Recently, I began a discussion with some friends on Facebook, who were responding to my 'status' statement saying that I disagree with the new Arizona immigration law (and, by extension, the national immigration law). As FB is sometimes a challenging forum for writing extensive explanations, I thought I'd take a stab at a more coherent statement here. So, briefly (I hope!):
First and foremost, I take it to be paradigmatic that, for Christians, our allegiance to Christ trumps our allegiance to any nation or culture. This is a HUGE issue in itself, and perhaps until we really learn to take this truth seriously, debating issues like immigration will be exercises in futility. But, nevertheless, this is where we must begin. As Christians, our primary responsibility is not to defend our nation or its laws (though there is a place for that); our primary responsibility is to live like Christ, doing all that we can to offer glimpses of the kingdom of God breaking into the world.
But what does this mean with regard to immigration? Well, it means basically this: As Christians, our views on immigration (or any socio-political issue) must be grounded in what Scripture and the witness of the Christian faith have taught us, NOT on what is best for our national identity or security. I realize this is probably a big sticking point, but I submit that to ignore this truth is to ignore Christianity. Much of what is called 'Christianity' is nothing more than an idol shaped to look like Jesus, but having only those features which we find consistent with our particular cultural or political views. This must be challenged.
So, with Scripture and the Christian tradition as our guide, what do we see? In Scripture we are presented with a worldview that prefers grace over judgment. We are given, over and over, mandates to take care of the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the 'stranger' or 'alien' (the immigrant - Deut. 10:19). This is a theme developed in the Old Testament with particular intensity: Exodus 22:21, 23:9; Leviticus 19:33-34; Deut. 27:19; Jer. 7:6, 22:3; Ezek. 22:7, 29; Zech. 7:10; Mal. 3:5. The Israelites are even told to create a sort of welfare system for the poor, the widow, and the alien, since those groups are typically the ones most deprived of blessing (Deut. 24:17-21).
It is important to note that these commands (given by God to Israel) treat the immigrant as though they are already a part of the community. Of course, it could be said that such rules and blessings only are meant to apply to legal immigrants, not illegal ones. But Scripture gives us no such categories. Yes, the immigrants should agree to abide by the laws and morals of the Hebrew nation. But this is meant to happen in tandem with the acceptance of the alien by the Hebrew people. In other words, it is the hospitality of the Israelites, and the immigrants subsequent positive response to that hospitality, that constitutes their 'legal' status.
In other words, it is not the responsibility of the alien to first jump through a bunch of hoops before they will be accepted as a part of the community. Instead, it is the responsibility of the CITIZEN to treat the alien as though they are already a part of the community, inviting them to share their lives. If the alien rejects that generous welcome and the responsibilities that come with it, they are simply told to leave. But notice that this is a near reversal of the current American system, where people have to clandestinely attempt to cross a border, thereby breaking a law and preemptively committing themselves to expulsion, simply to have the possibility of receiving the generosity that we, as Christian citizens, should be offering them to begin with. Simply being given the opportunity to cross a border does not constitute hospitality.
This is why those who claim that illegal immigrants automatically deserve to be punished - either by being expelled or by being imprisoned - are simply wrong, from a Christian worldview. Of course, since the U.S. is not a theocratic nation where our national and religious identities are fused (and I am glad we are not a theocracy - that would almost certainly be worse for everyone), this complicates the issue. We have to navigate between our allegiance to national laws and our allegiance to Christ. The existence of a border ought to be respected, but there is a higher calling for believers than the call to protect our borders. It is the call to protect the needy.
This leads to a fair question: Who are the needy? Well, I could point to Jesus' words in Matt. 25, or the parable of the good Samaritan, or any number of other passages in the NT. Jesus seems to indicate that the needy can be anyone, depending upon the situation, and our call as Christians is to respond with grace to anyone in need, no matter where we find them. This offers another glimpse into the connection with immigration: if the first element of a "Christian" immigration policy is the a priori hospitality of the citizens toward the immigrants, the second element might be called "a generous immigration." In other words, we should begin with the assumption that we will try to take care of as many immigrants as possible, with the caveat that they are willing to embrace our generosity.
In Matt. 20:1-15, we read the parable of the workers in the vineyard. In the parable, Jesus describes (in details that sound ironically similar to the situations of Hispanic workers waiting in parking lots across our nation) the owner of a vineyard hiring workers who are standing around waiting for jobs. But, the twist is that the owner pays the same wage to those hired at the beginning of the day AND those hired at the end of the day. Naturally, those hired first feel cheated. But the owner says, basically: "You agreed to this wage. I want to pay these other workers the same amount. Why are you threatened by my generosity?" The parable challenges all of us - citizen and immigrant - to consider the reality that God's economy looks very different than ours. In the context of this current discussion, it suggests that those of us who think we are owed something more than others (whatever the reason) are completely missing the point. And, often, when I hear people talk who oppose relaxed immigration policies, it involves a lot of "they don't deserve it, until..." statements.
Jesus clearly extends the theme of generosity and grace in the gospels, and ties the reality of the kingdom of God directly to care for those who are on the margins, including the foreigner in our midst. Christ asks that we learn to become people who are willing to give of ourselves - our money, our time, and even our land/nation - in order that others might be blessed and come to know God. This is very challenging, but we cannot choose to ignore it simply because it's difficult.
Of course, a nation's laws are important, and as Christians we should respect them as long as they don't conflict with our call to follow Christ. Certainly there is nothing wrong with asking immigrants to obey the laws of our nation, and learn our customs (though I would argue that American customs are a lot more fluid than most of us want to admit - we are an experimental "melting pot" after all). But this, I would argue, is a two-way street. As long as we who are "good, law-abiding" American citizens remain unwilling to embrace immigrants - choosing instead to see them as criminals, or at best second-class individuals here to take our jobs - we are failing to extend the hospitality that will encourage them to join our way of life.
And, of course, this is exactly what has happened in America: we are a nation comprised of thousands of 'little countries', where people can spend their lives hanging out with others who are just like they are, and never have to really get to know the immigrants, or the poor, or those on the margins, who live right down the street. New immigrants pick up on that and do the same thing. Heck, I barely even know my neighbors - I'm part of the problem too, and I confess that.
I have no problem with our country telling immigrants that if they commit a crime, or refuse to be a part of our culture, that they should leave. But if our first and most common response is a lack of hospitality, that is wrong. And I haven't even brought up the issue of how America has systematically built up its own wealth while more or less ignoring the problems of other nations (except when they threaten our 'national interests' of course!). With mixed messages like that - Our country is the best place on earth to be, but we only want you here if you can prove you deserve to be here! - no wonder so many illegal immigrants attempt to fly under the radar.
As Christians, we ought to be trying to offer a different way, one that is hospitable, generous, and yes, demands responsibility. But in that order, not reversed. That's grace - it is given before we deserve it.