Confession: I came up with the idea for this blog while driving down Interstate 88 at approximately 72 miles per hour, 17 miles faster than the lawful speed limit.  I am an illegal driver.

When I was in high school—with a new driver’s license and a youthful eagerness to understand and obey the Bible—I actually resolved not to speed.  At all.  I read Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 and discovered the clear biblical principle that, as a Christian, I am to heed the laws of the governing authorities.  The State of Wisconsin said the speed limit on the highway was 65 miles per hour. While I recognized  Scripture does make provision for civil disobedience when a law is unjust—when Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are told to bow to an idol (Daniel 3) or when Peter defies commands to stop preaching the gospel, saying  “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29)—I could not come up with any reasonable moral justification for me to exceed the speed limit.  Speed limits are established to maintain order and protect human life. So long as I was not rushing to the hospital to save someone’s life, I resolved to strictly abide by the speed limit.  I don’t want to falsely claim that I never sped, but I genuinely tried not to do so, and my conscience struck me if I did.

It didn’t take me long after moving to Illinois before I gave up on my commitment to fully obey the law, because it sure seemed like the government didn’t really mean those laws.  When laws go unenforced, or are enforced only very selectively, they start to lose their meaning.  I’m not sure that this exempts me from the biblical responsibility to submit to governmental authorities (I may stand before the Lord some day for each time I’ve gone 56 miles per hour or more on I-355), but it does serve to illustrate one of the fundamental problems with our immigration laws.

Our immigration laws have similarly lost their meaning.  Most Americans never have reason to interact with our immigration laws, so they have no realization as to what they actually say.  As someone whose professional training is in understanding the Immigration and Nationality Act and helping immigrants to understand that rights and responsibilities under the law, I can tell you it’s entirely dysfunctional.  For decades now, no Administration, whether Republican or Democratic, has ever seriously considered fully enforcing the law, any more than the Illinois State Police contemplate giving a speeding ticket to everyone going 56 miles per hour.

Take our employment-based immigration system, for example: we allow in, at most, 5,000 employer-sponsored immigrants per year who do not classify as “highly-skilled.” This is just a tiny fraction of the workers our labor market needs in “low-skilled” fields like agriculture and hospitality. Employers and unauthorized immigrant workers alike have presumed that, by its non-enforcement, the federal government meant to say they didn’t really mean those laws.  The duplicity of our federal government—with one hand (the Department of Homeland Security) telling folks that it’s illegal to be present and to work while on the other hand (the Internal Revenue Service) makes special ways for them to pay taxes without a Social Security number (and promises not to tell the Department of Homeland Security)—makes this presumption seem fairly reasonable, and the law has effectively lost its meaning.

How do we get ourselves out of this mess, and honor the rule of law as Scripture commands us?  I propose  we should raise the speed limit to 75 miles per hour—then seriously ticket people who go 76 miles per hour.  Eventually, people would learn these are serious laws, in place for a reason.  Similarly, I propose we create functional legal mechanisms to allow in the workers in whom our economy relies upon (with their families), then we strictly enforce a law (against both employers and employees) that says if you’re not authorized to work, there are strict penalties for offering or accepting employment.  Since they’re not eligible for public benefits to otherwise sustain them, very few would-be immigrants will even attempt to come once they understand the jobs are all filled (only, perhaps, those fleeing violence, who in many cases could apply for asylum under current law).

For those already here unlawfully, who have presumed we weren’t serious about our immigration laws, I think we should require them to pay a reasonable fine. This would help communicate that the law does matter, especially from here on out. It would then allow them to earn permanent legal status if they can show  they can stay out of trouble, support their families, pay taxes, and work toward learning English, which are all things most are already doing.  Eventually, presuming they can pass the English and civics exam and meet all other requirements, they’d be eligible to apply for citizenship.  This would allow them to integrate fully into our society and avoid a situation of isolated, permanently-second-class people (we’ve tried that before in the U.S.: it was called slavery and then Jim Crow, and it was a bad idea).

That’s the equivalent of fining everyone who has ever sped down the highway—which would probably upset most Americans, even still.  But it’s much fairer than the extreme and cruel reaction of deporting people who have been here, in many cases, for decades (61% of undocumented immigrants have been here for at least 10 years).  That would be equivalent of taking away my driver’s license for having sped for so many years.  It simply wouldn’t be fair to not enforce the law for so long and then, overnight, to decide to remove the license of anyone who goes 56 miles per hour or more.

That sort of a reasonable, middle-of-the-road response to immigration—making it easier to immigrate legally and then strictly enforcing laws that make it illegal to enter, overstay a visa, or work illegally, while requiring those already here unlawfully to pay a fine and earn legal status—is precisely what is meant by Comprehensive Immigration Reform. This is the policy that both President Bush and President Obama have advocated but which Congress has been, thus far, unwilling to implement. Some politicians (even as recently as the recent Republican presidential primary debates) disingenuously call such a policy “amnesty.”  They seem to prefer the winking-and-nodding system of non-enforcement, which actually mocks the rule of law.  Christians who believe in Romans 13’s injunction to be subject to the rule of law should demand better of our elected officials (go ahead and click the link to contact your legislators).


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. 

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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2 Responses to Speed Trap Ahead

  1. Kevin Sheehan says:

    You’ve said this well. It is strange to allow our economy to rely on a system we don’t technically endorse. I’ve often wondered what would happen if a bunch of people all conspired to go no faster than 55 on the Chicago Tollway when the flow of traffic is at 70.

    I’m curious…what do you think of Newt Gingrich’s immigration proposal?

    • I think Newt Gingrich’s proposal is the most reasonable thing anyone in the GOP presidential field has said in a debate, and he deserves credit for saying it. I might quibble with some details–I don’t think it’s in our interest to let certain people have legal status but forbid them from ever naturalizing, as it inhibits full integration and keeps certain people as a permanent sub-class–but it’s far more reasonable than what anyone else is saying (though I think Jon Huntsman, though I haven’t seen him address it as directly as Mr. Gingrich in the debates, is also pretty reasonable on this; Mitt Romney and Rick Perry both have been reasonable in the past but have now gone way to the other side)

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