30 March 2012

Loving the Strangers Among Us - Part 2: The Legality Argument

Nicaraguan women at their village well 
This is part 2 of a 5 part series that theologically critiques the perceptions that underlie the U.S. immigration issue. This second part analyzes the "legality" argument and critiques it Biblically/theologically.

Read part one here

Argument One – Undocumented Immigrants are Breaking the Law

We deport. We decide. Get in line like my grandparents. Period.” [1]

One main argument against undocumented immigrants is based on the status of their legality. Since undocumented immigrants have trespassed on U.S. soil, they are in violation of breaking U.S. law. They should therefore be viewed and tried as criminals. In response to a Yahoo news article on the subject of immigration, one reader replied that “[…] anyone that breaks the law should be punished […] I believe that people that steal, rob, murder, drink and drive and break other laws should be punished. I also believe that people that hire illegal immigrants should be punished, as well as people harboring other law-breakers (of all laws and types). I believe in the rule of law.”

Many people who hold this perspective wonder why it is that Hispanics do not simply come to the U.S. the legal way. Other immigrants are capable of receiving proper documentation and obtaining citizenship. Those who come here illegally should just “get in line” and come the legal way. At a debate about immigration policies in 2006, U.S. Representative James Sensenbrenner commented that “American citizenship is priceless and it ought to be done the legal way just like my ancestors did.”[3] Americans across the country have echoed similar responses.

The problem with this reasoning is that immigration policies have radically changed since many of our ancestors immigrated to the U.S. over 100 years ago. For our American ancestors, however, there was no illegal way. There were no visas, no green cards, no U.S. consulates. You literally boarded a ship and traveled to the United States in order to build a new life. It would probably have been more difficult to come illegally than it would have been to come legally!

This all changed when the Chinese Exclusion Act was instated in 1882. Immigrants from Asia were excluded from entering the U.S. because they were seen as inferior. Females were especially seen as “suspicious” because they could bear children that would gain citizenship under the 14th Amendment. Ironically, the Chinese Exclusion Act paved the way for Hispanic immigration. Since there was a higher labor demand, employers hired undocumented Hispanics who were seeking safety from the Mexican Revolution in 1910-1917. In the 1920s, the Quota Act and the Johnson-Reed Act were instated to bar certain European ethnicities from entering the United States. The Irish and Italians were seen as educationally and culturally inferior, as well as a drain on the economy. Plus, a majority of them were Catholic, which was thought to be a threat to the American ethos.Over the next four decades, immigration laws gradually excluded more people groups, such as the poor, the sick, the uneducated, and those suspected of holding controversial ideologies (particularly Communism). This exclusion continued until 1965, when President Johnson signed a new law that enabled people to immigrate based on their employability and family ties, not based on race or ethnicity.

However, the employment-based immigration system does not offer as many visas as there are “low-skilled” jobs available. We can tell people to wait their turn to immigrate legally, but if someone does not already have a relative living here legally they will never get a turn, not if they wait 10 years, 30 years, or even 50 years. This, in short, is why people who are living in poverty have chosen to immigrate illegally. Telling them that they should simply immigrate the “legal way” is an oversimplification of the issue.
Another problem with the legality perspective is that it tends to idolize the law. In this perception, the United States’ law is viewed as flawless and absolute. Those who hold this perspective do not question the legitimacy or truthfulness of the law. To them, the issue is simple and “black and white”: the law says coming here without documentation is wrong, so it is wrong.

[A comic I created summarizing the history of immigration]

This argument for the supremacy of the law is particularly one of the most frequent arguments that Christians raise against the issue. Drawing from Romans 13:1-7, they argue that God put the government in place and it is the responsibility for Christians to obey it. We are not to question the laws that our country creates, because the governing officials are given authority from God. This logic is very dangerous for many reasons, not just for the immigration debate.

Unfortunately, this is a poor interpretation of this Scripture passage. As with all Scripture, passages are meant to be read within its larger context. Verses are not isolated segments, meant to be read independently of the passages that precede and follow it. In chapter 12, Paul discusses just how it is that the Roman Christians he is addressing can discern God’s will. “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world,” he writes, “but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (12:2). After our minds are transformed, we can understand God’s will. Unfortunately, many English translations do not accurately encompass the meaning of the latter half of 12:2. The NIV, for instance, translates the adjectives “good, pleasing, and perfect” as modifiers of “God’s will.” A better translation from the Greek reads as follows: “[…] so that you may be able to prove what God’s will is – that which is good, pleasing, and perfect.”

English translations (NIV, KJV, ASV, etc)
“God’s will is good, pleasing, and perfect.”
“God’s will is that which is good, pleasing, and perfect.”

Although these translation differences may be subtle, they make a significant difference in how we should understand the nature of God’s will. Are things “good” because God declares that they are “good?” Or can things be “good” in themselves, and God affirms and delights in their “goodness?”[4] In light of Romans 12:2, the latter is the best understanding of God’s will. We can know that things are within God’s will for humankind and creation because they are in accordance with his goodness and perfection.It should not be assumed, then, that the various laws governing immigration are in accordance with God’s will. Although they may be given authority by God, governments are fallible and often make laws that stand in opposition to God’s character. Theologian John Yoder writes the following concerning Romans 13:

The Christian who accepts his subjection to government retains his moral independence and judgment. The authority of government is not self-justifying. Whatever government exists is ordered by God; but the text does not say that whatever the government does or asks of its citizens is good.[5]

Relying on the law as an absolute entity can be an excuse not to strive to discern God’s will. It is much easier to accept all laws as “good” than it is to do the hard work of probing deeper into the nature of God and his plan for the world. It we want to understand and do God’s will, though, we have to open to the idea that the current laws concerning immigration are not “good, pleasing, and perfect.” Human laws are not the source of our allegiance; God’s will is. Ultimately, we are to “obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

Continue to Part 3: The Economic Argument

[1] A response to a news article articulating why undocumented immigrants are not welcome in the U.S. http://news.yahoo.com/why-gop-demonizes-illegals-055000771.html
[2] http://news.yahoo.com/why-gop-demonizes-illegals-055000771.html
[3] qtd. in Soerens, Hwang, Welcoming the Stranger , pg. 64
[4] This follows suit with Aquinas’ philosophical conundrum about how we should understand the “goodness” of natural law.
[5] The Politics of Jesus, p. 207.


Kris said...

I'm interested to see where this goes. Admittedly the US immigration policy is pretty selective. It's sad that our country is constantly rejecting families who could make a positive impact if they were allowed to work, live and play in the US. I'd definitely agree that there needs to be reform, but I'm not sure the totally open door is the way to go. When our ancestors came there was no daunting burden on the citizen to supply them with the essentials (let alone the "additionals" that are included in our entitlement laws). It seems like immigration reform would have to be a small part in a larger picture regarding entitlement programs. Do we let those who are starving in Nicaragua starve here? How do we supply them with essentials while we're already struggling to balance a national budget? Then I have to ask if it's moral to legislate that those who currently live in the country are forced to have a greater tax burden to support others? I'm looking forward to how you examine the economic argument.

Christina said...

Kris, I certainly agree with you about having open borders. I think that borders are a good thing and am grateful for our country's security. I am praying and voting for reform, though, because the system in place is very, very broken.

The economic argument is by far the most complicated argument to absolve. You may be a bit disappointed with my response. My aim with these writings is not to provide a solution to the problems of immigration (as someone who has no experience with economics and policy making, I fear that that is beyond my abilities!). My aim is to critique the perceptions that Americans have of immigrants that already live here. There are many economic myths that surround immigration, most of which I'll tackle in the next part. I fear that we've made undocumented immigrants into scapegoats, blaming them at large for our current economic collapses, when they have contributed very little (if at all) to it.

Thanks for joining in on the conversation. I'm of course interested to hear more of your thoughts!

Steven said...

And then the devil's advocate has to state his case... I'll stay out of the political issue because of a oath I made to myself... however, your interpretation of Romans 12:2 is not a little unclear. Is your interpretation that things are good apart from God, i.e. that there is God and a class of things that are 'good'? Or is it that things are good which are part of God's will? Quoting you: "Are things “good” because God declares that they are “good?” Or can things be “good” in themselves, and God affirms and delights in their “goodness?”[4] In light of Romans 12:2, the latter is the best understanding of God’s will. We can know that things are within God’s will for humankind and creation because they are in accordance with his goodness and perfection."
you seem to be arguing for both things at the same time. "His goodness and perfection" seems to move back toward the God says what is good. Because if Good were a separate category, then goodness would be independent of God (which would be messy) but if God decides what is good then he becomes arbitrary (maybe... But still it is an argument).
Ultimately, none of this actually centers on the main point of the political question but as to the theological implications of your interpretation.

Christina said...

Ah, Aquinas' natural law conundrum. Does God command things, and they are thus good, or are things good, so God commands them? With your law background, I'm sure you are much more nuanced in this concept than I am. I am comfortable with Goodness being a separate reality/entity from God, but would argue that it is ultimately derivative of God. Separate, but certainly not autonomous. Therefore, God cannot call/create/affirm something "good" that is inconsistent with His own goodness.
Obviously, neither viewpoint is without its flaws. I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on this subject sometime, perhaps before a Hebrew class. :)