The questions surrounding immigration policy have sparked an intense debate across the United States, including in North Carolina, where I live and work. Society remains divided on specific policies, but we also remain divided about some of the even bigger questions. For example, what does it mean to be “American”? Are immigrants generally intruders to be feared or new neighbors to be welcomed? And what values should our immigration policies reflect? This debate, in part, is about who “they” are and who “we” are.
One common assumption that underlies much of the current debate is the notion that immigration is the problem. In fact, immigration itself is merely a “symptom” caused by other factors. “Poverty, injustice and armed conflict displace millions of people across the globe… These include economic migrants compelled to move to provide for their families, refugees and internally displaced persons fleeing persecution, and victims of human trafficking. The vast majority are economic migrants who have few options to remain in their countries of origin.” Many people have observed that there are both factors that “push” migrants from their home countries and factors that “pull” or attract potential immigrants to other nations (including, but not exclusively, the U.S. and Europe). In addition to the push factors of poverty, injustice, and lack of jobs, pull factors include readily available jobs, educational opportunities, and the dream of a better life for one’s family.
Immigrants today are often portrayed as being fundamentally different from Americans. Some editorials repeatedly assert that our grandparents, in contrast to today’s immigrants, did things the “right” way; some cable news hosts say that current immigrants are just looking for handouts; some sheriffs promote the view that all undocumented people are criminals. When these myths are perpetuated, it becomes all too easy to see immigrants as other, as “aliens.” But immigrants are really ordinary people who happened to be born into places of war, famine, or dire economic circumstances.
Over the last 50 years, immigration laws have become increasingly strict. In the past, many waves of immigrants passed relatively freely through ports of entry such as Ellis Island. Since the U.S. has tightened its borders, most of these same families would be turned away today. The reality is that for most would-be immigrants, and nearly all of the world’s poor, there simply is no “line” to go stand in to enter the U.S. through legal channels.
Immigrant communities throughout North Carolina are living increasingly in a state of fear and insecurity due to programs such as “287(g),” in which local law enforcement agencies are actively enforcing federal immigration laws. These programs have led to the deportation of several thousand undocumented immigrants from North Carolina. Nationwide, a recent study found that “for every two immigrants apprehended, one child was left behind. This suggests that potentially thousands of children have been separated from their parents as a result of recent immigration enforcement activities, and literally millions more may be at risk.” This study reached the conclusion that “Surely Americans should be concerned when one of the effects of enforcing the law is that school systems and child care providers must prepare for the likelihood of substantial numbers of their children being left without care, without warning.”
The Major Cities Chiefs—a national organization of police chiefs—note that “Immigration enforcement by local police would likely negatively effect and undermine the level of trust and cooperation between local police and immigrant communities.” This is exactly what has happened across North Carolina. Last year, a woman was detained by the Iredell Sheriff’s Department and turned over to immigration officials for deportation when she called for help after being assaulted by her American husband. The sheriff decided to turn the woman over for deportation even after a judge ordered her released, knowing that she was eligible for legal status in the United States. In Wake County, a man was recently arrested and turned over to immigration officials after calling 911 to report a robbery in his home. These examples illustrate how local enforcement of immigration law severs the bond of trust between entire communities and law enforcement officials. This loss of trust in turn threatens the safety of everyone since immigrants become less likely to report crimes and to serve as witnesses.
Churches from across North Carolina are joining together to address these issues. Our challenge is to respond to the immigrants arriving in our state with welcome, seeking to love these new neighbors as God has commanded us, both in the ways that we interact interpersonally and in the public policies that we pursue.
Chris Liu-Beers, a graduate of Duke Divinity School, has been working with the North Carolina Council of Churches since 2006. His commitment to immigrant rights, sustainability and social justice has been shaped in part by studying abroad in Jerusalem, Israel and Zacatecas, Mexico. As Program Associate, Chris works on immigration and farmworker-related advocacy, rural life issues, and the Council’s worship resources.
Please note that the views expressed do not necessarily represent those of everyone associated with G92 or any institutions with which the blogger may be affiliated.
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