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Prophetic Religion’s Role to Solve the Dreamer Dilemma

Our nation’s immigration system is broken. This is widely agreed, even when little else is.

For at least a decade, the outline of a comprehensive fix for our broken immigration system has been relatively clear, but Congress, in its constant state of partisan paralysis, has not been able to muster the votes for it.

Many factors pull people toward our land illegally, and push people from their homelands.

Pull factors include relatively attractive job prospects, the presence of family members who have already come here and the many other appeals of life in one of the most advanced, prosperous and attractive nations in the world.

Push factors include civil wars, gang wars, authoritarian or dysfunctional governments and often dismal economic prospects back home.

In response to those who come to us, our nation sends mixed signals. On the one hand, we (especially certain of our employers) wink and nod approval to undocumented immigrants that we want here at least temporarily.

Meanwhile, on the other hand, we occasionally and unevenly enforce our immigration laws against some of those who have scratched and clawed their way to find a foothold here.

The entire “system” is irrational, arbitrary and routinely heartbreaking. It creates new loyalties and then breaks them; it helps families and then shatters them. It needs dramatic change.

A decent immigration system would be comprehensive, would send no mixed signals, would secure the borders, would not fluctuate between presidential administrations and would make and fairly enforce laws that reflect our values.

The principles undergirding the above statements can be summarized as fairness, consistency and humanity. I am not arguing for open borders or an abandonment of immigration laws or immigration enforcement.

But I am arguing for an end to half-open and half-closed borders, half-enforced and half-abandoned immigration laws.

The current debate over the extension or ending of the Obama administration’s DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program should be seen as the most visible and perhaps the most heartbreaking example of the crisis we find ourselves facing right now.

With the current DACA debate we are really talking about an emergency response to the decision of President Trump to end an emergency response offered by former President Obama, which he offered because of the inability of Congress to actually pass laws that might address our immigration enforcement problem.

The big-picture issue is what to do with, for and about perhaps 11 million undocumented immigrants who are here in the United States, who almost entirely do not want to go “home” and who will hang on by their fingernails, as long as they can, to find a way to stay here.

The DACA recipients, or Dreamers (a name tied to a failed piece of legislation, the DREAM Act), may represent as many as 1.8 million of this 11 million.

They are an especially sympathetic population because they are young, they were brought here by their parents and therefore bear no responsibility for any lawbreaking, and they have no other homeland.

They are known, and therefore vulnerable, in part because they trusted that the United States government would continue to allow them to stay, and many therefore registered their names as part of the DACA program.

To deport the Dreamers now would be to attack vulnerable children and young adults, break up families, punish those who bear no responsibility for their situation and dump hundreds of thousands of young people in foreign lands.

It would break at least the implicit promise of the U.S. government to this population and would make refugees out of people who just want to be Americans and who know no other homeland.

It would likely trigger significant civil disobedience not just from the Dreamers and their families but from allies and friends who would work to protect them from deportation.

And it would sully the reputation of the U.S. around the world.

The situation is clear enough to the United States Catholic bishops that they have instructed all U.S. Catholics to ask their representatives for a merciful and just solution to the Dreamer situation.

A letter, linked here, from Bishop Joe Vásquez of Austin, Texas, who chairs the U.S. Catholic committee on migration, offers a helpful statement of policy priorities for thoughtful Christians at this moment:

1. Provide protection to the entire Dreamer population.

2. Provide a path to citizenship.

3. Promote family unity and maintain the family immigration system.

4. Protect other vulnerable persons who seek refuge.

5. Ensure that all border security measures are humane and proportionate.

And I would add:

6. Finally address the broader immigration law crisis with a comprehensive, enforceable solution that reflects our best American values.

Christians are called to be people whose way of being in the world is shaped by biblical imperatives and the example and teaching of Jesus.

It is not always easy to coordinate these commitments with national loyalties, but we must attempt to do so as faithfully as we can – and when in doubt, surely our loyalty to Jesus must come first.

This text from Isaiah 1:16-17 comes to mind:

“Wash yourselves clean!
Put away your misdeeds from before my eyes;
cease doing evil; learn to do good.
Make justice your aim: redress the wronged,
hear the orphan’s plea, defend the widow.”

This is prophetic religion at its finest. Such prophetic religion has a social-justice-from-below understanding of good and evil, right and wrong.

What pleases God is making justice; making justice is redressing the wrongs done to the most vulnerable, like orphans and widows – examples that stand in for, and are properly extended to cover, broader categories of powerless people who need advocates and allies.

Today, that includes about 1.8 million young people, the Dreamers, whose fate may well depend on the strength of prophetic religion among the Christians of the United States.

David Gushee is Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University. His writings also appear on his website. You can follow him on Twitter @dpgushee.

Editor’s note: Gushee is among the signatories on a statement from Baptist leaders released Feb. 26 urging the U.S. Congress to pass legislation protecting Dreamers from deportation and providing a pathway to citizenship for them. Details are available here.