30 March 2012

Loving The Strangers Among Us - Part 1

A young girl outside her home in La Carbonara, Nicaragua
This is part 1 of a 5 part series that theologically critiques the perceptions that underlie the U.S. immigration issue. Immigrants have long been a people group that I am very passionate about. This first part explains why immigration is important to me and why Christians should be thinking Biblically about this issue. The subsequent parts delve into the American perceptions that govern the issue and discuss 1) if they are accurate, 2) if they are Biblical.

"I'm going to cut it open."

The first person who had the audacity to say such a thing changed the course of medical history forever. It was one thing to observe the external symptoms of the body, but to actually cut an incision and take a look at the internal composition of a human? What a brave idea! For thousands of years people had wondered what it was that lay beneath the skin. Many speculated about the inner workings of the body, but it was not until the Renaissance period that physicians began to cut open human bodies for examination on a regular basis. This revolution in medical practice dispelled misconceptions about the human anatomy and created the foundation for future medicinal discovery.

The current issues about undocumented immigration within the United States are topics that are frequently discussed, but few have had the courage to really “cut them open.” It is a very complex issue, and it is much easier to parrot what the politicians and the media are saying about it than to carefully analyze the various perceptions surrounding the issue. ‎John Dewey correctly noted that the “ability to repeat catch-phrases, cant terms, familiar propositions, gives the conceit of learning and coats the mind with varnish, waterproof to new ideas."[1] In order to understand the immigration issue, then, we must refrain from reductionistic tendencies and be open to reasoning that transcends the external, basic presuppositions. This calls for an analysis that is both deeply theological and deeply consistent with higher critical skills.

Let’s cut it open.

Why the Issue Matters

I did not know too much about immigration until I was exposed to it in a context outside my own country. At the age of 16, I traveled to Costa Rica, where my home church sought to experience, understand, and address the increased immigration of Nicaraguans to San Jose. We visited a slum in the capital where impoverished Nicaraguans had flocked. I was surprised at the very negative attitudes that the majority of the Costa Ricans had toward the Nicaraguan immigrants. They blamed them for taking their resources and lowering their standard of living. This was my first exposure to such an intense form of poverty and my heart was broken. These living conditions were better than the home they had left behind? How could the dominant culture have no compassion for them?

In response, my home church began sponsoring a small community in Nicaragua through child sponsorships, micro loans and building projects. I had the honor of traveling to the little village to meet the people so we could learn how we could assist them better. I witnessed with my own eyes the reasons why they were traveling to Costa Rica for a “better” life. I also learned why it was so attractive for them to come to the United States undocumented. The U.S. government does not grant visas to people who come from impoverished countries because there is a strong chance that they will overstay their visa. This is the most common way that people come to the U.S. illegally. The desperate Nicaraguans could try to come to the U.S. the legal way, but they knew they would be rejected and would still have to pay the expensive fee of about $100 for applying. For families that only make $1 a day, risking their lives to cross a border illegally is a much better option than trying the legal way, which leads to inevitable rejection and penalization.

I write all this not as an anecdote to my argument, but as an effort to place a human face on the issue. The immigration debate is not an impersonal issue; neither is it an issue that affects only U.S. citizens. This issue affects countless families living inside and outside the U.S. As we participate in the debate, we must seek to love both God and our neighbors as ourselves.

Perceptions are powerful. Perceptions are behind our every single conviction, action, and word. They are what make us say the things we say, do the things we do, consciously and subconsciously. Most of the time we do not even realize it. The perceptions that underlie the immigration issue in the U.S. are pervasive. It may seem like the reasons people have for being opposed to undocumented immigrants are just as they appear. For the most part, there are powerful ideas behind these reasons that dictate these responses. Instead of taking the rationales at face value, the various perceptions that underlie them must be analyzed and addressed. Although there are many complaints against undocumented immigration, the majority of complaints fall into one of three categories: legality, economy, or American identity. Each of these areas will be discussed, focusing on the specific perceptions that govern them. The legitimacy of each argument will be scrutinized. Finally, and most importantly, theological implications will be probed. It will be demonstrated that all of the categories in some way idolize a certain value, whether it be the law, money, or nationalism.

For the sake of this series, I will be focusing primarily on Hispanic undocumented immigrants. Not only do they make up the largest percentage of undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S., but they are the demographic with the most negative perceptions attached to them. It is estimated that the Hispanic population within the U.S. has increased to over 40 million, accounting for about half of the growth since 2000.[2] Although Hispanics make up over 14% of the population, it is unknown how many of these Hispanics are undocumented. Estimates range between 12-20 million.[3]

For semantic reasons, I will be referring to those who are here in the U.S. without proper legal documentation as “undocumented immigrants.” Different words, such as “illegal” and “aliens,” connote different meanings. The most common designation for immigrants without paperwork is “illegal immigrants.” The problem with this label is that it groups immigrants into a category with other crimes, such as stealing and murder. By avoiding this name, I am not implying that undocumented immigrants are here “legally,” as they have obviously broken U.S. law. This does, however, provide a safeguard from associating Hispanic immigrants with other crimes which further adds stigma and fear. Similarly, the term “alien” conjectures up thoughts of immigrants as being strange or otherworldly. Like the term “illegal,” the name “alien” creates a perception that is neither constructive nor accurate. Thus, “undocumented immigrants” will be the name of choice, as it is reflective of what the people in discussion are – immigrants who do not have proper documentation of U.S. citizenship.

Continue to Part 2: The Legality Argument

[1] Dewey, John, How We Think, pg. 177.
[2] Carroll M., Christians at the Border, 40.
[3] Ibid., 40.


Rich said...

Christina, This is a topic that Christ has been speaking to me about for a few year now. I think we as Christians are in an identity crisis. We are to find our identity in Christ. too often we put our "American values" above our Christians ones. It is especially hard for me because I am a veteran. But Christ calls us to love others and that is what I want to do above all else.

Christina said...

Hey Rich, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I, too, struggle with this dilemma, because my American citizenship certainly does shape/inform many of my worldviews -- some which are good, others which are in conflict with Scripture. May God give us the undivided hearts that are required when seeking first his kingdom and his righteousness above all else.