On a scorching hot summer day in the summer of 2002, I was in the desert on the outskirts of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico walking around a newly developing neighborhood made up of electrical wires running on the ground and brick houses . I stared at the militarized border fence demarcating a line drawn between El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juarez only 160 years ago, and suddenly my attention was drawn to a group of young boys playing soccer. One child in particular stood out, a young boy no more than seven years old whose body was so deformed from polio, a waterborne disease supposedly eradicated in North America, that he had to flip his body over to walk. Once he noticed us he came over to greet us with excitement. This beautiful child’s name was Jesús, and we spent much of the day talking to him and playing soccer with him. I couldn’t believe that we lived in a reality where a child on one side of the fence could get a water-borne disease such as polio, while on the other side of the fence you can see the University of Texas-El Paso and the El Paso mall, in which there is clean drinking water for all.
How Religion Views Immigration
I had traveled to El Paso, Texas and Juarez, Mexico to take part in a two week long border awareness experience operated by the Catholic liberation theology-based organization, Annunciation House. Their work is a prophetic response to immigration and the crisis of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which created unprecedented migration after this targeted economic warfare destroyed whole cities where agriculture was the primary industry throughout Mexico. The mission of Annunciation House was to live in solidarity with the poor and follow the teachings of Jesus, alayhi as-salaam (peace be upon him) and the directive in the Bible to serve the poor and immigrants: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:35). It was at this moment, standing there with Jesús, that I began to ask if God believed in these borders. I looked to the Islamic tradition related to immigration, with the central questions “What is our prophetic response to injustice?” and “How do we answer the call when we see these things with our own eyes?”
If we look at immigration from an Abrahamic and Islamic perspective we learn from the stories of Abraham, Lot, Jonah, Jacob, Moses and the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon them all) that there are three primary elements to these stories:
- First, the people and prophets face grave injustice which threatened their lives;
- Second, they migrated seeking just allies and safety;
- Third, they enacted a Prophetic response and call to justice and transformation for their people.
Our moment is directly reflective of the first two elements with 11 million people in this country living in the shadows of our society. Our question then, if we are true believers, should be what is our Prophetic response, and who is ready to stand on the side of justice?
For Muslims, the Prophet Muhammadﷺ is seen as our exemplar, whose life sets an example for us in every aspect of our being: from who we are as leaders, how we pray, how we eat, how we interact with one another, to how we interact with people of different faiths. While the best parts of the Prophet’s ﷺ life set beautiful examples for us, so do the struggles and hardships he faced as he led a community which faced continuous warfare, as a father who lost six children during his life, and as someone who was a refugee and immigrant.
Immigration During the Prophet’s Time
Muhammad ﷺ was born and raised in Mecca as an orphan, but of the highest tribe in Mecca, the Quraysh. He ﷺ was someone who was greatly respected by nearly all the people of Mecca, but after the revelation of the Qur’an began and he started to speak publicly about his call as the final Prophet sent to humanity, he was heavily rebuked by the tribes of Mecca who feared that he would upset the social order which they benefited from politically and financially. The Quraysh began to wage war against the Muslims, torturing and even killing many of the new converts to the religion. To protect the community, the Prophet ﷺ began a series of migrations where he sent fourteen of his followers to Abyssinia (modern day Ethiopia) seeking the protection of a righteous Christian king, who provided refuge for the suffering Muslims.
As things in Mecca deteriorated, the remaining Muslims were invited to move to the city of Medina, where a large number of Christians, Jewish people, and a growing population of converts to Islam were living at the time who would accept the Muslim migrants in their community. The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, after waiting for all of his community to leave for Medina before him, was finally forced to leave Mecca when all the tribes in the city plotted together to assassinate him. He ﷺ left in the night with one of his closest companions, Abu Bakr as-Siddiq, radiAllahu `anhu (may Allah be pleased with him). As a displaced refugee, the Prophet ﷺ stated: “Of all God’s earth, you [Mecca] are the dearest place unto me, and the dearest unto God. Had not my people driven me out from you, I would not have left you.” Anyone who has been displaced from their homeland can relate. As the Prophet ﷺ and Abu Bakr (ra) set out on the two hundred mile journey across the brutal Arabian desert, they were closely followed by assassins who at one point came so close to finding them that they had to hide in a cave for three days. Told in detail in books like Omid Safi’s Memories of Muhammad: Why the Prophet Matters, they would have been found if it wasn’t for a spider who miraculously spun its web across the cave while a dove sat calmly near the entrance to make it seem as if no one was inside of it. The animals knew which side of justice they stood on.
As the Prophet ﷺ entered Medina, he was greeted by his new community with open arms and songs of poetry. His ﷺ first words to them as they began to build a new life together were, “O people, give unto one another greetings of Peace; feed food unto the hungry; honor the ties of kinship; pray in the hours when men sleep. Thus shall you enter Paradise in Peace.” To enact a prophetic response to his community’s migration, the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ took the group of Muslim converts from Medina who he called “the helpers,” and he paired each person with a member of the new group of migrants. He had the established group split their wealth in half and give it to the newly arrived immigrants. With this act, he ﷺ allowed his community to start their new community on the same ground where all were equally welcome, and no one had to suffer in poverty alone.
How to Apply the Prophet’s Teachings Today
Today we live in similar times, as people throughout the world face grave economic and social injustices, with estimates of over 43 million refugees and 100 million people throughout the world who are migrant workers. Ranging from NAFTA’s economic war against Mexico to the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and in other parts of the world, millions and millions of people have walked along this same prophetic path of displacement and migration since the time of Muhammad ﷺ more than 1400 years ago. Indeed, after the genocide against the American Indians and the forced migration of millions of enslaved Africans, it is the central narrative of the United States and most of us have some type of immigration story. We are not being asked to split our wealth in half, but we must each ask ourselves what our prophetic response will be as we raise our voices with the 11 million undocumented people in this country. We raise our voices to say enough! We will not let families continue to be divided as the Obama administration has set a record for deportations as nearly two million people have been deported during his administration alone.
205,000 parents of U.S. citizen children have been deported and torn apart from their families , and millions and millions of workers have been exploited, cheated, robbed and abused because they do not have papers and fear turning to the authorities when they are taken advantage of.
The American Muslim community is a majority immigrant community, and there are thousands of undocumented Muslims in this country. However, because of the level of Islamophobia and the victimization of an entire group of people based on the acts of only a few which have been vehemently condemned by Muslims throughout the US and the world, many immigrant Muslims are fearful to talk about immigration in our community and to take a more active role in the movement for comprehensive immigration reform. Our prophetic example makes it clear that we stand on the side of the interfaith, and social justice movements call for a pathway to citizenship that is no longer than seven years for all 11 million undocumented people. We also feel it is important to raise the issue of religious and racial discrimination, and to make clear that these forms of bias should play no role in US immigration policy, despite the fear mongering that can be raised by a small group of well-funded Islamophobes. Our communities must stand united in our call for just immigration policy as we continue to build a country that is just and fair for all people regardless of race, religion, or country of origin. May God bless and unite us all in this call for justice.
Dustin Craun is a writer and educator, and works as a Muslim clergy organizer for the PICO National Network the United States largest faith-based community organizing network. To contact Dustin, please email firstname.lastname@example.org