National Association of Evangelicals Supports Immigration Reform, But Elsewhere Discord Reigns

As I write this, the National Association of Evangelicals has just passed a resolution urging Congressional reform of immigration laws invoking the ideals of respect and mercy and emphasizing the importance of family reunification.

But not everyone agrees. Just this week I attended a panel discussion devoted to the religious basis for arguments against reform at the National Press Club in Washington DC entitled “Religious Perspectives on Immigration.” It was sponsored by the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), which bills itself as an independent nonpartisan think tank on the impact of immigration on the United States.

The announcement of this panel caught my attention because none of the panelists seemed to represent the views of the nationwide Interfaith Immigration Coalition, the major collection of religious organizations dealing with immigration today, or of any of the many religious denominations that have spoken out on immigration issues. So whose perspectives were these?

I was aware that the Southern Poverty Law Center has characterized CIS as a nativist organization that advocates for drastic reductions in immigration. So I decided to attend to hear what they had to say, and to try to figure out if there are any points on which we could ever agree.

Panelists were Fr. Dominique Peridans, associate pastor of a Baltimore Roman Catholic parish, CIS Fellow James R. Edwards Jr., and CIS Senior Policy Analyst Stephen Steinlight. Each presented a paper explicating scriptural and other religious teachings as they bear on immigration—from Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish viewpoints, respectively.

The theme of all three papers was that leaders of all the mainstream religious groups are misinterpreting scripture and religious traditions when they issue policy statements that urge compassion and welcome for immigrants, or support comprehensive immigration reform (mischaracterized as advocacy for “open borders”), and that faithful parishioners should not be misled.

Edwards argued that religious leaders are, in effect, railroading their flocks, saying that the “self-described ‘compassion’ among religious elites differs from the perspective of most rank-and-file Christians.” And he names the National Association of Evangelicals in particular, knowing that they were on the verge of making the statement they made today, suggesting that their position on this issue is counter to that of the laity, which “generally opposes legalization and supports enforcement of immigration laws.”

Steinlight agreed, arguing that “in terms of simple willingness to recognize the danger of mass immigration by anti-Semitic groups [which he identifies as ‘Muslims and foreign-born Hispanics’], the gulf between ordinary American Jews and the Establishment is chasm-like.”

And, perhaps most strikingly, Fr. Peridans produced theological support for tighter border control :

A seemingly simplistic passage is made from the mandate to love (which, of course, includes the mandate to “welcome the stranger”) to public policy, as though “catholicity of heart” immediately translates into open borders. The statement gives no tools for discernment, because the important distinctions between philosophical perspective and a theological perspective are not made.

The concepts derived from scriptural admonitions to “render unto Caesar” (Matt. 22:21) and to submit to governing authorities (Romans 13) were emphasized throughout.

Just Plain Mean

I came away from the event feeling that these analysts and I live in very different worlds. I read scripture as teaching love, welcome, inclusion, hospitality. I know personally many immigrants who are suffering under our current immigration system’s inflexible and categorical laws with no allowance for individual circumstances. I believe that my faith calls me to work to change those laws, stop unjust deportations, give those worthy would-be Americans a chance. Those realities simply don’t match the realities seen by the CIS panelists. They call my version naïve; I think their version is too often just plain mean. Yet we all claim the same Abrahamic faiths.

All this got me wondering whether people of faith can ever reach a consensus on immigration. What follows are some reflections on that possibility—my religious perspectives on this critical issue for our nation right now:

Consensus is possible if we avoid false dichotomies.

We might be able to agree if we move out of the land of false dichotomies into a land of multiple problems, realistic caring, and mutual give-and-take. Both “sides” will have to give a little. Actually, there is no such thing as both sides. Most people use a cafeteria approach to the morality of the immigration issue. We pick and choose. The first step towards consensus would be to stop thinking in that binary way and to start thinking expansively and extravagantly and realistically. Extravagant creative realists will own the future of this debate.

Those who want to welcome immigrants will have to understand the legitimate concerns that many people have about the nation’s borders. But we all have to recognize that the welcoming people are not anti-law, nor are law-and-order people anti-welcome. Respecting the law does not automatically mean that you are racist or mean; nor does a concern for a broken legal system mean you are naïve.

Consensus can come in agreeing to be kind, not mean-spirited.

It can also come when we start taking seriously the scriptural command about loving the other as yourself. Of course we can love people and still deport them, just like we can love a friend and disagree with her. Limits are necessary. We limit our love all the time. But we can’t argue that Scripture does not command love, which surely involves kindness as well.

Both sides might agree that the rhetoric of the Lou Dobbs and Glenn Becks of the world is too mean—and that it leads too quickly to an objectification of human beings, which no religion wants. That objectification begets the kind of violence we are increasingly seeing. People of faith agree that such violence is to be avoided at all costs. You don’t have to be pro-immigrant to be anti-sneer. We could come to consensus around the need to change hate-language to love-language.

As the country creates a just and humane immigration policy (with reasonable limits), we could actually have an apology in our voice, as opposed to a sneer. “We are sorry we can’t let everyone in. We welcome you as a human being. We see your plight and your pain. We would love to enjoy your gifts because we know you have them. But only (pick your number) Mexicans or Ecuadorians or whoever can be welcomed this year.” Rereading the Scripture and changing our tone of voice will go a long way.

“When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:33 – 34)

Consensus could come around the need to deal with the immediate human crisis.

There is a human reality right in front of our noses. There are thousands of children of undocmented immigrants who don’t sleep at night because they are afraid of losing their father or mother; other thousands have already lost their father or mother. Someday heroic books will be written about them. Right now, they are hurting and hurting, at a developmental moment which keeps on hurting them. They are children. Jesus had a way of being present to real people. He was especially concerned about the children.

The debate we are currently having has a kind of eerie distance to it, as though we were all living above this problem, instead of having our lettuce washed by people who are “without papers.” Even as President Obama promises comprehensive immigration reform by next year, saying that it will include a path to citizenship for at least some of the 12 million undocumented immigrants now in the United States, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency is stepping up the pace of deportations of those same persons.

Why? Because of cheap politics and the sneer. And also because people of faith have started fighting among themselves instead of working to resolve the problems. We should be in charge of helping politicians have the political cover they need to do the extravagantly right and realistic thing.

Consensus is possible if people are willing to give and take; to be a little less convinced that they have the only truth and a whole lot less self-righteous about it. By the way, Jesus always said that the real sin is self-righteousness. The not-so-funny thing about sin is that when you keep on sinning, real people get really hurt. When you stop sinning, repent, and are forgiven for what you have done and don’t keep on doing what you did, often real people are blessed.

Isn’t That a Kind of “Amnesty”? Can We Get Consensus on That?

The rest of my reflections are on amnesty—what my religious perspective tells me is a right and realistic thing to do about some current immigration problems.

All sides will have to understand that we are in a global mess that requires resolution at its source. People don’t illegally immigrate to the United States just because we are so wonderful. They mostly come because they can’t make a living at home. The source of emigration is usually economic and caused by the lack of opportunity in the homeland; not by the great attraction of uprooting oneself to come to the golden land of America. Of course, sometimes people migrate because they want to migrate, and that, too, needs honoring. We might even call the ability to move a basic human right.

Whether we see it as an opportunity or a terrible problem, the economy is globalizing. Everyone knows it. Very few understand it. The global horse is already out of the barn, and it is time to take a look at how far behind the law is compared to the economy. No nation has yet found the right formula for welcoming the workers it needs and keeping excess numbers out. That formula needs to be developed so that the great gifts of globalization can be welcomed, culturally and economically, and borders can also be safeguarded. People of faith ought to be able to take the sneer out of our voice and understand that immigrants bring both gifts and problems; not neither, but both.

Fully closed borders and fully open borders seem to me to be silly ideas on their face. God may have an open-border eschatology in mind but very few humans do. For me, the real issues are that we need an adequate legal path to citizenship for immigrants, and uniform, fair enforcement of the procedures and regulations of that law.

Right now it’s almost impossible for many undocumented immigrants whom we have allowed (even encouraged) to live and work here for years to become “legal” because there’s no process for them to do so. There are 12 million undocumented immigrants here now. It is neither realistic nor humane to try to round them all up and deport them. Even if it cost only one thousand dollars each to detain and deport them, that price would be absurd—and it actually costs a whole lot more. And think of the human cost. What would happen to the children they left behind? Or the jobs they left behind?

Additionally, we would lose the economic benefits these immigrants are bringing to the country. A 2007 special report by the Foreign Relation Council on the cost-benefit balance of illegal immigration found that illegal immigrants’ contribution in taxes already balances any increased costs for public services. Imagine the tax benefit if all 12 million were legalized and all of them were paying taxes instead of working off the books. Immigrants grow the US economy already and could do so even more, if legalized. Those who are employed on the books already contribute to Social Security. Since many are young and won’t draw benefits for years, if ever, they are valuable to that (other) broken system.

You can call an economic-engine program to provide a path to citizenship “amnesty,” and you can even sneer at that word. But before we lose that word to television commentators, we might want to take a good look at the loss. Amnesty means forgiveness. Often people of faith believe in forgiveness. What is the sin to be forgiven? Not that of the people who cross borders to wait on tables or pick strawberries. The sin to be forgiven is that the global economic engine has outpaced the laws to govern it. We can wring our hands, even wear sackcloth, but getting law in right relationship to economic reality is the real issue.

We could try for some extravagant, realistic creativity here, too. Start by recognizing the business interests that make us hire “illegals” for child care, elder care, restaurant work, and more. Those who think there are too many Mexicans here might want to rethink the United States’ trade and aid policies to Mexico so that it too could be an economically viable place for people to live. That would be an extravagant, realistic creativity.

Religious people are also pragmatic people. Being pro-Spirit does not mean you are anti-reality. We know what it is like to live between a rock and a hard place. We are rarely in favor of pie in the sky. There is nothing pie-ish or sky-ish about recognizing that we have laws that have been broken, laws that are irregularly, at best, enforced, laws that were confused from the get-go.

One of the immigrant members of our congregation has lived under a changing series of immigration laws in his lifetime: all progressively worse for him. He had a green card. He did a non-violent crime two decades ago. He did his time in prison for that crime. At the time of his conviction, the law allowed a waiver of deportation for a long-term green card holder like him. But that law was changed while he was in prison; it was applied retroactively to his case, and the waiver was denied. Now he is on the brink of deportation, even though he has four US-born children, 14 employees, and a growing business. The current law no longer permits judges to take those factors into consideration when ordering deportation.

That story illustrates several of the ways that our immigration system is simply broken—that the law itself is broken. Ordering exile on top of prison feels like double jeopardy; like cruel and unusual punishment. What would be right in this situation? Amnesty. Forgiveness. Fixing the legal system. Giving judges back their judicial discretion, which they do not have under the current law.

Some will see “amnesty” as meaning only “open borders” and demean the whole idea; others will see that amnesty respects law and procedure, that is is humane and that it is more practical than detention or deportation. When we sneer at amnesty or mischaracterize welcome, I believe that we have lost our way, both legally and morally.

[Thanks to Grace Goodman for her assistance with this article.]

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