A story in the New York Times late last week highlighted an interesting phenomenon: in Arizona, where more than 70,000 acres of national forest have been burned by a wildfire, many are certain that undocumented immigrants are to blame. In fact, the rumor has spread as quickly as the wildfire that an immigrant started the fire on purpose, despite any evidence to suspect that.
In reality, as the article points out, the National Forest Service is still investigating how the fire might have began, and Ranger Bill Edwards notes that four other recent wildfires set in the border region were found to be caused by US citizens:
One was caused by a rancher whose welding created a spark that ignited the dry underbrush, he said. Another was found to have been caused by target shooters. In two cases, he said, military aircraft engaged in training exercises set off fires.
It is possible that the fire was started by an immigrant—immigrants crossing the border illegally in this region do sometimes start fires to keep warm—but the certainty expressed by so many without any specific evidence is illustrative of a larger trend in our society.
In Leviticus 16, we read about how God established the Day of Atonement for the Israelites. On that day, the High Priest, Aaron, was to designate a goat to bear the sins of the people:
When Aaron has finished making atonement for the Most Holy Place, the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall bring forward the live goat. He is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites—all their sins—and put them on the goat’s head. He shall send the goat away into the wilderness in the care of someone appointed for the task. The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a remote place; and the man shall release it in the wilderness. (Leviticus 16:20-22)
We don’t practice animal sacrifices anymore, but we’ve found new scapegoats. Immigrants—particularly undocumented immigrants—serve that role particularly well for some Americans, giving us someone to rail against righteously while absolving ourselves of responsibility for our society’s problems. For some, immigrants are the cause of our national economic challenges, our states’ fiscal crises, and even the subprime mortgage crisis. Many blame immigrants for crime, drugs, and gangs. Others blame them for the high cost of health care. They’re responsible for overcrowding in schools and hospitals, some say, and why your daughter did not get accepted into the college of her choice, and why your husband has been unemployed for six months. Some even fault immigrants for the burgeoning obesity epidemic, cruelty toward animals, bed bug infestations, and swine flu. I could go on. (I haven’t included hyperlinks to each of these rumors, because I don’t want to be responsible for propagating them, but you can very easily find each of these ideas with a simple Google search).
If Al Gore wants to change the minds of the approximately one third of the American people who do not believe that global climate change is occurring, perhaps he should start the rumor that it is caused by illegal immigration. (Oh wait, a Google search reveals that, too, is already in circulation).
The problem, from a Christian perspective, with these rumors is that they are unproven, at best, and verifiably false, at worst. For example, repeated studies find that immigrants have significantly lower crime rates than US citizens. Economists are in near universal agreement that they have been very good for the economy as a whole, and the Republican comptroller of Texas found that the many undocumented immigrants in her state had paid in more than they’d taken out, resulting in a net benefit to the state’s fiscal health.
The Bible has a word for saying disparaging things about a person that are not true: it’s called slander, and it’s quite clearly a sin (Leviticus 19:16, Matthew 15:19, Ephesians 4:31, Titus 3:2). We need to be careful not to presume the worst about people, or to accuse them of wrongdoing without carefully investigating and confirming the facts.
The good news for those of us guilty of slander is that “people can be forgiven all their sins and every slander they utter” because Jesus bore our sins—slander included—in his death on the cross, serving as the ultimate Scapegoat (Mark 3:28). We need to confess that sin, though, and then, as forgiven people, to “go and sin no more” (John 8:11)—and to lovingly challenge our brothers and sisters when we hear them slandering others.
[Update, August 26, 2011]: Two individuals have now been charged with accidentally starting the wildfire under question. They do not appear to be undocumented immigrants.]
Matthew Soerens is the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009) and the US Church Training Specialist at World Relief. His blogs appear here on Mondays.
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