Since its beginnings in 1939, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS) has been serving people across the world in need of new homes and new communities. Originally formed to serve and resettle refugees from war-torn Europe, LIRS connected sponsoring Lutherans in the U.S. with Lutheran refugees in Germany. LIRS began to slowly make the transition into serving all refugees, not just Lutherans. In 1960, during the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement, the director of LIRS Vernon Bergstrom addressed the National Lutheran Council in a speech that adopted a very progressive attitude for the time, beginning the transition out of Lutheran-only resettlement.
“Throughout these years, Lutherans in the United States have successfully resettled fellow Lutherans, to the extent that the ‘Lutheran Family’ is now pretty well in order. We ought now to examine our responsibility to resettle non-Lutherans in need of such assistance. Just as we have championed the cause of the Europeans of the Lutheran faith, should we not now champion the cause of a Chinese in a hovel in Hong Kong in his attempts to rejoin his family or friends in the United States? Should the excellent and efficient resettlement system developed though our congregations and agencies be left to ‘wither on the vine,’ or should it be placed at the disposal of the uprooted from strange, far-off, non-Lutheran lands, who have very compelling reasons to resettle here? Should we now seek to mobilize Lutheran opinion throughout our land and bring it to bear upon Congress, urging that that body enact refugee legislation which permits the entry of such groups as Chinese, Arabs, and others? Should we now make our collective influence felt in seeking to direct our country’s eyes away from a rebuilt and flourishing Europe to Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, where the real migration problems exist?”
Soon after, LIRS began resettling refugees outside of the Lutheran church. Refugees from China, Cuba, Uganda, South Vietnam and more began to pour into the country in the 1960’s and 70’s, and LIRS continued to expand its services across the world, as close as Mexico and as far away as Iraq.
In the 80’s and 90’s LIRS continued its work under a new government system established by The Refugee Act of 1980. LIRS began to provide legal services to immigrants in 1989, and was recognized as having the best resettlement system 4 years running in 1990. Programs continued to grow, but new challenges arose as new U.S. law in 199 increased the red tape for asylum seekers. In 1997, amid escalated detention of migrants and asylum seekers, LIRS and two partners formed the Detention Watch Network, and LIRS led the network until 2003. Also formed in 1997, the Refugee Works program began working with refugee workers and those that employed refugees, offering training and other technical assistance.
In 1999, LIRS headquarters relocated from New York City to Baltimore, MD and the work of resettlement and advocacy for refugees has continued into the 21st century. In the ever evolving climate of a post-9/11 world, LIRS still struggles with improving immigration policy, advocating on behalf of refugees across the world, and constantly working with its network of affiliates, volunteers, donors and churches to resettle refugees from all over the world.
Today, reflecting on the history of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee service reminds us that there is still significant work to be done. The work of LIRS continues to build upon those first Lutherans who cared enough to dedicate their lives in service of people they did not know. The continuing story of LIRS is a never ending passion to continue serving refugees and migrants across our nation and across our world.