For You Yourselves Were Foreigners: A Message from Director of Immigrant Services Rachel Van Tyle

Rachel Van Tyle

Rachel Van Tyle


Immigration has become the signature political issue of the last few years. So often, you hear people calling for reforms of the system, but we cannot possibly know where we should go without understanding where we have been.

A brief look at the history of immigration in the U.S.:

Modern immigration really began with the Immigration Act of 1924, which was signed by President Coolidge. This act established a quota for the number of immigrants allowed in per country, which was based on the census numbers from 1890. It also included a provision that those who were ineligible for citizenship because of race or nationality were not allowed to immigrate. This meant that many immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe and Asia were invariably excluded. 

Although this act was revised in 1952, it was not until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 that nationality quotas were eliminated. In its place was a worldwide limit on immigration, which has changed frequently since its inception. While the quotas were removed, there were still caps placed on immigrants from certain countries, in addition to the limits on total immigration. The biggest change, however, was the establishment of preference categories based on family status and employment options for those wishing to come to the United States. 

Currently, we still have preference categories, which determine who may enter the United States to remain here permanently. The easiest group of people to immigrate is family members (i.e. spouses, children, parents, and siblings), but they also have some of the longest wait times. When it comes to other categories of immigrants, there are also options for employers to immigrate individuals, like highly skilled scientists or outstanding athletes. And, finally, there are humanitarian options, which is where the majority of our practice at the Clinic lies. 

Refugees and those applying to immigrate family members: 

In theory, the immigration process sounds simple. File your petition, wait in line, come to the United States; unfortunately, it is not that easy, especially for the families separated by years, sometimes even decades.

For instance, there is Than Thet*, who is a Christian from the Chin State in Burma. The Burmese government systematically persecuted him because of his faith. To escape this persecution, he went to Malaysia in 2007 and registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), staying in a refugee camp until he could be approved to go to a country of safety and security.

During this time of waiting, Than Thet met and married a Burmese woman also living in Malaysia and they desired to immigrate to the United States together. Finally, in 2012, Than Thet was given the opportunity to leave the refugee camp to move to the United States, but his wife and daughter were still waiting.

More than seven years later, although Than Thet is now a U.S. Citizen, he is still awaiting reunification with his family. Fortunately, after applying for two different forms of relief and spending over $2000, it seems as though his family will finally have the chance to come to the United States as well. I wish I could say these long periods of separation and upheaval are unusual for refugees or for those seeking to immigrate family members, but they are not.

Those seeking asylum:

Asylum laws in the United States came about in the early 1950s and ‘60s in a post-World War II era when the United States and others turned away those fleeing Nazi Germany. Remember the Immigration Act of 1924? It eliminated the possibility of many Eastern Europeans from entering the United States. That is largely where the justification for turning away people fleeing the Nazis came from. 

Today, thankfully, we are not facing quite what we were in the 1940s, but we are facing a different kind of global threat: gangs and trans-national organizations.

For example, I met Hector* in 2015. He fled his native Honduras after his wife was shot and killed in front of their home while their three children watched. His wife was shot by the gangs for not paying a “protection tax” for her business in Honduras. After she was shot, the gangs started pressuring Hector and his three young kids to pay the tax or else pay the same, ultimate price as Hector’s wife.

Deciding that it was in his kids’ best interests, Hector made the difficult month-long journey to the United States and asked for asylum. Not until March of 2019 were we finally able to present his case to the immigration court in Chicago. To date, we have not received a decision and he remains in limbo.

This is an all-too-common story. Because of the massive backlog of cases, those seeking asylum are often faced with extraordinarily long wait times to present their cases. Usually, in excess of five years. Living in an unknown status such as this can create a lot of anxiety and fear within this already vulnerable population. 

So, what do we do?:

Ultimately, it is important to have compassion and humility in the way we interact with any other human being, including immigrants and refugees. As Christians, we know that every person was created in the image of God and that God commands us to love one another as He loved all of us. It does not mean you have to agree with or applaud every choice that people make, but it does require us to treat each other with the dignity, respect, and love that God shows us, however undeserving we all are. 

As we are reminded in Deuteronomy 10:19, “And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.”

Praying God’s mercy and grace on all of us,

Rachel Van Tyle

For additional information:

1.     Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion and Truth in the Immigration Debate by Matthew Soerens and Jenny Hwang Yang

2.     An Immigration Timeline

3.     Asylum Information

*Name has been changed