Thursday, May 6, 2010

Jesus, Justice, Immigration

“I can bear witness about them that they have a zeal for the law, but it is not according to knowledge.”

In the biblical passage, Jesus is responding to his critics who elevate the keeping of a strict letter of the law over what we might call today the “spirit” of the law. In another passage he tells his critics, who are the religious leaders of his time, that although they have been diligent about the details of the law, they have neglected the “weightier matters of the law, namely justice, mercy and faith.”

I find a parallel to this threefold concern in the prophets, most notably, Micah 6:8: “He has told you what is good, and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”

Certainly, none of these “weightier matters” of the law are present in much of today’s debate about immigration reform, the Arizona law signed last week being just the most recent example. There is nothing “just, merciful, or faithful” about the execution of that law. Only a cold indifference to human beings in favor of the central question: “legal or illegal”? One cannot read a blog on the subject without some self-proclaimed minuteman type shouting (often in all caps) “WHAT PART OF “ILLEGAL” DON’T YOU UNDERSTAND?” To which I reply, “WHAT PART OF JUSTICE, MERCY, AND FAITH DON’T YOU UNDERSTAND?”

Well, I understand plenty about the law and sometimes only a little about justice. I have spent the greater part of my life thinking about the law and this part is clear: the law is imperfect and, at its best, is only a dim reflection of what true justice is. Yet this doesn’t mean that the law is evil. It is, in fact, good. The more advanced and progressive our society, the more we rely on law to give structure to our community. But the law is not an end in itself, and where a law doesn’t reflect justice, mercy, or faith, that law should be changed and, if serious enough injustice results, should be ignored and disobeyed until it can be changed. Our goal as Christians (or for that matter, as human beings), should be to strive for justice, not just law-abiding.

In platonic terms, I suggest that the law is what we see in the material world, and its very existence points to a higher, more perfect form that exists in the world that cannot be seen. That higher, more perfect form is justice, tempered by mercy, and faith. But if all we ever consider is the material law here, without considering what it is intending to reflect, we elevate the letter over the spirit and we become unrighteous in our insistence on strict adherence to unjust laws.

To insist on the observance of the law regardless of the consequences is to presume that the law is always just. That is simply not the case. If it were, the law would not change so frequently. The immigration laws are possibly the most dynamic groups of laws on the books in the U.S. That is, they are constantly in flux. What is illegal today may have been just fine a few years ago. What was punishable by a fine a few years ago may result in permanent banishment from the U.S. now. Which of these is the just law, the law that exists now or the law that existed ten years ago?

As an example, a person who entered the U.S. without inspection 10 years ago, but married a U.S. citizen, could adjust status to permanent residence (green card) without leaving the U.S. based on the petition of the U.S. citizen and pay a fine of $1,000 for having entered the U.S. illegally. That same person today could face a permanent bar from the U.S. regardless of the sponsorship of a U.S. citizen spouse or children. Which is more just? To welcome into our society the one who came in ten years ago without inspection but demonize and call “criminal” the one who does it today in exactly the same circumstances is simply wrong.

One could argue that the one who comes in today without inspection is not coming in under the same circumstances as the one who came in ten years ago. The law is different now. That is true, but both actions were unauthorized or “illegal” whether done now or ten years ago. The difference is the penalty for those actions given by the law. As a society we have to ask ourselves which is more just. That requires more than just a mechanical application of a simple law; it requires us to look at the circumstances. There is good reason for giving persons with families here, and with jobs here, and fleeing persecution there, a chance to get right with the law. Persons without ties to the U.S. and without humanitarian grounds for acceptance may justly (from the perspective of whether they ought to be allowed to remain in the U.S.) be looked at differently than those with significant ties to the U.S.

This requires an examination of our core values. Our core values are not simply that the law must be obeyed, but that the law must reflect justice in society. Is it right for families to be allowed to stay together? Is it right for persons not to be sent back into oppressive situations where they are subject to being killed or deprived of liberty? Is it right for persons to be allowed the freedom to work and provide for their families? Of course it is, but if our inquiry stops with whether they are “legal” or “illegal”, we never get to the question of what core values would be preserved by allowing them to stay and pay an appropriate penalty for their lack of legal status in the U.S.

Facebook Response

This is a popular, albeit uninformed, sentiment expressed on facebook. My response is below.


No, you don’t really understand this very well. Are you suggesting that North Korea and Afghanistan are good models for U.S. immigration policy? Here is a more accurate view on what it is like to come into the U.S. illegally. You suffer in poverty, discrimination, or abuse in some Central or South American country and hear that there are jobs and employers, or maybe even family, in the North. You ask about work visas for unskilled labor in the U.S. and discover that there is no such thing. In desperation, you risk your life crossing the desert or paying thousands of dollars to some smuggler or coyote who would just as soon leave you for dead as get you to your destination. If you are a woman, you are probably raped. You find a job and work harder than anyone else there only to find out that you are being paid ½ of what everyone else gets. When you complain, your employer beats you and tells you that if you ever open your mouth again, he will call immigration. You pay your taxes, go to church, encourage your kids to excel in school, and do your best to stay out of trouble and make a positive contribution in your community. You pay billions of dollars into the social security system, but will never see a dime of that money. You can’t get a drivers license, can’t get insurance, can’t open a bank account, or get credit cards. You hide in fear of discovery. You pray that you don’t get taken from your children and leave them to fend for themselves. You don’t talk to police when you are a crime victim because they may ask you for your papers. You ask an immigration lawyer if there is anything you can do and (if the lawyer is honest and not out to rip you off by collecting fees for benefits that you are not eligible for) are told that there is nothing, and if you do leave the U.S., you face a ten year or even permanent bar to ever returning to the U.S. Your family is ridiculed because of its legal status. And worst of all, many of your Christian brothers and sisters don’t have compassion on you, but despise you because you are “illegal.” Still, Jesus loves you and you keep going and praying that the law will some day allow you to become legal.