A Christmas Theme

A Christmas Theme December 2, 2022

The Working Catholic: A Christmas Theme by Bill Droel

Remember always to welcome strangers, for by doing this some people have entertained angels without knowing it. (Hebrews 13:2)


Welcoming strangers is a Christmas theme. It appears in a half verse in the story of Jesus’ birth: Upon arriving in Bethlehem, Joseph and Mary learned “there was no room for them at the inn.” (Luke 2:7) The Mexican Posada tradition creatively dramatizes the incident. But the facts are scant. After all, what did the Holy Family expect showing up without reservations on a busy holiday weekend? Smile.

Let’s admit that a country with completely open borders is a contradiction in terms. And let’s acknowledge that immigrants and refugees present problems to a country that admits them. Yet in the United States, as in many other countries, prosperity utterly depends on an orderly influx of immigrants. At the moment, nearly all agree, our country’s immigration policies are not adequate for what is happening domestically and internationally.

Utica, New York is situated on the Mohawk River and the Erie Canal, just off the New York Thruway. For eight years Susan Hartman researched Utica to write City of Refugees: the Story of Three Newcomers Who Breathed Life into a Dying American Town (Beacon Press, 2022).

Beginning in the mid-1800s Utica became an industrial hub for textile mills, lumber mills and factories. Its residents were Italian-Americans, German-Americans, Polish-Americans and Irish-Americans. In the late 1800s Lebanese-Americans and Syrian-Americans settled in Utica. They staffed or owned dry goods stores and groceries. During the late 1940s the textile industry began to move away, but General Electric and other manufacturers came to Utica. Then in the early 1990s, GE and other employers like Univac and the U.S. Air Force left the Utica area.

Hartman doesn’t dwell on who left town, but on who arrived. In the 1980s it was Vietnamese-Americans. Local clergy, school officials, administrators at Lutheran Services and Syracuse Catholic Charities founded the Mohawk Valley Resource Center (www.thecenterutica.org) to assist those from war-torn Vietnam. That ethnic group is now fully integrated in Utica’s economy and society. During the 1980s, The Center and Utica’s leaders likewise greeted immigrants from Laos, Poland and the then Soviet Union. The children of those groups now staff and own furniture stores and car dealerships plus are employed in health care, education and service settings. In the 1990s Utica experienced a wave of immigrants from Bosnia. They are the most successful of recent groups, employed in construction, health care, civil service and the restaurant industry. They, like some previous groups, have rehabbed or built their own housing in previously run-down areas. More recently Utica became a destination for Somali Bantus. They have “a tougher time adapting,” Hartman reports. Their unemployment rate is decreasing, but it is still above the norm.

For the most part, the topic of immigration in our Congress is not about what it is supposedly about. Too often it is cast in partisan extremes. In fact writes Reihan Salam in Wall St. Journal (11/30/22), perpetuating a dysfunctional immigration process only encourages more refugees to cross into our country and more foreign visitors to overstay their visa. Meanwhile, while Congress is posturing on immigration, local elected officials and business leaders want practical reform. There are only two realistic choices: Do nothing to improve immigration policy and settle for a stagnant economy in many towns or cities or reform immigration and weather the difficulties that immigrants initially present.

Realistic citizens can question the cost vs. payoff calculus. How much does it cost to accommodate an immigrant (public assistance, processing expense, salary for border officials and more) before that immigrant is a net gain to the economy and the tax base? The answer, says Salam, varies by country of origin, length of time in our country and place of settlement in our country. At the moment there is a rather quick gain when immigrants come to North Dakota and other states. There is a short term loss in California and elsewhere, though many California families depend on immigrant caregivers, household cleaners, landscapers, service workers and more and the entire country depends on immigrant farm workers.

There is also the question of how much immigration adds to the unemployment of current citizens. In select locales, Salam finds, immigrants can be a short term negative on job prospects for those current citizens who lack a high school diploma. Over ten years the negative impact from immigrants on wages is close to zero.

There’s another incident in the Christmas story that relates to welcoming strangers. The homeland of Mary and Joseph was occupied territory. Shortly after the birth of their baby, the Holy Parents felt their lives were in serious danger. They crossed the border with no visa. In Egypt they found shelter, perhaps among other Jews or maybe at the kindness of Arabs. Joseph presumably found a job in Egypt and there the Holy Family remained until it was seemingly safe to return. Meanwhile the oppressive Romans slaughtered hundreds of Jewish infants. (Matthew 2: 13-18)

A town without any immigrants is not a beautiful utopia. A town with properly welcomed immigrants is not a trouble-free place. The latter situation, however, has a chance to be a Christmas town that participates in God’s continuing redemption.

Droel serves on the board of National Center for the Laity (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629)

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