“For You Were Aliens in the Land of Egypt”: Why Orthodox Christians Cannot Remain Silent on United States Immigration Policies

by Aram G. Sarkisian

In recent weeks, distressing images of detained children, renewed calls for drastic immigration restrictions, and the United States Supreme Court’s decision upholding a travel ban against Muslim-majority countries have intensified national discourse on immigration policy. These developments should strongly resonate with Orthodox Christians. Though the church’s demographics have certainly changed over the past century, Orthodoxy flourished in the United States during the early 1900s as a church built by, and for, immigrants. Orthodox Christians must draw on their histories to speak credibly to the anxieties of migration, the human toll of detention and deportation, and the negative implications of immigration restrictions, entry quotas, and normalized xenophobia.

One argument employed to support stringent immigration policies comes from those who insist that since their immigrant ancestors “came legally” and prospered, others should be held to the same standard. The truth proves a little more complicated. This is particularly exemplified by the thousands of Orthodox Christians who migrated here from Imperial Russia before 1917. If you are one of their descendants, as I am, one or more the following three statements may be true: Your ancestor broke at least one nation’s immigration laws to travel to the United States. They required significant assistance to enter and make their way in America. Finally, they very possibly traveled as an undocumented person.

Researching in the records of the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., I uncovered many files in which Russian Orthodox immigrants vividly described harrowing journeys from tsarist Russia. In their stories, I repeatedly found admissions to “stealing the border” (красть границу), a form of undocumented migration. Subject to imperial demographic policies that severely curtailed international migration for most Orthodox Christians, and often lacking the money to pay for an international passport, many migrants simply sidestepped the state. They instead traveled without authorization, hiring shadowy immigration brokers whose hefty fees bought passage across the Russian border, evasion of police and border agents, and food and lodging during the clandestine journey to a seaport. Mostly adult men traveling alone, these migrants risked danger and arrest for the potential of returning home to their families in Russia with pockets stuffed with dollars.

In New York, the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Archdiocese of North America were aware of migrants stealing the border, and took measures to both discourage the custom and mitigate its lasting personal impact. A church-produced newspaper circulated in both the United States and Russia strongly advised potential travelers against the practice, as “…in fact it turns out to be far more expensive, for the agent robs the peasant blind.” Still, such migrants came in droves. As one immigrant later recalled, thousands upon thousands arrived “destitute, humiliated, sick, without documents, helpless, in a new country knowing no one and nothing!”

In 1908, archdiocesan leaders founded the Russian Immigrant Society, a social service agency established to help these vulnerable Orthodox migrants enter, settle, and find work in the United States. The society assisted over 3700 immigrants in its first year, and over 50,000 across its history. On Ellis Island, a society representative kept an eye out for Orthodox Christians barred from entry. By 1913, this representative was assisting upwards of 3000 migrants per year, averaging over nine new cases per day. He arranged and paid for migrants’ appeals, then attended immigration court hearings to vouch for their wellbeing. So many were detained at Ellis Island that in 1911, a society priest offered Christmas prayers in its detention center for several hundred Russian, Greek, Syrian, and other Orthodox Christians. Upon entry, the society referred migrants to the Russian Immigrant Home on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where they received meals, housing, and job contacts, and prayed in its chapel for success in America.

While the church provided spiritual grounding and material support, the workplace shaped migrants’ lives in America. In the shadows of Pennsylvania’s foundries, Colorado’s mines, and Detroit’s assembly lines, Russians packed into boarding houses where they shared beds in shifts, and took their meals in dingy saloons. Toiling in jobs few others would accept, many languished at work due to language barriers and xenophobic foremen. “This Babylon hid many away in its workshops, in stifling places, seated behind looms, behind tailors’ benches, behind sewing machines,” St. Alexander Hotovitzky decried in a 1912 essay on the plight of Russian workers, “strewn on the docks, thrown about along tunnels, along the mills.” American life broke these workers’ bodies and tried their spirits, but they were not neglected. Immigrant Society members like St. Alexander visited these workers in labor camps, immigrant neighborhoods, and even jails to provide spiritual care and a touch of home. Though not every Orthodox migrant turned to the Russian Immigrant Society, its ministries touched thousands of Orthodox lives, no matter how crooked the path leading them to the Immigrant Home, nor arduous the trials after they settled.

The Russian experience reflects but one strain in the multinational history of Orthodox migration to the United States. Yet it stands as a provocative invitation to think critically about the terrors, insecurities, and legal ambiguities within every immigrant story. Orthodox Christians of all ethnicities have not been spared the fear of the border agent and the indignities of detention, nor been unaffected by immigration restrictions and nativist paranoia. The Orthodox were not the first, and certainly not the last to come to the United States to bolster a national economy built on the backs of unskilled laborers who toil “in stifling places” for the promise of dollars. And they surely did not go it alone, relying on their church as a bulwark against an America that saw them as dispensable and invisible.

Orthodox Christians should have much to contribute to today’s discourse. “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you” we read in Leviticus, and “you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Lev. 19:34). Recalling how newly-arrived Orthodox Christians were clothed, fed, and supported in their past hours of need, how can today’s faithful hesitate to express solidarity with the thousands of migrant families experiencing similar traumas in America today?

Aram G. Sarkisian is a doctoral candidate in history at Northwestern University, and the 2017-18 NEH Dissertation Completion Fellow of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center at Fordham University. He researches Orthodox Christianity in the nineteenth- and twentieth-century United States with emphases on immigration, labor, political radicalism, and lived religious experience.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.