Four Keys to Changing Views on Immigration: Lessons from Bryan Stevenson

Last night Bryan Stevenson gave a lecture at Wheaton College on the sensitive, yet very important, topic of the death sentence. He is the author of the award-winning and New York Times bestseller Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Rebellion (Spiegel and Grau, 2015). The venue was packed with perhaps 500 students and faculty. His message was powerful, yet encouraging; startling, yet winsome. He structured his talk around four points. As I listened to them, it struck me that they could also be applied to debates about immigration reform. Here they are with this new subject:

  1. Get proximate. In other words, get close to immigrants. As one comes into relationship with immigrants at parent meetings and school activities, at work, or at the store, they become human with names and faces… not a strange, faceless “other” or “problem.” They, too, are moms, dads, and kids dealing with the challenges or being a family, although for them these things are more of a challenge because they have to be navigated in a new country and in a different culture and language. Christians, above all people, should strive to see—and be with—the stranger as one loved by God and created in his image.
  2. Change the national narrative. We need to change how the stories of immigrants and immigration are told. It is not uncommon for the media to use narratives of fear and anger and link immigrants (and refugees) to terrorism. By doing so, immigrants are perceived as a dangerous threat. These feelings then can become a motivation for treating them poorly and for passing punitive legislation that is unreasonable and unconstructive for a sensible way forward for the 10-11 million undocumented (many millions of whom have been here for over a decade). A different narrative, that does respect the law (even as work to reform an outdated and inadequate immigration legislation), while showing compassion and thinking through how best to get past the national impasse. Citizens need to go back and remember the immigrant stories of their own families and of the periods of rapid migration into this country over the last 250 years.
  3. Stay hopeful. It is easy for those who have worked hard for years to facilitate a genuine transformation of attitudes toward immigrants and to encourage the formulation of new immigrant laws to get discouraged. Attitudes and legislation are hard to move in a different direction. But, if one realizes that hope is the conviction of things not seen (Hebrews 11:1), and one knows in the heart of hearts that this is a just cause, then one can continue to work toward a different kind of country that is more welcoming to the stranger.
  4. Be willing to do inconvenient things. Everyone longs for a quiet and comfort-able life. But social change does not come by default. It does happen easily and without effort. It is not uncommon for those who are comfortable to be committed to the status quo and thus to following established procedures (no matter how outdated or imbalanced) rather than pursuing fairness and equity. For things to change requires our participation, and that means we get pushed into doing things that perhaps we have never done before, meeting new people, and going places to which we normally would not go.

Get proximate, change the national narrative, stay hopeful, and be willing to do inconvenient things – all wise advice as we continue to work toward immigration reform. Thank you, Bryan Stevenson!

September 7, 2016

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