Who is worthy to live here?

Immigrants arriving at Ellis Island in 1913. Photo courtesy National Library of France.On May 31, 1912, nineteen-year-old Frank Zebrauskas and his brother Anthony stepped off a ship onto Ellis Island. Though originating from Lithuania they had used the Russian spelling of their name, Zabrowski, on the ship’s manifest. As with all Ellis Island arrivals, that spelling became their official identification.

No pre-approval was necessary and 98% of those who arrived at Ellis Island were admitted into the country. They would have been asked for their name, occupation, and proof that they could support themselves ($20 in hand was plenty and many were accepted with less). A brief medical examination was done to ensure good health. The few who were rejected typically had a criminal background, contagious disease, or serious mental illness. Chinese persons were barred from entry.

We don’t know why my great-grandfather Frank left his home country. Lithuania had fallen under the control of Russia some time earlier, and many desired to escape the Russian tsar, religious persecution of Catholics by the Orthodox state, or economic difficulties caused by industrialization. Many young men were avoiding a long conscription into military service. My great-grandfather got out at the peak of Lithuanian emigration, just before it was shut down by World War I.

The largest portion of Lithuanians ended up laboring at dangerous, difficult, and low-paying jobs in Pennsylvania coal mines. Frank, luckily, had a trade – he was an expert tailor and claimed to speak nine languages. My grandfather recalls him holding conversations in Lithuanian, Russian, Yiddish, and German in addition to his remarkably unaccented English.

Sergeant Frank Zabrowski, medic serving in US Army in World War I in 1917In 1914 World War I broke out and soon Germany occupied Lithuania. Frank’s brother returned to his home country in 1916, but Frank stayed. When the US entered the war he volunteered for service as a medic in the US Army. As such he served in France and Germany, eventually rising to Sergeant First Class. He was awarded a Purple Heart after being gassed during combat.

Upon returning home from war Frank was granted American citizenship, at the time a fairly simple process for anyone who had been in the country five years and promised to stay. Soon after Frank earned citizenship, Lithuania was subjected to three wars in rapid succession and emerged under the control of the new USSR, where it would remain for the next seventy years.

In America the Red Scare accelerated a growing fear of foreigners. This led to the Immigration Act of 1924, which sought to ensure an America dominated by people from western and northern Europe. Immigration from Asia and the Middle East was banned, immigration from southern and eastern Europe was severely limited. Jews, Italians, and Lithuanians were among the targets of the act. The Congressmen who passed the bill were openly racist in their support, stating that its purpose was to block “a stream of alien blood, with all its inherited misconceptions”1 in order to “maintain the racial preponderance of the basic strain on our people and thereby to stabilize the ethnic composition of the population.”2

Frank Zabrowski (going by Frank Zab) saves his son Frank from a house fireAround that time, my great-grandfather changed his last name from “Zabrowski”, perhaps in order to hide his own origins. He went by “Frank Zab” for a decade, even using the name on his marriage certificate. Thus it appears in a 1930 newspaper article noting an incident where the family home burnt down and Frank was forced to rush into a burning room and save my grandfather from his crib as flames licked its edges.

To some people Frank was an undesirable, an opportunistic immigrant from a region that wasn’t of the “best stock”. To others he was a skilled and professional craftsman, a war veteran, and a hero who had escaped from a country under oppression.

IMG_4679.jpgTo his family he was more complex, a father who raised two terrific children but also an irresponsible man who drank too much and gambled too much and mistreated the women in the family. Despite his faults, with his third wife (my great-grandmother, who herself was the daughter of a German immigrant) he had incredible children and grandchildren who became police officers, nurses, firefighters, and school employees and were a great asset to their communities and their country.

Could you judge Frank and determine whether he should have been let in the country or not?

What do you think Jesus would say?

The New Testament frequently disputes our assumption that we can judge others.3 This does not mean that we cannot judge acts, that we cannot dictate what is right and what is wrong. But we cannot judge the people themselves, we cannot pick and choose who is “good” and who is “bad”, who is unworthy and who is worthy.

The hypocrisy of judging immigrants is most obvious when we are aware of our own background. I am the descendant of men who killed the Native people of this land with their own hands. I am the descendant of slave-owners. I am the descendant of those who took up arms against their own government in the American Revolution, Texan Independence, and the Civil War. What place on that soil do I deserve merely due to the accident of being born to ancestors who had a place on it, when many of them took their place by default or by killing, not by merit or morals?

Not that the sins of the great-great-great-great-great grandfathers can be credited to the children. Thus while I am sorrowful of the suffering that some of my ancestors have caused (and that others of my ancestors escaped from or were subjected to), I can no more be judged for it than anyone else can.

And so we’re left to that central command, “Love your neighbor as yourself”4 or otherwise rendered, “Do unto others as you wish them to do unto you.”5

If I wish to be accepted as a resident of the land , despite who my ancestors were, then I must be willing to accept others who wish to be my neighbor, despite who their ancestors were (or where they may have been born).

It’s not like this is stretching the Bible, as God rendered it EXACTLY in this manner to the Israelites. “And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.”6 If God repeatedly reminded the Israelites of their ancestors’ status in another land, how much more are we called to remember our ancestral status in the very land foreigners are coming to today?

The Bible specifically orders us to leave aside some of the fruit of our land for the foreigner,7 to provide shelter to the poor wanderer,8 to give the foreigner the full legal rights that we receive,9 to see to it that the foreigner gets justice,10 to show mercy and compassion to those in need,11 and to show hospitality to strangers.12 

And when asked, “And who is our neighbor?”, Jesus chose to highlight a foreigner in his answer.13

“And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.”

steve king and other peoples babiesWe are in an incredible historic situation, where our president is the child of immigrants, the husband of immigrants, the employer of non-citizens, and this very year obtained citizenship for his foreigner in-laws whom he chain-migrated into the country.14 Yet he uses hateful rhetoric against foreigners and is dismantling the very structures that allowed his family to settle in this land. The primary architect of his anti-immigrant policies, Stephen Miller, is the great-grandchild of impoverished Jewish refugees who fled Russia in the early 1900s.15 His great-grandmother only spoke Yiddish, and his great-grandfather failed his citizenship test due to “ignorance.” Numerous White House officials and conservative commentators who have criticized immigrants for one thing or another have proven to be the descendants of immigrants in this century who had those exact traits.16

Don’t forget where you came from. And if you are a hypocrite about it, you will be judged.

He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.17


“‘Cursed is anyone who denies justice to foreigners, orphans, or widows.’
And all the people will reply, ‘Amen.’”18

 

Footnotes:

[1] U.S. Representative Albert Johnson, Washington

[2] Senator David Reed, Pennsylvania

[3] see Matthew 7:1-5, John 8:1-8, James 2:13 and 4:12, Romans 2:1-3, and many others

[4] see Mark 12:31; also Leviticus 19:18; Matthew 19:19, 22:39; Luke 10:27; Romans 13:9; Galatians 5:14; and James 2:8

[5] Matthew 7:12

[6] Deuteronomy 10:19; also Exodus 22:21, Exodus 23:9, Leviticus 19:34, and Deuteronomy 23:7

[7] Leviticus 19:9-10 and 23:22; also Deuteronomy 14:29, 24:19-22, and 26:12-13

[8] Matthew 25:35 and Job 31:32

[9] Numbers 15:15-16

[10] Deuteronomy 1:16, 24:14-18, and 27:19; also Exodus 22:21 and 23:9, Leviticus 19:33-34, Deuteronomy 10:18-19,  Jeremiah 7:5-7, 22:3-5, Ezekiel 22:7, Zechariah 7:10, and Malachi 3:5

[12] Zechariah 7:8-10, Matthew 25:31-45

[12] Hebrews 13:2, 1 Timothy 5:10

[13] Luke 10:25-37

[14] Donald Trump’s Bavarian grandfather immigrated to the USA in 1885 at the age of 16. His country accused him of having left in order to dodge the draft. His son, Trump’s father, hid his German ancestry by changing his name and pretending to be Swedish.  Trump’s mother immigrated from Scotland in 1930 as a domestic servant. Trump’s first wife Ivana was a Czech model who immigrated to Austria via marriage in 1972, then moved to Canada, divorced, and then immigrated to the USA via marrying Trump in 1977. Trump’s 3rd and current wife Melania was a Slovenian model who first came to America on a tourist visa in 1996, though she was illegally working in the USA without a work visa at the time. While dating Trump in 2001 she was awarded an elite EB-1 visa given only to those who show extraordinary ability in their field, though she appears not to have qualified. She became a citizen by marrying Trump in 2006. Melania’s Slovenian parents became U.S. citizens in 2018 via family chain migration.

[15] Stephen Miller’s great-grandmother is listed in the 1910 census as speaking only Yiddish. Miller’s great-grandfather Nison Miller flunked his naturalization test due to ignorance in 1932. Another great-grandfather of Miller’s, Sam Glosser, entered after his brothers did via classic chain migration.

[16] White House chief of staff John Kelly said on NPR that today’s immigrants are “not people that would easily assimilate into the United States, into our modern society,” because they are uneducated, come from rural areas, and “don’t speak English.” Kelly’s ancestors themselves largely came from rural areas, and the 1900 census shows his Italian great-grandfather had been in the country for 18 years but was still a day laborer, illiterate, had not become a citizen and did not speak English. The 1930 census shows that Kelly’s great-grandmother was still marking “no” in the “speaks English” category even after 37 years in the country.

White House aide Dan Scavino, who has criticized chain migration and vowed to end it, had his own great-grandfather come to America from Italy as one of a chain of six brothers and sisters and their families.

U.S. Representative Bob Goodlatte, Chair of the House Judiciary Committee, said that those who have broken immigration laws should not get a path to citizenship. His own grandfather was found to have lied on his naturalization application but was allowed to remain and become a citizen anyway.

Conservative commentator Tomi Lauren, who stated that immigrants who don’t respect the law should be deported, had a great-great-great grandfather who was indicted for forging his naturalization papers. She also stated, “You don’t just come into this country with low skills, low education, not understanding the language and come into our country because someone says it makes them feel nice. That’s not what this country is based on,” but census records show Lauren’s great-grandmother and other relatives were still recorded as “no” on the English-speaking question even after decades in the country, and her great-grandfather’s American baptism records are written in Norwegian. 

[17] Deuteronomy 10:18-19

[18] Deuteronomy 27:19

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