lift our eyes and see the bigger picture.  The ability to migrate is a fundamental human need, and a deep part of our spiritual identity as Christians and members of the Abrahamic tradition.  Migration is a part of what brings health and wholeness to communities, which stagnate and sicken without new people and ideas.  The God who loves us all will continue to send us out to cross the borders that have no place in the divine dream of a world of peace with justice.  For migration is an essential way in which God works to reconcile the world, bringing us and others into relationship to become one humanity.

The descendants of Abraham are still living into the promise he received, that his offspring and his very name would bless the nations.  Our immigration policy is not living up to that promise of blessing.  While we have learned to speak of undocumented migrants rather than the oxymoronic “illegals,” there remains some deep irony in insisting that migrants have and carry (national) identification that participates in that lack of blessing.  How can the action of Christians and other people who claim a heritage of justice help all people to be a blessing to the world?  How will we challenge our legislators to reject fear and prejudice in favor of policies that assure reasonably fair access to labor, reunite families, and refrain from punishing able students who were brought here as children?


We live with a dream of shalom, my friends.  If we share that dream of a holy community like the one where the lion lies down with the lamb, where swords are beaten into plowshares, and no one uses violence or studies war anymore, then we must find a way forward.  Together we can do this.  Si, se puede.  ¡Adelante!  [Yes, we can – onward!]

[1] Mending Wall

[2] http://www.tonation-nsn.gov/history_culture.aspx

[3] which those with a European perspective continue to call the Middle East

[4] Psalm 139:6-9, Book of Common Prayer 1979, p 794

[5] Deuteronomy 10:17-18

[6] Deuteronomy 10:19-22

[7] Deuteronomy 27:19

[8] Among others:  Dum D iversas, issued in 1452, and Romanus Pontifex, in 1455, permitted Portugal to claim pagan lands and enslave the inhabitants; and Inter caetera, in 1493 permitted Spain to claim lands in the Americas.  The Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494 divided Portugal and Spain’s claims geographically, and clarified that only lands not already governed by a Christian ruler could be so claimed.

[9] The Doctrine of Discovery, applied in Johnson v M’Intosh, US Supreme Court, 1823.

[10] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mexican_people#Today

[11] http://ocp.hul.harvard.edu/immigration/exclusion.html

[12] http://www.vernonjohns.org/plcooney/brtofc.html; personal communication, M Edge, Apr2012

[14] http://www.reviewjournal.com/news/government/food-trucks-dont-smell-right-some-valley-restaurants

[15] Journey’s End Refugee Services  http://www.jersbuffalo.org/

[16] International Organization for Migration  http://www.iom.int/

[17] World Bank's Migration and Remittances Factbook 2011  http://econ.worldbank.org/WBSITE/EXTERNAL/EXTDEC/EXTDECPROSPECTS/0,,contentMDK:21352016~pagePK:64165401~piPK:64165026~theSitePK:476883,00.html

[18] “Destination Europe”  National Geographic, Mar 2012  p 149 




Bishop Jefferts Schori


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