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June 24, 2018

Recently, we have heard much conversation about the issue of immigration. This is a topic, not only in political debates, but also in daily discussions about the future well-being of our country. How should we respond to people who want to immigrate to the United States? Suggestions range from total exclusion to some kind of open door policy. Certainly there are valid points to be made on any side of the issue.

I was sitting on my back porch one evening last week, praying as I often do. I prayed for our country, for our world, and for a list of people and concerns that changes daily.

I thought about workers whom I had seen that very day, laboring in the blazing sun, putting a new roof on St. Christopher Episcopal Church. The roof is very steep. On water breaks these workers huddled in the shadow of the steeple atop the church. I joined the congregation of St. Chris in praying for their safety. As I did, I realized that all of them were Latinos and all legal immigrants. Some were bilingual, most spoke Spanish.

Once again the immigration issue came home to me. I spent some time reflecting on the issue, thinking about how I feel when people from other countries want to come to America.

Daniel Hutson was imprisoned in England because he was a debtor, or because he was a Baptist, or maybe both.  Once released from prison, Hutson immigrated to America in 1728.  When Daniel arrived in Baltimore, Maryland, the ship’s captain bound him over to a wealthy colonial plantation owner as an indentured servant. This was a common method of paying for passage to the colonies in the 18th century.  At the end of seven years of service, Hutson was given clothing, a few farm implements, and fifty acres of land. The land was in what is now Barnwell County, South Carolina.

The saga of Daniel Hutson, and many like him, has been repeated oft times in the history of the United States.  Immigrants have found a place in this country if they are willing to work hard.

Africans were captured, enslaved, and brought in chains to this country against their will. Black Americans in the South and Latino farm workers in the Southwest labored in the sunbaked fields of prosperous landowners to sustain life for themselves and their families. Asians, Europeans, and a variety of ethnic groups seeking a brighter future came to our shores, becoming a part of the melting pot that is America.

The American work ethic is a treasured value.  Auto workers in Detroit, coal miners in Appalachia, textile workers in the Upstate, and others in the work force were once recognized as the backbone of America.  Those who “tote that barge and lift that bale” in the Mississippi Delta or wrangle cattle on the Great Plains were admired.  John Henry, swinging his nine-pound hammer, and Paul Bunyan, wielding his oversized ax, were immortalized in legend and in song.  We have always valued people who work hard for a living.

Several years ago, I traveled with our son Kris for a meeting in Clinton, South Carolina. In a local restaurant, Kris and I had coffee across the table from two Islamic men from Greenwood, South Carolina. One man, an employee of the Fuji Company, was an emigrant from India. The second man, a worker for the United States Postal Service, was originally from Pakistan. Our conversation was enjoyable. Our business was concluded. They paid for our coffee.

One hot afternoon five years ago, two men working on a construction project at the church I served had taken their lunch break. They were sitting in the shade before returning to the job. I greeted them and thanked them for their hard work. Though their conversation with each other had been in Spanish, they responded to me in English. Jorge and Juan were their names. I knew little about them – immigrant or citizen, green card or not – but I admired the way they worked.

The words of Emma Lazarus are inscribed on the Statue of Liberty.

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.

Lady Liberty extends an invitation that endorses a remarkably open immigration policy, one that has recently been highly debated in Washington, in the public media, and among candidates for political office.

The recent and tragic situation along our southern border in which children are being separated from their parents has become a crisis of conscience for many Americans regardless of political persuasion. My dear Clare woke up in the middle of the night weeping for those children. “Think if they were our grandchildren being taken from their parents,” she lamented.

Maybe the mothers and the grandmothers of our land will help us find the way. Every living first lady has taken a stand on this crisis. We know where Lady Liberty stands.

There is blame flying from both sides of the debate, and there is plenty of blame to go around. In my own prayers I beseech God to help us find our better angels to guide our thinking and our policy.

I recall an interesting article in the New York Times in 2009 that addressed the immigration issue from an unusual perspective.

The article recounted a debate that occurred on the Senate floor nine years ago. Senator Pete Domenichi made an impassioned speech, telling about the arrest of his mother in 1943.  Alda Domenichi, the mother of four and a PTA president, was an illegal immigrant from Italy.

Senator Arlin Spector acknowledged that his mother and his father emigrated from Russia.

Senator Jon Kyl revealed that his grandparents came from the Netherlands.

Senator Mel Martinez fled Cuba when he was fifteen years old.  He lived in orphanages and with foster families until he was reunited with his family after four years.

Like many of our national quarrels, the debate over immigration seems to revolve around the issue of the economy.  Do immigrants take jobs our citizens need, or do immigrants perform jobs nobody else will do? Does immigrant labor help the economy by increasing productivity, or do immigrants overtax the health and welfare services provided by government?

Many of those who want to immigrate to America are struggling to survive, to escape the horrors of war and genocide. Should we welcome them and provide a haven for them? America has a history of being willing to receive those who were fleeing for life itself from tyrants and despots in the quest for freedom and opportunity.

Of course, the issue of national security plays an important part in the discussion. Are these people coming to America to help us become a stronger nation or are they coming as enemies? There is no doubt that we do need to be careful in the screening procedures we put in place.

A seafarer from Wales, Captain William Lawton settled in the Lowcountry of South Carolina just twenty miles north of Savannah.

An English soldier named Rheney traveled with General Oglethorpe as a guard, married an indentured servant, and eventually settled near Augusta, Georgia.

Three Scots-Irish lads left Belfast in Northern Ireland and sailed to the Quaker colony of Pennsylvania. These three Presbyterian brothers traveled the Carolina Wagon Road from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, to Chester County, South Carolina. They all married immigrant women, and settled along Fishing Creek, establishing the Neely family in the backcountry.

Jakob Lang immigrated to South Carolina from Switzerland, eventually taking up residence in Saluda County.

John Mitchell and his family came from Scotland to Lexington County, South Carolina.

All of these families were immigrants. It is from these families that Clare and I are descended.

The indentured servant Daniel Hutson, another of my ancestors, the one from whom I get my middle name, Hudson, was an immigrant.

Recently, my children have reminded me of a favorite poem of our family. It was written by Edwin Markham and is entitled “Outwitted.”

He drew a circle that shut me out-

Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.

But love and I had the wit to win:

We drew a circle that took him in!

The invitation inscribed on the Statue of Liberty is inclusive, not exclusive.

The truth is that we Americans or our forbearers came to this land from somewhere else; many before there were laws stipulating whether it was legal or illegal. It is true that we must be careful, and people must obey the law.  But it is true that we are immigrants all.

It is this melting pot that makes America strong. Our rich diversity makes America great.

Clare and I have a print of a Norman Rockwell painting in our home. It depicts the faces of people from every ethnic group and many cultures in this world. Written across the countenances of all of these people are the words best know as the Golden Rule. That is a good place to begin when pondering difficult moral issues. Treat others the way you would want to be treated.

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