When it comes to immigration policy, let’s remember who we’re talking about.
The usual array of arguments marshaled to support or hinder immigration tends toward the abstract. The arguments often obscure rather than clarify. It’s helpful to remember who we are talking about when we discuss “undocumented workers.” We’re talking about people like Maria. Daniel Groody, immigration scholar, author, and Catholic priest, tells Maria’s story like this: “I remember meeting Maria, who came north from Guatemala and wanted to work in the United States for only two years, then return home to her family. I met her on the Mexican side of the border just before her third attempt. In the previous 10 days, she had tried twice to cross the border through a remote route in southern Arizona. On her first attempt, she was mugged at the border by bandito gangs. Though bruised and beaten, she continued her journey through the desert and ran out of food. Just before she reached the road, she was apprehended by the U.S. Border Patrol and put in an immigration detention center. A few days later she tried again. This time, her coyote smuggler tried to rape her, but she managed to free herself and push her way through the desert once again. After four days of walking, she ran out of food, water, and even strength. The border patrol found her, helped her, and then sent her back to Mexico.” Dignity for Aliens On the one hand, some advocates tell us to remember that immigrants are made in the image of God and have an essential dignity. That is true. But basic human dignity also belongs to the border agents, the coyote smuggler who tried to rape Maria, and legislators who seek to further restrict Maria from coming to the United States. On the other hand, some complain about “lazy Hispanics” who desert their families and come to this country to take advantage of social welfare programs. But given human nature, all kinds of people abuse our welfare system—including Anglos. Some Christians pull a verse out of Leviticus like a trump card—let’s say Leviticus 19:33–34: “When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born.” They use it as a bludgeon: “The Bible commands us to welcome the stranger.” Indeed, we should. But that does not help us decide, ultimately, what to do with “illegal aliens.” Nor whether we should give amnesty to the up to 12 million undocumented persons in our midst, or deport them, or something in between. Nor does it tell us how to screen out drug dealers and terrorists in a way that protects human rights and dignity. There is also the argument that says we should care about immigrants, legal or not, because they are poor, oppressed, and defenseless—”the least of these.” As one wellmeaning cleric put it, we Christians are called “to attend to the last, littlest, lowest, and least in society and in the church.” Such talk can be patronizing and demeaning. Immigrants aren’t mere victims, but historic actors. Most of the suffering they experience they know about well in advance, yet they venture forth in courage nonetheless. They are not weak, but strong; not “the least of these,” but our betters in many ways. They have the initiative and courage that is emblematic of being American. They traverse deserts. They walk 50 miles or farther in treacherous conditions that have killed (so far) 3,000—all to enjoy greater economic and political freedom. Once here, they toil in labor-intensive work that most Americans consider demeaning but that immigrants imbue with dignity, because of the work ethic they bring to it. That ethic—when combined with thrift and care for family and extended family—has earned them a significant place in American culture. Deep Faith We suspect that they are also people of deep Christian faith in many cases. Groody continues his story about Maria: “I was curious about how Maria dealt with these trials before God. ‘If you had 15 minutes to speak to God,’ I asked her, ‘what would you say?’ I thought she would give him a long litany of complaints. Instead, she told me, ‘I do not have 15 minutes to speak to God. I am always conversing with him, and I feel his presence with me always. Yet if I saw God face to face, the first thing I would do is thank him, because God has been so good to me and has blessed me so abundantly.'” Immigration policy is a mass of complexity. A wise policy will balance compassion for individuals and separated families with national security and economic ramifications. Respect for law is not negotiable, but it is not everything. And creating criminal penalties for those who aid illegal immigrants falls far short of solving our problems. Those responsible for crafting immigration reform surely need our prayers. We should remind our lawmakers and advocates that when all is said and done, we’re not talking about “the poor” or “deadbeats” or “undocumented workers.” We’re talking mostly about people like Maria. Any policy that treats her the same way we treat drug smugglers and foreign terrorists is foolish. Any policy that makes it harder for Maria to come here, temporarily or permanently, is a policy that says that courage, industry, and faith no longer matter. Let’s figure out some way, please, to let Maria and others like her sojourn among us.