The immigration debate took on an ugly tone this summer with politicians and political candidates labeling immigrants as “murderers” and “rapists,” rejecting refugees as potential “terrorists” and using the dreadful term “anchor babies” to describe children born in the U.S. to undocumented parents. There were calls for repealing the Constitution’s 14th Amendment, which provides for birthright citizenship, for a “great wall” to be built across the border with Mexico and even deployment of armed drones.
None of this language is new. Throughout history immigrants have often been met with hostility and suspicion. Neither is such an attitude of fear and rejection confined to one political party.
Last year, the Obama administration began holding thousands of Central American refugees in detention without bond, arguing in court that they represented an imminent threat to national security. The vast majority were women and children fleeing gang violence and domestic violence in their home countries. Nevertheless, policymakers across the political spectrum saw them as a burden and a threat that must be stopped and turned back.
For one week in September, when Pope Francis visited the U.S., the tone of the immigration debate changed dramatically. In a historic address to a joint session of Congress, Francis urged us to respond to immigrants “in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal. We need to avoid a common temptation nowadays: to discard whatever proves troublesome.”
Those are challenging words. They help us to remember that doing what is right is not always easy. The teachings of Jesus encourage us to welcome the stranger and to share what we have with those who have less. Jesus urged his followers to reject their tendency to think only about their own welfare and instead reach out in sacrificial love to others.
Pope Francis put it simply when he spoke about the Golden Rule: “Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated,” he said. “Let us seek for others the same possibilities which we seek for ourselves. . . . In a word, if we want security, let us give security; if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities.”
These words should resonate with us because, for many of us, our ancestors came to the U.S. to escape violence, persecution and poverty. We must not shut our doors on those similarly looking for security and life. Instead, we should put ourselves in the shoes of the immigrant and the refugee and ask how we would want to be received.
We need not look far to find examples of this “Golden Rule” behavior from organizations and individuals. We see it in churches, including Anabaptist churches, helping Central American refugees by offering temporary housing, food, clothing and bus tickets to reunite with family.
We see it in the photo of a Bosnian woman taking off her shoes and giving them to a refugee who still had miles to walk.
Pope Francis and others have demonstrated that calls for compassion and generosity can ring out loudly over the rhetoric of fear and hate. Let us continue to echo these words of welcome so that they permeate our personal actions, our public language and our government policies.
Tammy Alexander is senior legislative associate in the Mennonite Central Committee U.S. Washington Office. Story originally published on October 26, 2015. Reprinted with permission from Mennonite World Review.