04 April 2012

Loving the Strangers Among Us - Part 4: The Identity Argument

Joel, the Nicaraguan boy my parents sponsor with his friends
This is part 4 of a 5 part series that theologically critiques the perceptions that underlie the U.S. immigration issue. This third part analyzes the American identity argument prevalent in the United States and critiques it Biblically/theologically.
Read part one here
Read part two here
Read part three here


Argument Three – Undocumented Immigrants Threaten Our Identity

“We send troops thousands of miles away to fight terrorists, but we refuse to put them on our own border to keep them out. We will never be able to win in the clash of civilizations if we don’t know who we are. If Western civilization succumbs to the siren cong of multiculturalism, I believe we’re finished.” [1]

The more foreigners who come to the United States, the more the culture of the United States changes. As any sociologist will tell you, people are resilient to change. We like our world to remain constant. Consistency assures us of our identity. With thousands of undocumented immigrants coming into our country each year, we have grown wary of change and often view their cultural identities a threat to our own. According to the Migration Policy Institute, 76% of undocumented immigrants come from Hispanic countries in North America. A high 78% of these come from Mexico.[2] To many Caucasian Americans and African Americans, this is too much change!

This influx of undocumented immigrants has raised many significant questions about the concept of national identity. What does it mean to be an American? Who can be a part of this identity? Many Americans do not want Hispanics to be a part of their nationalistic identity. Samuel Huntington, for instance, accuses Hispanics of being unwilling to assimilate, become citizens, or to set aside their cultures, languages, and customs. He maintains that the heart of American’s national identity is Anglo-Protestant beliefs and values, which includes the English language and Western European culture.[3] Strangely, though, Huntington views undocumented immigration as a positive shaper of American culture because it unites Americans against an enemy. He writes, “If external threats subside, deconstructionist movements could achieve renewed momentum.”[4] In other words, the meaning of American identity is already under attack internally due to multiculturalism. Americans thus need an external enemy (i.e., undocumented immigrants) to maintain our identity. This gives us a common creed that unites us, whereas multicultural creates multi-creeds, which tears us apart.

In his book In Mortal Danger, Colorado congressman Tom Tancredo raises his concerns about undocumented immigrants’ negative contributions to American society. They not only hurt our public services, but they participate in gangs and drug trafficking. Victor Davis Hanson, too, has issued grievances against undocumented immigrants. He nicknames his home state of California as “Mexifornia,” claiming that the multiculturalism there makes governing California difficult. He accuses undocumented immigrants of viewing themselves as victimized, which has further created “tribalism.”[5]

Many of these ideas have come to fruition through recent laws that have been passed that restrict undocumented immigrants in Arizona and Alabama. Within the past 2 years, both states issued laws that immigrants must carry their required documents on them at all times. Government officials are free to question anyone’s legal status and detain those who are not able to present documentation. Further, those who aid undocumented immigrants by providing housing, employment, or transportation are in violation of the law. Ironically, these increased restrictions have actually isolated them more, forcing them to become a separate sub-culture. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Theologian Vinoth Ramachandra reflects on the inconsistencies in American culture regarding this issue. He writes that, due to technological advances, “globalization and the idea of a global village are being constantly touted, [but] national borders in rich nations have been vigorously reasserted and fortified to keep out refugees and undesirable immigrants.”[6] We applaud the idea of being technologically connected to people in a global scope. We want to be able to transfer money to someone in Japan, video chat with a business partner in India, but as soon as foreigners show up in our back yard we do not want them here. What kind of values are we attaching to being “American” that we do not want others to be a part of it?

Yet, Americans are resistant to deem this kind of exclusion as racism. We claim that it is not based on their race, but based on their status. Although this distinction seems clear, the escalating discrimination against undocumented immigrants has blurred the two lines. We may dislike undocumented immigrants on the ground of their legal status, but this dislike has stereotyped the ones we are feeling threatened by. We have become to associate undocumented immigration with the Hispanic race, and this has created racial profiling and racial discrimination. 
It also affects how we perceive those in the country legally. Thousands of Hispanics, including legal residents of the U.S., have fled Arizona and Alabama out of fear of discrimination.[7] An owner of a deli shop in Alabama, for instance, spoke out against the fear his Hispanic workers felt from the recent rulings. Although his employees had shown proper documentation prior to their hiring, the deli owner was verbally attacked by the community for being “un-American.”[8] Perhaps we are reluctant to think of this issue as racism because Americans typically associate race as having to do with the color of a person’s skin, not as having to do with the legal status stereotyped by a certain race.

In New Testament times, the dominant culture was prejudice against people called barbaroi, the Greek word from whence we get our word for “barbarian.” The word barbaroi referred to a non-Greek speakers and was an onomatopoeia. Their “primitive” languages sounded like “bar bar bar” to Greek speakers, hence why they were characterized by this name. Like undocumented immigrants today, these kinds of people were seen as “foreign invaders.” They were viewed as uncultured and unintelligent. They were looked upon with scorn because they did not assimilate with the dominant Greek culture.[9]

Paul makes a profound statement about the barbaroi when he includes them in his list of people who are “one in Christ” (Col. 3:11). The “barbarians” were not to be seen as inferior or as less than human. They were the majority culture’s equals, and the Christians thus had the responsibility to welcome them into their communities. Christians should not fear “threats” of other cultures, for our identity resides within Christ. If anything, we should embrace other cultures and people groups and be inclusive of them in our communities, as this is a complete picture of what God’s kingdom looks like. 

[1] Tom Tancredo, U.S. Representative of Colorado at the Family Research Council event in April 2006. Qtd. in Soerens, Matthew and Jenny Hwang, pg. 93. 
[2] Schildkraut, Deborah J., Americanism in the Twenty-First Century, pg. 3
[3] Who Are We?
[4] Ibid., pg. 177.
[5] Carroll R., Christians at the Border, pg. 42.
[6] Subverting Global Myths, pg. 113.
[7] Epstein, Reid J., “Hispanics Flee From New Alabama Immigration Law,” .
[8] Jamieson, Dave. “Alabama Immigration Law: Deli Owner Defends Documented Latinos, Receives Boycott Threats,” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/20/alabama-immigration-law-deli owner_n_1022535.html?ir=Latino+Voices.
[9] Witherington, “Lecture on Acts 28.”

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