Immigration and the Law


Over and over in the Old Testament, we are admonished to be kind to "the widow, the orphan, and alien." In the New Testament Christ admonishes us to welcome the stranger: "When I was a stranger you took me in…whatever you do for the least of these brothers of mine, so also you do for me."

What would Jesus do about immigration? Scripture is clear. One cannot consistently be devoutly Christian AND rabidly anti-immigrant. This is not to question anyone's faith, but it is a claim that there is a tension between sincere faith and nativism.

Christian opponents of immigration, however, have what they believe is a trump card even to Scripture: the rule of law. Illegal immigrants are breaking the law, and that is the most important consideration.

The relationship between Christianity and the law has always been an uneasy one. Don't those of us who are Christian worship God for not punishing his followers in spite of our inability to always follow his law? Christians rejoice each Sunday at God's offer of pardon, or amnesty, for our sins.

In fact Jesus, who healed on the Sabbath and offended the powers that be, was crucified because he was on the wrong side of the law. The legalistic approach to immigration reform is the way of the Pharisee and not of Christ.

"Amnesty" opponents seem to believe that a hard-working, otherwise law-abiding immigrant is completely defined by the one law he or she breaks. But certainly we're not so harsh on ourselves. I've sped, jaywalked (illegal crossing) and as an 18-year-old even stole a grocery cart from a local shopping center to impress my Berry College dorm buddies.

We're never called "criminal" because of transgressions such as these. We're certainly not defined by them, nor do we think that we should lose our chance to be functioning, contributing members of society because of them.

Yet "amnesty" opponents see the crime of illegal immigration as somehow different and more serious. The crime is different, all right, but not for the reasons they imagine. It is a more- and not less-justifiable crime than speeding, jaywalking or youthful indiscretion.

These misdemeanors are committed for selfish reasons--not seriously bad, but selfish. Illegal immigration is often committed for much more admirable reasons.

Put yourself in the shoes of an illegal immigrant. Your kids are hungry, your parents are sick, and you can't help them on your meager income in Mexico, no matter how hard you work. But just across the border there's work for quadruple your current pay. You can save your family, but you have to break the law in order to do so. What would you do? What's it going to be: the law or your kids?

The problem is that in some cases, it seems that the law is as flawed as the lawbreaker. Undocumented immigrants don't choose between coming here legally or illegally, but illegally or not at all. If your kids are hungry now and you're told you may or may not get a visa years from now, that's not much of an option.

Our situation is not unlike the plot of the classic Les Miserables. In this famous novel and play the convict Jean Valjean is pursued mercilessly by Inspector Javert.

Why? Valjean has stolen bread for his family. He did it; he's guilty, and Javert is determined that he pay. Valjean lives an exemplary life after escaping from jail, helping anyone he can generally and one helpless orphan girl in particular. All this doesn't matter to Javert: all that matters is that Valjean broke the law.

In a bizarre turn of events, Valjean has the opportunity to kill his tormenter, but shows him mercy. When we watch the play, all of us root for the merciful criminal over the merciless agent of justice. Sometimes, not always but sometimes, mercy is more important than justice.

In The Grapes of Wrath, the Joad family are driven off their land by the Dust Bowl and desperately move to California in search of a better life. The hero of the novel and movie, Tom Joad, has just gotten out of prison when the action begins. When he leaves Oklahoma to help his family, he breaks his parole. Thus he is an illegal migrant.

I've shown this movie to high schoolers for a decade, and I've never had a student fault Tom for breaking parole. They all believe that it's a no-brainer. Of course we have to choose our family over the law. One very important reason for having laws is to help us do the right thing, not prevent it.

Scripture commands us to be merciful. Most of us would break the law to save our family. The very quality that defines many of our great heroes of history and literature is the willingness to defy the law in the name of a higher duty.

What the immigrants that I teach want is a chance to work for the American Dream, not a free ride. But it is wrong, unchristian and hypocritical to deport hard-working, otherwise law-abiding citizens for doing something that many of us would do.

Sean McKenzie, a Methodist, teaches high school in Calhoun, Ga. During the summers teaches at Dalton State College's Summer Academy, which is attended primarily by Hispanic students.

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Tags: Immigration, Politics, Sean McKenzie, Theology


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