Politicians often say, when speaking about immigration, that the undocumented must "get in line" if they want to be legally in the United States.
President Barack Obama and GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney have different concepts about "the line." But both use the concept of getting in line, Parham says. (Photos by Pete Souza, left, and Gage Skidmore)
What is unclear is what they mean by the line.
"Those people that are here illegally today...should get in line with everyone else who's in line legally. They should not be placed at the head of the line. They should instead go to the back of the line," Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney told Fox News.
"You say to people who are here illegally today, you are not going to be able to work here unless you register...and then ultimately you have got to go home, apply for permanent residency here or citizenship, if you want to try and do that, but get in line behind everyone else," said Romney in a Fox News presidential debate.
Romney's campaign posted on its website a summary statement of his immigration position that reads: "Illegal immigrants who apply for legal status should not be given any advantage over those who are following the law and waiting their turn. Mitt absolutely opposes any policy that would allow illegal immigrants to 'cut in line.'"
Romney isn't alone in his use of "the line."
Speaking on comprehensive immigration reform in 2010, President Barack Obama said that the "illegal immigrants" who broke the law by crossing the border "should be held accountable."
He said, "They must get right with the law before they can get in line." He referred to those "who are waiting in line to come here legally."
In a 2011 speech in El Paso, Texas, Obama said 11 million undocumented people have "broken the rules and have cut in front of the line. And the truth is, the presence of so many illegal immigrants makes a mockery of all those who are trying to immigrate legally."
He said that the undocumented must admit breaking the law, pay taxes, learn English and submit to background checks "before they can get in line for legalization."
Obama and Romney have different concepts about "the line." But both use the concept of getting in line.
A Washington Post editorial pointed out that their differences about "the line" were "meaningless – because there is no line, not even a relevant visa category, for millions of immigrants."
"There is simply no immigrant visa category for which most unskilled Mexicans qualify and no realistic prospect they could be legally admitted to the United States. About half of the unauthorized adults in the country are Mexicans who probably have no category for admission," read the editorial.
The newspaper said that some 7 million undocumented immigrants are doing jobs that most Americans would not do.
"On the campaign trail, it may sound tough or fair or common-sensical to demand that illegal immigrants 'get to the back of the line.' In fact, it is a convenient fiction, a trope designed more to obfuscate than resolve a policy mess that politicians find too hard to tackle," said the editorial.
Our documentary, Gospel Without Borders, examines the issue of "the line."
"There is no line because there are no visas available to line up for," says Anthony Taylor, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Little Rock, Ark., in the documentary.
"We're dealing with poor people who don't have the resources to go to their country of origin, wait a period of time – no way to support themselves, no way to provide for their families, no way to keep current on their house payments," says Taylor.
There is "no logical reason" to advocate for the undocumented to go to the back of the line "except that we want to inflict suffering on these people," says Taylor.
Taylor suggests that the back-of-the-line argument shows "at least ignorance. It may be malice – make people pay, make people hurt."
Politicians and the uninformed will surely continue to refer to "the line."
But "getting in the back of the line" ought to be a concept that goodwill people of faith strike from their moral vocabulary.
And when we hear others talk about how the undocumented ought to get in line, perhaps we ought to ask where "the line" literally is and how long a parent with hungry children ought to stand in the make-believe line before they can enter a country legally to do work that Americans don't want to do.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. Follow him on Twitter at RobertParham1.