Saturday, November 22, 2014

Immigration Critics Paint Themselves in a Corner with Cries of “Amnesty”

The President’s Executive Order deferring deportation for millions of unauthorized immigrants who may qualify for his plan is loudly derided by critics as “amnesty” or “executive amnesty” (I love Colbert’s take that the President wasn’t just satisfied with giving them “amnesty” he had to offer them “executive amnesty” – which must mean some special perks.)   

Critics have learned that if they can label something as “amnesty,” it will lose public support.  But when some of those same critics are asked what they would do – take, for example Cong. Tim Huelskamp’s recent awkward and painful squirming when asked that question on Bloomberg News – they have no answer.  They say they don’t support gestapo style mass deportations, but what can they support?  Well, they don’t know yet.  They just know they don’t support amnesty (defined in the broadest way imaginable) and they don’t support mass deportation, so what is left?  Apparently, the status quo, which means about 400,000 deportations a year, including thousands of non-criminal parents of U.S. citizens, immigrant children fleeing persecution and gang recruitment, and untold human suffering and family disintegration.

It isn’t as if critics haven’t been given a chance to do something.  A comprehensive bi-partisan Senate bill was passed over 500 days ago and sent to the House.  The President would have signed it.  The House refused even to allow a vote on the bill (and it had a good chance of passage).  And yet those same people are now saying that the President’s plan fails constitutionally because he won’t work cooperatively with Congress.

Something needed to be done and, frankly, it should have been done long before now.  A bandage was applied by executive action, but it’s Congress that needs to perform the surgery, if only they will. Instead, their plan seems to be to declare the President’s action unconstitutional, while offering nothing positive in return.

Rest assured, the executive order by the President is constitutional.  Without a doubt.   It was also constitutional two years ago when he, by executive order, granted deferred action to childhood arrivals (the “Dreamers”) to stay their deportations.  About 500,000 deserving immigrants benefitted from this.  Two times the constitutionality was challenged in the courts (in Texas and Florida).  Both times, courts found it constitutional, and the program continued.

If lawsuits are filed again, they will fail again.  Fox News commentator, Geraldo Rivera, stated on Fox News that he would stake “his mortgage” on the constitutionality of the executive action.  While I can’t afford that kind of wager, I feel the same.  By the way, there is a good 33 page legal opinion from legal counsel for the White House explaining the constitutionality of the action, and why they didn’t go as far as we might have wanted in the action.

So apart from lawsuits challenging constitutionality, what can critics do?  If everything short of deportation is “amnesty,” what to do?  That’s the problem.  They have said paying fines and staying is amnesty, long paths to legalization (17 years in the Senate bill) is amnesty, etc.  Anything except immediate removal from the country, regardless of how much social and economic damage that may do, is amnesty.   

In 2010, the Center for American Progress studied the effects and costs of mass deportation verses a comprehensive immigration strategy that provided a path to legalization.  The direct costs of deportation were about $285 billion (if it could even be done).  There would be a resulting economic impact in reducing our gross domestic product by $2.5 trillion over a ten year period.  In contrast, a program of legalization could increase GDP by a cumulative total of $1.5 trillion over that same ten year period.  Other studies have confirmed this impact as well.

That’s the economic impact of a “no amnesty” stance.  The social impact is much worse as families are torn apart and exploited.  Neither our economy nor our national character can take a hit of this magnitude.

Yet we all know that amnesty is unacceptable, or is it?

A wonderful friend from church told me once that he loved immigrants, but could never accept amnesty.  And I said, “why not?” “What is your problem with forgiveness?”  I’m still wondering that.  Christians believe in forgiveness (and if we don’t, then we don’t have much to offer the world).  “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  “Trespass” is an appropriate word to use in the Lord’s Prayer in this context.  Apparently, we have a really hard time forgiving those who trespass over that which we have trespassed before them.

Whatever flaws there are in the executive action (and it’s certainly no complete or lasting solution to the immigration issues), Congress can supersede the President’s action by enacting positive legislation in the area. 

Congress, it’s time to grow up and work on a solution that recognizes the dignity of the good people that work among us, marry our children, and worship with us, while setting future policy that meets the needs of families, workers, and employers in the U.S.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Pity the Children; Pity the "Patriots"

It’s hard to stomach some of the reactions I am seeing to the 50,000 or more children appearing at our borders since October and seeking help from the US.  The question we should be asking over and over in this is, “what is the right thing to do with these children?”  If the answer is not to show compassion and humanity to them, then we have truly lost our way as a nation.

Unfortunately, the way Washington and much of the rest of the country wants to deal with this follows a familiar pattern.  They are most concerned with these questions: “Who is to blame for this?” and “How can I make the most political points out of this and hurt my political opponent?”  The children then become merely yet another political pawn in part of our never ending game for advantage.

This is truly a humanitarian crisis for the children and when I see some of our reactions here, I realize it is also a crisis of our own humanity in the US.  We are in danger of losing our souls, our own humanity, over our lack of compassion in the situation. 

First, let’s consider what this situation is not.

1.  It is not a failure of border security.  I see some analysts do a pretty good job of looking at the reasons the children are coming, and then conclude that the solution is more troops, guns, drones, etc. on the border.  These children are not sliding through the border undetected.  Our border security has had massive increases in personnel, tools, and spending over the past several years. 

These children are looking for officers and presenting themselves to them to be taken into custody.  They are seeking refuge.  If the answer is more border security, then does that mean they think the kids should be shot or repelled as they approach the border? 

2.  This is not an invasion.  Yes, they are appearing at our border.  They are not here to destroy Twin Towers, or anything else in the U.S.  They are not here to bring disease – one Congressman is even repeating the demonstrably false claim that they may be bringing ebola, a virus found only in Africa.

 They are seeking refuge.  Interviews have taken place with large numbers of the children, and the message that appears over and over is that they came to escape gang recruitment, drug wars, and extensive violence in their countries. 

In 1939, 937 German Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany sailed on the MS St. Louis and were denied refuge in Cuba, the U.S. and Canada before sailing back to Europe.  It is estimated that about one quarter of the Jews aboard later died in German concentration camps.  No one thinks that this was a proud moment of U.S. morality in their rejection of these refugees.  And now we have the specter of flag waiving pseudo “patriots” trying to block busloads of children from getting to facilities to care for them.

There is a very real possibility that many of these children would be killed if returned to their home countries.  The law currently in place (signed by Pres. George W. Bush) requires that unaccompanied children entering the US (and not from contiguous countries – sorry, Mexico) should not be summarily returned, but should first be turned over to Dept. of Health and Human Services for a determination of whether they are victims of trafficking, have asylum claims, etc.  This is the law that many of those legislators who originally voted for the law, are now trying to repeal so that we can expeditiously deport children. 

So does this mean compassion and due process are only relevant concerns when applied to small numbers of children coming to the U.S., but not large?  If it was moral in in 2008 for us to give special consideration to children arriving at our border, why do we sacrifice that now in the name of expediency?

3.  This is not an undue burden on our resources.  I’m tired of the people that argue we can spend trillions on weapons systems and to support unnecessary and unjust wars, even beyond what our own military request, and corporate welfare, but can’t afford to take care of children, or the poor, widows, or orphans.  We could easily absorb into this country ten times that many children and not strain our resources (and we would be a lot better off in our national character for it), and I can pretty much guarantee that there are plenty of Americans willing to take responsibility for the great majority of these children if our legal system will permit it. 

But there is an increasing mentality in our country that “not one dime of my money should be spent for anything unless it benefits me personally.”  And then they waive flags and tell us how patriotic they are.

This is not patriotism.  Nativism is not patriotism.  The people waving flags and terrorizing busloads of children are not being patriotic.  They are being pathetic in their narcissism.  And please don’t suppose that our constitution endorses this.  Remember the opening lines of the Constitution?  “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”  Oppressing refugee children that show up on our doorsteps certainly fits no biblical definition of establishing justice.

Yes, this is a humanitarian crisis in more ways than one.  The children need protection from the violence in their countries and our political intervention should aim at solutions for that – not just shutting our doors and pretending the problem doesn’t exist because we somehow kept it out of our country.  But there is also a humanity crisis in our own hearts when we despise children in need.

“If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister [or child] in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?”  I John 3.17

We should have pity on these children and find solutions that go beyond merely keeping them out of our backyards and returning them to lives of death and destruction.  That decision would also certainly come back one day to haunt us.  But I also have pity on those who think this is some kind of solution.


Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Champion the Cause of the Stranger

This was an article I recently wrote for Preacher Magazine.  Expecting publication some time in the Summer.

Champion the Cause of the Stranger

I was reading from Job recently and came across a section in chapter 29 where Job makes a defense of his righteousness (with the conclusion that he doesn’t deserve to suffer as he is), and saw some revealing things about the ethic of that ancient people.  We see the usual items, “I delivered the poor who cried, and the orphan who had no helper. . . I caused the widow’s heart to sing for joy. . . . I was eyes to the blind, and feet to the lame. I was a father to the needy . . . “   And then he says this in the NRSV translation, “I championed the cause of the stranger.

I like the phrasing of the NRSV here.  It occurred to me that now is a great time for the church in the U.S. to champion the cause of strangers.  There are over 37 million foreign born in the U.S.   Of those, recent estimates indicate that about 11.7 million are not authorized to be here.  Who are they?  They are our neighbors; they live among us, work with us, marry among our families, and worship with us.  About 63% of the unauthorized population has been here ten years or more.  They are irretrievably embedded in our society.

The Job passage, however, is no isolated proof text.  The Hebrew scripture uses the word for “stranger,” ger, some 92 times and abounds with instructions to care for them, show them hospitality, and treat them as you would the native born.  See, e.g.   Ex. 23:9; Lev. 19:33.  As in the Job passage, many texts in the Hebrew scripture link immigrants with the widows, orphans, and poor – those singled out for protection by Israel.  God is on their side, and the prophets condemn God’s people for, among other things, the way they abused these groups.  See, e.g.  Zech. 7:9; Mal. 3:5.

As an immigration lawyer, I spend much of my time working to keep foreign nationals right with the law and help those who aren’t to get there.  Sometimes it’s an impossible task because of the harshness and inflexibility (and sometimes injustice) of our immigration laws and the agencies that enforce them.  For many of our unauthorized neighbors, they are here without legal status simply because there is no legal way to come or to stay here, despite the presence of family and offers of employment.

But from a biblical perspective I see absolutely no difference in how we should treat immigrants based on their legal status in the country, and I find nothing inherently immoral about crossing a national border to escape persecution, or work and care for one’s family.  They may immigrate for various reasons, but all are subject to the abuse that can come from being among the most powerless members of a society.

Pity the unauthorized worker in the U.S.  Abused by ruthless bosses.  Afraid to show their faces in public and seek assistance.  Afraid of the police and those we put our trust in to protect us in hard times.  Families travel constantly together for fear of separation.  Children are given instructions on what to do if Mommy and Daddy don’t come home from work that day.  In a six month span of 2011 alone, we deported over 48,000 parents of U.S. citizens, most of whom had no criminal record.  Children are orphaned and permanently separated from parents because of unforgiving and unmerciful laws.

And the harshest cut of all to unauthorized strangers must be the rejection by their brothers and sisters in Christ, harboring some misbegotten notion that they are morally unfit because of their legal status in the U.S. 

Certainly, I do not advocate lawlessness with respect to our immigration laws, but neither do I advocate passive acceptance. Appeals to Romans 13 are inadequate to me.  In the U.S., we have a privilege not afforded to the early Christians – we can actually work to change unjust laws for the “least of these” immigrants among us.

Do not make the mistake of equating our civil immigration law to something brought down by Moses from Mt. Sinai on tablets of stone.  Space does not permit me to list all of the harshness and injustice of our current immigration laws, and in the past 12 years, the injustice has dramatically increased.  Our immigration laws are often unforgiving, unmerciful, indifferent to human suffering and basic notions of right and wrong.    But . . .

The Lord works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed.. . . The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. (Ps. 103:6,8)

Jesus the Immigrant

I think it is helpful for us to consider Jesus the immigrant and the Christian journey as an immigrant path.  First, we see that Jesus’ family fled, as immigrants, to Egypt to escape the wrath of murderous Herod.  Many of the immigrants here also came fleeing persecution in their native lands.  Many came in illegally because that was the only option available to them.  If we turn a deaf ear to them, the scriptures suggest that God may turn a deaf ear to us when we cry.

But I also see Jesus in Matthew 25, the story of the sheep and the goats, the righteous and the unrighteous.  Judgment is predicated on how those suffering were treated by the people of God.  The righteous fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, clothed the naked, and visited the sick and the prisoners, and welcomed the foreigner (xenos) in.   The unrighteous did not.  Moreover, Jesus, the King in the story, puts it in the first person and says, “I was naked; I was hungry; I was in prison; I was a stranger, and you welcomed me in. . . .”  Both the righteous and the unrighteous are ignorant of who they were either helping or ignoring, and Jesus tells them, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (vs. 40)

The writer of the letter to the Hebrews  tells us “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.”  Heb. 13:2.   God so identifies with the poor, the widow, the orphan, the immigrant, that our help to them is a service to Him.

Lastly, however, I see the incarnation of Christ as an immigrant story – one that we imitate as Christians on our journey.  He left his home above, as the only beloved of the Father, and “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”  John 1:14.  But his kingdom was “not of this world” and he looked forward to the day when he would return to the Father and prepare homes for us.  He was willing to humble himself and journey to his own.   But rather than seeking a better life for himself, he came that we might have life abundantly.

Similarly, as Christians, we recognize that this world is not our true home.  We are, as Peter says, to “live out our time as foreigners here in reverent fear,”  (I Pet. 1:17)   and “admit we are foreigners and strangers on earth.” (Heb. 11:13), recognizing that our true home is elsewhere.  We are the ones who are “longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called [our] God, for he has prepared a city for [us].”  Heb. 11:16.  I am blessed to be born in the U.S., but my true home lies far beyond these borders.

Yet we don’t deserve this calling to a home prepared for us by Christ.  In the kingdom of heaven, we are all illegal aliens – someone had to help us over the wall (to paraphrase Shane Claiborne).  As Paul  says, at one time, we were “foreigners to the covenants of the promise” and “separate from Christ.”  Eph. 2.  Once we were not a people, but now we are the people of God, brought near by the blood of Christ. 

If, therefore, we have received mercy on our immigrant journey to a better country, how can we fail to show mercy to those who have journeyed to this country and are in need of our compassion.  When it comes to immigration reform, it amazes me that some Christians act as if the concept of forgiveness is totally foreign to them.

God says to his people in Exodus, “You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. Ex. 23.”  Yes, we were aliens also.  This is my prayer --  that God’s people would know the hearts of the aliens among us.  In doing so, we can show them the mercy that God has shown us and be “champions” for their cause.