Thank you for the invitation to speak to the Association of Teaching Theologians this afternoon, here at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago. It is a privilege to be with those of you who are shaping and forming the theology of our future leaders. It is an honor to get to hang out with the cool kids for a while. Pastors and bishops are not theologians, but we preach and teach weekly, and all the baptized operate out of theological assumptions either consciously, or unconsciously. So we’re all doing theology all the time. Thank you for the systematic work you do and helping us think as broadly and consistently as possible.  

I have been asked to speak about immigration. As a bishop in a Texas, and as an LIRS board member, this topic is near and dear to my heart. I am going to begin by 1) reminding us of some scriptural grounding, 2) then move to the current situation, 3) and finally conclude with some theological considerations that ask question about praxis. Let me begin with the short, well-known apocalypse in Matthew 25. Jesus frames eschatalogically, what is of ultimate importance.

Matthew 25:32ff…

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’

Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”


Anyone who has studied history knows that migration is the history of the world. It is the history of anthropology.  

  • People migrate due to famine 
  • Climate change 
  • Wars… 

And of course immigration is the story of the Bible.  

1. Hebrew Scriptures
: I know you know these, but let us briefly rehearse a few things, just to set the stage.  

  • In the very first book of the Bible, Adam and Eve are exiled from the Garden of Eden.  
  • Cain is banished from there and goes to live in Nod.  
  • Abraham and Sarah move from Ur for a new country.  
  • The central story of the Hebrew Bible is the Exodus, about the Israelites migrating from Egypt to the Promised Land.   
  • Because of this history of migration, the Torah is filled with rules on how immigrants are to be treated.  

The strangers who sojourn with you shall be to you as native citizens among you, and you shall love them as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.  —Leviticus 19:33-34.

Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts. —Malachi 3:5

The people are not to glean their fields twice, but to leave some behind for the orphan, the widow and the alien. That triad of needy people for whom God has special concern.  

Anyone who has studied Semitic literature knows the ancient sacred responsibility of hospitality to strangers. Stories bout in antiquity about divine visitors who come to see how they are treated.

2. In the New Testament
, Jesus, Mary and Joseph fled into Egypt due to Herod’s persecution.  

Jesus says to the righteous on Judgment Day, “When I was a stranger you welcomed me…” and “Whatsoever you do to the least of these, you do to me.”

One of the most well-known stories in the Bible features a Samaritan offering assistance to a stranger in need. Jesus makes the despised Samaritan the hero. The one who shows true love of neighbor is the one who practices hospitality, regardless of ethnic or religious background.

3. Other faiths: Christianity and Judaism are not the only religions to require special treatment for immigrants.

The Hindu Upanishads tells us “the guest is a representative of God” (1.11.2).

The Qur’an says, “Do good to…those in need, neighbors who are near, neighbors who are strangers, the companion by your side, the wayfarer that you meet” (4:36).

Allah expects his followers to give alms – not 10% but 20%! – out of love, for the – guess who? – orphan, needy, and wayfarer. This should ring in the ears of all of us from every faith here. And, to ransom slaves.

Every major religion in the world expresses a concern for the sojourner.

II. Our Current Situation

1. Refugees

We are in a time in which there are more displaced people on the planet than any time in the history of the world. 65.6M displaced. 23.5M refugees.

40 years ago, the U.S. resettled 800,000 Southeast Asians in the wake of the Vietnam War. In 1980 the US resettled over 200,000 refugees. From 1990 to 1995, an average of about 112,000 refugees arrived in the U.S. each year. After 9/11 that number dropped by more than ¾. Last year it was over 80,000. This year it was to be over 100,000, but the current administration has set a cap of 50,000. 

Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service is one of the largest settlers of refugees in the United States.
The states of Texas and California receive the most refugees (8K each). Welcoming immigrants and refugees has made Houston a vibrant, exciting place to be. It has provided an important flow of workers and diversity. 

The crime rate among refugees is much lower than the general population. They also have a much lower dependence on public assistance. And refugees start new businesses at a staggering rate.

The Obama administration set the maximum number of refugees allowed into the U.S. in fiscal 2017 at 110,000. The Trump admin wants it at 50,000. Separately, admission of Syrian refugees will be suspended pending a revision of security screening measures.

An executive order signed Jan. 27 by President Donald Trump suspends refugee admissions for 120 days while security procedures are reviewed. Injunctions were filed blocking these actions. Because of the court challenges, refugee resettlement continued. Now that the courts have left today injection in the travel ban, it went into effect at 8:00 pm on June 29.

The suspension of refugee travel and decisions on applications for refugee status in Section 6(a) of EO 13780 will continue for a period of 120 days from the date of implementation of the Supreme Court’s decision (June 29). Accordingly, we expect the 120 day suspension of the refugee program to conclude on October 27, 2017, but it is unclear what the Administration intends to do after that point.

This suspension will do irrevocable damage to refugee agencies who will have to figure out if they have the cash to keep paying employees while the suspension is in effect.  

2. Immigration to the US

Over a million a year, from Mexico, China, Philippines, India… most US Americans believe immigration is a good thing in the US. It is part of our identity.

Our government caps employment-based permanent visas for foreign workers and their families at 140,000 per year worldwide (a cap that has remained unchanged since 1990). Family-sponsored preferences are limited to 226,000 visas per year. Also, no country can receive more than 7 percent of the total annual number of family-sponsored and employment-based visas (approximately 25,600 visas).

Additionally, the government is behind in processing visa applications.

In March 2017, the U.S. government was still processing some Right now, the government is processing some employment-related visa applications from 2005, and some family-sponsored visa applications dating to 1994. 

An application filed 22 years ago by a U.S. citizen to sponsor an unmarried adult child from Mexico is potentially just now being approved.. Similarly, an application filed 24 years ago by a U.S. citizen sponsoring a sibling from the Philippines is potentially only now being approved by USCIS.

There are about 4.4 million applicants on the waiting list. The overwhelming majority are family-sponsored applicants. Additionally, the number of people awaiting green cards from within the United States has not been published by USCIS. So, the overall number of people waiting for a green card—within and outside of the United States—is larger than the 4.4 million reported by the State Department.

3. Unauthorized Immigrants in the U.S.

11M undocumented. In US law, being undocumented in the US is a civil violation, not a criminal offense. Half of all undocumented people in the US came legally. They played by the rules. But when their visas ran out, because of our outdated, backed up system, visa application backlogs, they couldn’t reup. Our outdated immigration system does not provide sufficient avenues for people to stay here legally.

These folks are very vulnerable. They are afraid of police. They are afraid to send their kids to school or take them to the doctor. They don’t report crimes. If they are raped, beaten, robbed or cheated of wages they believe they have no legal recourse.

The government talks of border control, but Border crossings are at a 40-year low.  Most Americans favor an earned path to citizenship for these undocumented folks.  

4. DACA. Some of the undocumented people in this country were brought here as children.

In 2012, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced that it would not deport certain undocumented youth who came to the United States as children. They were given temporary permission to stay in the U.S. The Obama administration called this program Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.

Since then, nearly 800,000 people have chosen to apply for and have received DACA. Many of them have as a result, found better-paying jobs, received driver’s licenses, and enjoyed other benefits.

impact of DACA: 2016 survey: 86% of these youth are employed and 8% in school full time. 6% started their own businesses.These taxpaying youth added to state and federal revenue through sales taxes, income taxes, and title fees. 46% are enrolled in schools all across the country.

It would also be extremely costly for the government to try and deport the more than 700,000 DACA recipients.

5. UACs
The number of unaccompanied children coming over the border from the violently torn countries of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, has plummeted, probably because of the way UAC’s have been treated here in the US and news of the wall. Rather than seen as abused children seeking refuge, they are seen as criminals.  

FY’2016 was the largest number of UAC placement with ORR yet (over 59,000, more than 2014). Conditions in Northern Triangle countries have remained unchanged. Most kids also walk right up to Border Patrol because they want asylum. Numbers are lower this year, but are steadily increasing month to month.

Rosa is a 17 year old girl from Honduras who grew up with her brother David, an older sister, and two cousins. According to her LIRS case worker, when Rosa was only 5 years old, her father was murdered and her mother abandoned her. Her brother David fled to the US, but was deported. 22 days day after he arrived back in Honduras Rosa watched gang members kill David in front of her. Rosa fled her home country in the summer of 2016.

Esteban (15-years-old) and Edgar (17-years-old) are siblings who fled Honduras. When Esteban and Edgar were toddlers, their mother left for the U.S. in search of work. She left the brothers in the care of their father, who spent the money she sent the kids on alcohol. The father didn’t let the brothers go to school, but instead forced them to steal and be police lookouts for the criminal organization he was in. If the brothers refused, he would beat them. Both brothers have scars all over their bodies from their father’s abuse. Esteban and Edgar escaped their abusive father about 5 years ago and went to live with their maternal grandmother. But their father continued to pursue them so frequently that Edgar fled to the U.S. in 2015. Too young to make the journey, Esteban stayed in Honduras. Then, in 2016, their father tried to kidnap him from school; this is when he decided it was time to flee to the U.S. as well. Both boys are currently living safely with their mother and applying for protection.

6. Detention

When people of any age enter the US to apply for asylum, they don’t run; they often present themselves to border patrol. They are, however, detained. Detention is big business. Private companies are making a mint. Once built, detention centers must remain full to pay for themselves.

It is not possible to detain children humanely. We oppose all forms of family detention. Detention costs a lot. There are many alternatives to detention.  

IV. Theological and pastoral Implications 

Both the ELCA Statement on Immigration and the Statement on Immigration Reform remind us that human beings are created in the image of God, and thus have inherent dignity and worth. They state unequivocally that no one should be forced to live in conditions that violate their dignity and worth. We are called upon to advocate for fair labor policies and trade policies. We are called upon to welcome those who are feeling violence or poverty.

We must reject the security paradigm that has escalated since the 9/11 attacks. Atrocities have been committed in the name of “national security.” Fear does powerful things to people ethically.

Battered children from the Northern Triangle are showing up on our back porch. We cannot turn our back. To do so would be a denial of our faith. 65M people are displaced. We must be willing to welcome refugees and immigrants, especially when it is our policies have created the conditions that led to such migration.

We know Christ’s call. This is not a murky ethical conundrum.

This church has a history of hospitality for refugees. Following World War II, when one out of every six Lutherans in the world was a refugee or displaced person, Lutherans, with the participation of 6,000 congregations, resettled some 57,000 refugees in the United States. In the decade after the fall of Saigon in 1975, Lutheran congregations sponsored over 50,000 refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. My congregation did this, and I was blessed to know Ha and Thuan Van Pham.

During the 1980s various congregations provided sanctuary for persons whose lives were endangered by wars in Central America. We know how to do this.  

In exercising hospitality to the stranger, many testified that they received more than they gave—as if they had welcomed angels without knowing it (Hebrews 13:2). Their experience invites us to be gracious hosts as well as humble guests, that is, learners from the newcomers among us.

When we serve the migrant, they will be blessed, but so will we.


Welcoming immigrants is the Christian thing to do. What remains is to consider several questions:

1. A theology of the cross says God is revealed in suffering. If you’re suffering, congratulations, blessed are you. If not, walk alongside those who are. How can we enter into the space of immigrants and refugees, and bring our students along:

a. visiting detention centers, for “when I was in prison, you visited me?”

b. Visiting the border?

c. Engaging Northern Triangle countries and their church leaders to understand the horrific conditions that lead to migration

2. Are we plummeting our theological resources to revive a robust understanding of hospitality? 

3. Drawing upon God’s hospitality toward us, how can we encourage budding pastors to preach hospitality?

4. What theological resources do we have to revive the Christian vocation of welcoming the stranger?

5. How do we reinvigorate congregations to welcome the stranger as they have in the past?

6. How can we combat quietism, inspiring people of faith to speak boldly in the public square for policies that transcend nationalism, that reunify families, that generously admit and welcome new Americans with family visas, worker visas, religious visas and student visas?

Welcoming immigrants and refugees is also the American thing to do, for even with our spotty history of racism, we are nevertheless a nation of immigrants, a country of people who are from everywhere, united not by race or ethnicity, but by a our democratic values: that all people are created equal.

I leave you with Emma Lazarus’ words, engraved 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.

For further

Here is “Locked in a Box”, about immigration detention and how people can engage as visitors to detainees. 

Here is “The Journey” about unaccompanied kids: 

General documents on Immigration:



ELCA Statement on immigration (1998):

Toward Compassionate, Just, and Wise Immigration Reform (2009):  

Asylum and Detention: 



Protection of Unaccompanied Children:


What can immigrants do now? 

People should go to a legal services provider to be screened for any possible immigration options other than DACA for which they may already be eligible. The ILRC has a comprehensive client intake form to assist practitioners in screening that can be found here:

The immigrant Advocates Network maintains a national directory of more than 950 free or low-cost nonprofit immigration legal services providers in all 50 states. Located here:

People should know their rights when in contact with an immigration agency. The ILRC has created Red Cards to help both citizens and noncitizens defend themselves against constitutional violations during ICE raids. These cards provide citizens and noncitizens with information about how to assert their constitutional rights and an explanation for ICE agents that the individuals are indeed asserting their constitutional rights. Visit for more information and contact to order.