Saturday, June 05, 2010

How Should Christians View Immigration Reform?

In the wake of the passing of Arizona's recent immigration reform law, there has been an increased dialogue about how the rest of the country should handle immigration reform. Predictably, many conservatives favor tougher laws while liberals argue for a "kinder, gentler" approach to handling visitors from other countries.

For those of us that are Christians, how are we to respond to this pressing issue? Does the Bible give us possible answers to how we can engage this all-important topic? Although not specifically speaking to how the United States should handle foreigners, the Old Testament does address how the nation of Israel was to treat aliens among them. Rabbi Brad Hirschfield shares his perspective:
"The Hebrew Bible mentions obligations to so-called strangers on numerous occasions. The message is pretty much always the same and perhaps best summed up by the words of Leviticus 19:33-34: "When a stranger dwells among you in your land, do not taunt him. The stranger who dwells with you shall be like a native among you, and you shall love him like yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt--I am the Lord, your God."
But who that stranger is that deserves such equality and even love is not necessarily a parallel to the millions of people who cross our borders illegally every year. Or perhaps it is. The stranger of the Hebrew Bible is better understood as a resident alien, a non-citizen who agrees to abide by the laws of the community into which he or she has come. To that extent then, many if not most, illegal aliens in this country, would not qualify. On the other hand, there is no mention in the Bible of barriers to entry into the Israelite nation, so perhaps they do.
What seems clear from Scripture (that itself a complex claim) is that loose borders or barriers to entry are only reasonable if accompanied by quite strict rules about participation once having arrived in the new community. That means that neither side in the current debate really understands what the Hebrew Bible intended.
Conservatives, generally obsessed with the "inappropriateness of rewarding illegal immigrants with any of the benefits of American life", miss the fact that how someone came to join the Israelites had no bearing on their status within the community once they arrived. There really was a sense of community as sanctuary - precisely what those taking a hard line on immigration oppose.
Liberals, however, are just as wrong when insisting that biblical hospitality knows no bounds and asks no questions - that it was an unqualified right with no attached obligations. In fact, like all ancient sanctuaries, there were many rules to be followed and norms to be upheld. In other words, entry was open to all, and once in they were treated as equals, but demands were made and failing to meet those demands was grounds for exclusion from the community.
While other biblical texts and traditions could be introduced into the debate on immigration, based on those verses bearing directly on the issue, the path forward is actually pretty clear: how one got here is largely irrelevant, though the obligations that must be assumed in order to stay are significant.
Biblical "immigration policy" was not about maintaining the purity of the community or fear of withholding the benefits of membership, but it was quite clear about the obligations that needed to be met to enjoy the privileges (not rights) of such membership. It would be quite a step forward to see people actually look to that model for guidance instead of simply thumping their Bibles to prove that which they already believe anyway."
Rabbi Hirschfield presents a balanced perspective on how the Bible addresses the treatment of strangers in the land of Israel and provides some principles that would be wise for us to apply. Since we live in a country primarily made up of immigrants and the descendants of immigrants, it is important for us to remember that many of our ancestors, too, came to this country looking for a better life for their children and grandchildren.

With the notable exceptions of First Nations people (who were already here when European immigrants came ashore) and Africans that were forcibly brought here in the slave trade, most of our forebearers came to the United States in search of a dream. An interesting point that often goes unmentioned in this debate is that had Native American tribes had the kind of strict immigration laws that the state of Arizona is advocating then many of us of European descent would not be here. Yeah, think about that for a second.

While I have no problem with border states seeking to protect their borders, I am concerned about how Arizona's laws (and other states that may follow suit) will treat United States citizens with brown skin. Let's be honest here. Arizona did not pass their law because they are worried about German or Australian immigrants. It was passed to keep Mexicans out of the state who had not followed the proper channels to get into the country. By requiring people to produce immigration papers to local police at any time they are deemed suspicious, I simply see no way that this law will be carried out apart from racial profiling.

These types of requirements are all too similar to how slaves had to have "passes" from their masters in the antebellum South or when black Africans had to carry paperwork with them anywhere they went under apartheid in South Africa. As a Christian, I cannot support any kind of law that encourages the harassment and/or imprisonment of any individual or family simply because of the color of their skin. Sadly, our country has a sordid history when it comes to how we've treated our citizens of color in matters of national security (e.g. see treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II).

I'm not sure what the most effective method is to ensure that all people desiring to live in the United States go through the appropriate channels to do so, but I do hope those hoping to live here are afforded the same opportunities that my ancestors were given. As Rabbi Hirschfield stated, the privilege to live here does come with certain obligations and there are needed steps to make sure immigrants meet those obligations. But I would hate to see American citizens treated unfairly simply because of their country of origin. That, they say, is simply un-American.

(h/t to Scot McKnight for the Hirschfield article)

No comments: