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September 11, 2022
Author Portrait of Kirk H. Neely 2022

It seems we are constantly hearing much conversation about the topic of immigration—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 many different versions of an open-door policy. Year after year, the debate continues. Lately, the mention of immigration has been more polarizing than ever.  

This week I’ve been in the hospital receiving medical care for some of the effects of 34 years of type 2 Diabetes. You have a lot of time on your hands when you’re in the hospital. I like to use that time in prayer. One afternoon, as I lay in my bed listening to the beep, beep, beep of monitors, I prayed. I prayed for our country, our world, and a list of people and concerns that change daily.

I thought about the nurse who cared for me with such attention that day. Her gentle ear and her confident handling of a tired, sick old man were examples of the best-in-class treatment I had received from so many. I prayed for her and for the others who had given me care. As I did, I realized that more than half of the staff I had seen in the last several days had come from somewhere else. Most of that portion were immigrants—the physician who came to this country from Egypt, the physical therapist who came to the U.S. from Russia, the respiratory therapist who was born in Bolivia, the USC Upstate student, and a first-generation American whose parents arrived here from Mexico. And then there was the nurse’s aid from India who brought me a warm blanket when I was cold in the night,  the pulmonologist who emigrated from Nigeria, the supervisory nurse who came to this country from Vietnam, and my nurse—who arrived here from the Philippines just six years ago, to name a few. All of these people came to my room at Spartanburg Regional Medical Center (perhaps we should call it Spartanburg International Medical Center). Some were bilingual—some spoke Spanish, French, or Arabic. Some spoke English but with a Ghanaian or Nigerian accent. All of these people played a part in saving my life this week.

Once again, the topic of immigration came home to me. I spent some time reflecting on how immigration policy had long been a hotly debated issue in our country but also thinking about how grateful I was that these people from other countries had made their way 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. We have always valued people who work hard for a living. 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.

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 United States Postal Service worker, was originally from Pakistan. Our conversation was enjoyable. Our business was concluded. They paid for our coffee.

One hot afternoon ten 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.

In recent years, we’ve heard tragic, real-life stories of atrocities that happen along our southern border—children separated from their parents, hundreds of immigrants being rounded up at the border, loaded on buses, and shipped off to other states. These events should become a crisis of conscience for all Americans, regardless of their political persuasion. My dear Clare once woke up in the middle of the night weeping for immigrant children separated from their families. “Think if our grandchildren were being taken from their parents,” she lamented.

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

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

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

The article recounted a debate that occurred on the Senate floor at least 14 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, who emigrated illegally 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 the government?

Many of those who want to immigrate to America are struggling to survive, to escape the horrors of war and genocide. I believe we should 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.

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

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

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 also true that we are immigrants all.


Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, storyteller, teacher, pastoral counselor, and retired pastor.

He can be reached at

Over these past months, I have asked that we contribute to our local charitable agencies. Thank you for all you have done. I will continue making suggestions because I have learned that these nonprofit organizations are quickly forgotten unless they are called to mind. Please know that I respect your freedom to choose agencies that are meaningful to you. Please continue with your kindness and generosity. This week, please donate, as you are able, to a nonprofit that helps immigrants. As for me, I’ll be making a donation to the Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition, where our dear family friend works hard every day to protect some of the most vulnerable new Americans. Find out more about their efforts at        

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