The United States prides itself as a being a “nation of immigrants. The Statue of Liberty stands as a symbol of America’s openness bidding, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” However, recent events in the U.S. Congress suggest that we as a people do not really mean what we say.
In December, the House of Representatives passed the Border Protection, Anti Terrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act (H.R. 4437). Major provisions of this bill include making illegal immigration a felony, criminalizing church workers and social service providers assisting illegal immigrants, constructing a 700 mile fence along the U.S.- Mexican Border, and requiring employers to verify their workers’ status though a massive immigrant database. Since there are approximately 11-12 million undocumented immigrants currently residing in the U.S., enforcing these provisions are not only vindictive, but highly unenforceable. Currently the U.S. Senate is working on its version of the bill which is seeking to develop a process whereby undocumented immigrants can become permanent guest workers over a period of several years.
One of the arguments for stricter controls is the supposed negative effect that undocumented immigrants have on the U.S. economy, public services, and social welfare system. As the argument goes, immigrants take jobs that other Americans won’t take, because the wages given them are so low. Despite the rhetoric, it is ludicrous to think that 12 million people could slip into the country undetected without the assistance of some powerful interest groups or that those interests are truly chagrined by having to pay such low wages. The fact is such as construction, food service, agriculture and meatpacking depend heavily on immigrant (much of undocumented) labor and we who purchase their products or services are the beneficiary with lower prices.
While the socio-economic and political issues are complex, there are Biblical and theological issues that we as Christians must consider as we listen to and engage in this discussion. For our first allegiance as Christians must be to the principles of compassion and justice laid out for us in Scripture.
Scripture clearly compels us to “welcome the stranger in our midst (Leviticus 19-33-34). Jesus goes so far as to say that welcoming the stranger is equivalent to welcoming him (Matthew 35.35). If the provision in HR 4437 making it a crime to assist or help undocumented immigrants, many Christian workers will be confronted with a choice as to whether to follow the law or the Biblical imperative. Simply allowing someone to attend church or get help at a food pantry could be grounds for arrest. Will we as Christians choose obedience to an unjust law?
However, beyond our concern for the stranger is the Biblical mandate to care for the poor in general. Surveys of undocumented immigrants clearly indicate that they come here seeking work in order to pull themselves and their families out of poverty. Jesus places no boundaries of nationality or ethnicity on his call upon us to show compassion and seek justice for the poor. In fact it was the Good Samaritan’s willingness to transcend ethnic and national strictures that made his act of compassion so commendable (Luke 10). In the words of Liberation theologians God has exercised a “preferential option for the poor” and thus who seek to follow God’s ways must stand against the powers of exclusion and oppression on behalf of those most vulnerable. Arguments that justify tighter immigration measures on the basis of helping America’s poor are not only specious, but present a false dichotomy. Our commitment to seeking justice for the poor must transcend boundaries or race and nation.
For at the heart of this issue is a global economic system that disproportionately benefits the wealthy and powerful and disadvantages the worker and peasant classes regardless of their nationality. Douglas Massey, the president of Princeton University has said, “At the heart of NAFTA lies a contradiction we move to promote the freer cross-border movement of goods, services, capital and commodities, we simultaneously seek to prevent the movmeent6 of labor…To maintain the illusion that we can somehow integrate while remaining separate, we have militarized our border.”
One has to ask why undocumented immigrants are leaving their country to work in low wage U.S. jobs. Obviously it is because the opportunities for good-paying jobs are not present in the home country. If U.S. corporations have the freedom to move to other coutnries in search of cheaplabor and higher profits, why is it wrong for workers to go to other countries seeking work that pays a more decent wage. What is good for the goose, is good for the gander. We must ask ourselves if the capitalistic system is actually making wealth avaialbe to greater numbers of people ( as proponents say) or simply amassing wealth in the hands of the already wealthy few?
Before we middle Christian Christians shake our heads in disgust, we must realize that as consumers of the lower costs provided by cheap labors, we are unconscious collaborators in an economic system that denigrates the poor. Thus, as compassionate Christians we are confronted with the question: At what price, justice? Not only should we contact our elective representatives to inform them of our views, we also must be willing to literally pay the price for changing an economic system that benefits the few, at the expense of the many.
The current immigration reform debate confronts us with a question of our values and priorities. Andrew Grove, the former chairperson of Intel Corporation and a Jewish holocaust survivor has written that the immigration debate confronts us with questions about our basic values as Americans. I suggest that for the Christians this debate goes event deeper to question the ultimate sincerity and validity of the faith we profess.
Drick, Douglas Massey is NOT the President of Princeton of University. He is Professor of Sociology at Princeton, but not president.