Next spring, I’ll be speaking for the second consecutive year on the topic of immigration at The Justice Conference, joined by other Christian justice advocates like Francis Chan, Walter Brueggemann, Miroslav Volf, and Lynne Hybels. Increasingly, I’ve noticed evangelicals grounding their concern for immigrants in an appeal to justice, with a sensitivity to the fact that most white evangelicals like me were absent from the Civil Rights Movement of the last century. At that time, many white Christians allowed a cultural narrative and a fear of rocking the boat to prevent us from following God’s commands to seek justice; we do not want to make the same mistake our parents and grandparents made in the 1950s and 1960s.
The counter-response to that perspective, though, is that the immigration situation in the United States today is very different than the (now obvious) injustices of legalized segregation and discrimination. A lot of folks do not see how the situations in which undocumented immigrants find themselves could possibly be “the great justice issue of our time” as African-American evangelical leader and civil rights activist John Perkins recently proclaimed. After all, undocumented immigrants, unlike the enslaved ancestors of the African-Americans who suffered under Jim Crow laws in the South, chose voluntarily to come to the United States unlawfully or to violate the terms of their temporary visa (in most cases—though we should not be too quick to recognize the disturbing commonality of involuntary or coerced migration in the form of human trafficking). If they don’t like the way they are treated here, some would say, they should go home; they should not be here anyway.
I do not find it useful to rank or compare different issues—and I believe there are many, many issues of justice beyond immigration that the church needs to engage in our time—but I do believe that our current immigration system is rife with injustice, and that our society needs the moral voice of the Church to call our legislators to do what is right. Let me explain:
I do not believe it is unjust for a nation to have borders to and restrict who comes in and who goes out. I’m not sure that the current visa system—which is so limited as to make it impossible for most who would come to the US to do low-wage labor to enter lawfully, unless they happen to have a close family member who is a US citizen or Lawful Permanent Resident—is inherently unjust. I think it is illogical for a nation that would like its economy to grow, but if we wanted to restrict immigration tightly as our laws currently do and then, as a society, pay the economic costs for that position, it might be justifiable: foolish, but not necessarily unjust.
The injustice within our current system comes from the fact that we’re not willing to pay the costs, so we have allowed a duplicitous system to develop informally, mocking what the law says. We want people here to work, because there are simply not enough American citizens to do the hard work at relatively low wages that keeps our economy growing, which in turn allows us to consume cheap produce and meat, afford ambitious new construction projects, and look out our office windows at beautifully manicured lawns. If we actually enforced our current immigration laws fully, we would have to pay American workers much, much more to do the jobs that immigrants currently do—and the price might go up so high that we would have to forego those benefits altogether.
So instead, as a society, we’ve allowed conflicting messages: what Catholic Cardinal Roger Mahoney says is a “NO TRESPASSING” sign right next to the “HELP WANTED” sign. Though the southern border is much more secure now, for many years it was not, and it’s still extraordinarily easy to overstay a temporary visa without consequence. We make it easy to work unlawfully—the Social Security card, as I’ve observed elsewhere, looks like it was made with blue construction paper and a typewriter, rather than the more secure documentation that we employ for driver’s licenses or passports—and we seldom penalize employers who violate the law by hiring, focusing instead upon desperate immigrant workers, whose extreme poverty in their countries of origin– which compelled them to migrate- was, in some cases, tied to U.S. agricultural or trade policies.
When we do—selectively—enforce the law, it is with a heavy-handedness disproportionate to the offense. “They chose to break the law” does not mean that any penalty we can imagine is necessarily just, just as the death penalty would not be a just response to a traffic violation.
Pedro Guzman’s story is an example of this sort of injustice. Pedro was brought unlawfully to the U.S. when he was just 8 years old from Guatemala, a country that at the time was in the midst of a civil war that the CIA helped to initiate. Pedro grew up in the U.S., married an American citizen, and had a son. But a few years ago, when Pedro’s mother tried to apply for a green card—trying to get right with the law—it triggered a situation that led to Pedro’s arrest and detention for more than 18 months in a privately-operated detention facility in rural Lumpkin, Georgia—a nine hour drive for his family to visit—with cramped conditions inferior to those of a prison. So that Pedro could be detained and separated from (and not allowed to work to support) his wife and child, the US taxpayer paid (on average) $122 per night to a private corporation (that private corporation, not surprisingly, also “invests” a lot of money in lobbying legislators to detain more and more immigrants; a new proposal in the House of Representatives sponsored by a legislator who received campaign donations from the corporation would seek to expand the number of immigrants held in detention).
I wish that Pedro’s case was the rare exception, but I’ve encountered many immigrants with similar stories. Pedro’s presence in the United States was unlawful; his mother’s legal status in the U.S. may have lapsed at one point, and I think it may be appropriate for her to pay a fine for that offense. What our society does instead is unjust on many levels, and we need the voice of the Church to, as God challenged governmental leaders through the prophet Isaiah, “stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice” (Isaiah 1:16-17).
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 previous role at World Relief was as a BIA-accredited Immigration Legal Counselor. His blogs appear here on Mondays.
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