May 17, 2007

Immigration Reform, the beginning of a theological perspective

Lawmakers in the United States announced today new bipartisan legislation to overhaul the immigration laws. News sources are announcing the deal, and describing it as a compromise. I haven't had a chance to do a lot of research yet into the bill itself, beyond reading today's releases. But it is an issue that warrants careful theological thinking.

One dimension of immigration that requires careful thought is the question of national borders: specifically, what are they? It seems easy in a discussion of immigration to get into an "us verses them" mentality. We need to be sure we are keeping them out, so they don't take our jobs or benefits. And this type of logic holds a lot of sway, if for no other reason that the political reality that it is voters who hold the jobs and pay for the benefits that immigrants would take. But before we get too far down this rather easy path, we need to stop and ask if it is a legitimate path to take. What makes someone worthy to enter our country, and someone else less worthy? Or, who qualify as us and who qualify as them? There are few things more fundamental to the logic of the New Testament than the truth that we are all equal in standing before God, regardless of our race, gender, or occupation. And this wasn't an easy lesson for early Christians to learn, especially considering the importance of the us-verses-them mentality of Second Temple Judaism. But learn it the early Christians did. So how does this apply to immigration and our understanding of national borders? I admit the question is a complicated one, but one that must be confronted in all of its complexity.

National borders are important, especially to a comparitively rich country like the United States. Without them, one could envision an avalanche of immigrants overwhelming schools, government services, and major population centers. It seems probable that illegal employment would flourish, with its low pay and poor conditions, and along with it, many "Americans" would loose their jobs to immigrants willing to work for less and have a lower standard of living. It would eventually unravell the fabric of the country. But at the same time, we need to always keep in mind that these people are people too. They deserve a chance at a better life, and are no more deserving of life in a run-down shack with tainted water and spoiled food than you or I.

A second theological perspective that must be explored with regard to immigration is the approach to those people already in the States illegally. As someone who tends to be a rule-follower, I have always tended to the perspective that these people (notice the them mentality) have broken the law, and must bear appropriate consequences. And that is true, because our society, like any successful society, is based on the rule of law, and the expectation that those laws will be respected and enforced. But this is far from the only consideration. As many people have pointed out (often on campaign stops, I'm sure), many of the people who inhabit the States illegally are contributing members of our society. They hold jobs, support their family, etc. And even beyond that, many of them transgressed our immigration laws out of desperation and hope. And that can't be ignored. In the end, we must remember that people without legal status before the United States government are still people in full standing before God. They are to be loved like any other, and maybe even more so. And its not hard to recall quite a number of verses from the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus' other teachings that would point toward the importance of a compassionate solution. And that leads me to the summation of these beginning reflections, with the reminder that these people are our neighbors, in many senses of the word.

"Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" Jesus replied: " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."

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