Closed Borders, Closed Hearts

Sunday, 26 March 2006

Over half a million people rallied Saturday in Los Angeles to protest the various immigration reform measures currently under consideration in the U.S. Congress. Rallies were held in other parts of the country, too, including large gatherings in Atlanta and Phoenix. In Los Angeles, protestors marched through the streets chanting "Sí se puede," "Yes we can!" A common theme in all the marches, speeches, and protests was that the vast majority of immigrants in this country, documented or undocumented, want to work hard to better their families' lives, not commit crimes.

While some of the measures being discussed promote reasonable ideas such as guest worker programs, others can only be characterized as mean-spirited and racist. The worst of these is the bill proposed by Rep. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, which would make crossing the U.S. border without proper authorization a felony, punish anyone convicted of helping an undocumented immigrant, and build a wall on the border between the U.S. and Mexico. The U.S. already has the largest prison population in the free world, and the highest rate of incarceration, but Sensenbrenner doesn't explain where he plans to put the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants he wants to round up.

Many proponents of immigration reform point to the security risks inherent in unregulated immigration, and they are correct to an extent. Security is certainly a factor to be taken into consideration when considering immigration policy. However, Americans must not let 9/11 paranoia control our thinking about the issue. The fact of the matter is that almost all people who enter the country illegally do so to work and make money to support their families. They are honest, hard-working individuals who don't want a handout, only an honest chance to take part in the American Dream.

Instead of an immigration policy based on fear, ethnic stereotypes, and outright xenophobia, America needs a policy that is both rational and compassionate. A rational approach to immigration will recognize that 11 million undocumented workers already live in the U.S., and more are coming every year. These people contribute to the economies and the communities of the places in which they settle. They stay out of trouble (other than problems with "La Migra"), and they work jobs in which most Americans aren't interested. Rather than overreacting to the security risks inherent in immigration by severely restricting ingress into the country, a rational approach will focus on methods to identify and exclude criminals, gang members, and potential troublemakers. A wall on the border and a ten-year prison sentence are blunt instruments that are neither just nor rational.

The U.S. immigration policy should be compassionate as well as rational. When we remember that 99% of us are either immigrants or descendants of immigrants, we should ask ourselves what fate would have befallen our ancestors if draconian immigration measures had been in effect when they arrived in the country. (Native Americans, of course, will have a different perspective on this question!) How can a nation of immigrants--descendants of people who came to this country to escape religious persecution in England and the Continent, to find relief from the Irish potato famine, to pursue economic opportunities on the railroads and on the West Coast that China did not afford in the late nineteenth century--bar a new generation of hopeful immigrants from our shores? How can those whose ancestors came to America in chains, against their will, look without sympathy on those whose economic chains have forced them to our borders? Common decency and compassion dictate that those of us who have benefited from America's riches allow others to pursue those benefits for themselves as well.

In addition to the rational and moral arguments, a theological argument for a relatively open border policy can also be made from a Christian perspective. As a nation whose religious persuasion is predominantly Christian, adherents of Christianity should be aware that our national immigration policies will be viewed by many as a reflection of our religious views, or as an indictment of our failure to live up to the high standards of our faith. The Bible has much to say to the issues surrounding immigration policy, and it is full of stories about illegal immigrants. Abraham and his family left their homeland and traveled to Canaan, at least in part for economic reasons. When times got tough in Canaan, they emigrated to Egypt. Jacob moved his family to Egypt as well during a great famine. Naomi and her family were economic refugees (i.e., undocumented workers) in Moab during a famine in Israel. During the Second Temple period, Jews spread throughout the ancient world, from Parthia in the East to Italy in the West, from Asia Minor in the north to Ethiopia and Arabia in the South. Paul said that all Christians should consider themselves aliens in this world, for their citizenship is in heaven (Phil 3:20; see also Lev 25:23, concerning the year of Jubilee).

The biggest group of illegal aliens in the Bible was the group that followed Moses out of Egypt and later followed Joshua into the Promised Land. The children of Israel suffered prejudice and virtual slavery in Egypt, and they longed to enter "a land flowing with milk and honey." As they made their forty-year journey through the wilderness, they endured heat and cold, hunger and thirst, plagues, poisonous snakes, earthquakes, and enemy attacks. They were despised by the nations through whose borders they passed, and they were feared by the inhabitants of the land. These experiences are common to many of those who make the long journey from their countries of origin to enter the U.S. today.

Throughout their history, the Israelites remembered that their ancestors had been aliens living in foreign lands more than once. "A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous" (Deut 26:5). Moses even named one of his sons Gershom (ger is the Hebrew word for an alien), "for he said, 'I have been an alien living in a foreign land'" (Exod 2:22). The Bible is full of instructions about how to deal with aliens living in the land. In the oldest set of laws, the Book of the Covenant, God instructs the people, "You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt" (Exod 22:21; cf. Exod 23:9). The rationale for caring for the foreigner in their midst is elaborated upon in Lev 19:33-34: "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." Not only were the Israelites not to oppress the aliens, they were also to provide for their economic wellbeing: "You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien" (Lev 19:10); "The Levites, because they have no allotment or inheritance with you, as well as the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows in your towns, may come and eat their fill [from the public storehouses] so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work that you undertake" (Deut 14:29). Aliens were entitled to the same rights and privileges as the Israelites: "Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice" (Deut 27:19).

Like the Jews, the early Christians traveled freely from place to place, pursuing economic opportunities, taking pilgrimages, or spreading the gospel message. Originating in Judea and Galilee, they quickly spread throughout the Roman Empire, reaching Gaul and even Britain in the West within a century of the time of Jesus. They journeyed east to Syria, Armenia, Parthia, and eventually Sogdia, India, and China. They moved south through Egypt into Nubia and Ethiopia, as well as throughout the Arabian peninsula. Finally, they also moved north, into the territories of the Germanic tribes of Europe. Whether they emigrated from the place of their birth for economic, religious, or other reasons, their freedom to travel and to settle where they liked was rarely questioned. Even the Zoroastrian kings of the Parthian and Sassanian Persian Empires allowed them to settle in their lands without severe restriction. From the point of view of Christian missions, what would have been the effect on the spread of the gospel had immigration restrictions been in effect in the ancient world?

This critique of both current and proposed American immigration policy does not imply that immigration restrictions are only a recent problem or that other countries throughout the world do not have similar, and often worse, immigration restrictions. I would argue, however, that the nation that likes to think of itself as the only remaining superpower, as the most powerful economic machine the world has ever seen, and as a beacon for democracy and freedom should have the most liberal and enlightened immigration policies in the world. The great melting pot, the nation whose Statue of Liberty cries out, "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free," must continue to welcome foreigners to its shores or fail to live up to its own hype.

Most importantly from a Christian perspective, followers of Jesus should be on the forefront of this debate, arguing strongly for policies that show God's love for both the alien among us and the would-be immigrant who longs to sample the milk and honey that our land has to offer. We must lead our nation to open our hearts, and our borders, to those who would enter to lead productive lives. If we do, together we will build a stronger America.

© Copyright 2006, Progressive Theology

Progressive Theology