Maryada Vallet of Tucson, Ariz., is an evangelical Christian whose faith led her to serve the poor after graduating from college last year. But if some of her fellow evangelicals in Congress get their way, her work will soon become a federal crime.
That’s because in scorching summer months, Vallet rides the desert in a pickup truck, stopping to feed and wash the feet of migrants on the run from border patrol guards. Such a ministry of collaboration with undocumented immigrants would become illegal under a House-passed bill that’s expected to reach the Senate floor this week.
For lawmakers and outreach workers alike, immigration isn’t just a political issue. It’s a moral one as well. But that isn’t making this year’s debate a simple one to settle. If anything, the moral dimension is adding a difficult layer of complexity to an already complex issue.
And it's an issue that is attracting strong feelings on both sides. On March 26, an estimated half-million demonstrators took to the streets in Los Angeles to show support for undocumented aliens and oppose the legislation pending in the U.S. Senate. In addition to the LA march, which surprised even its organizers with its size, there were similar marches in Denver, Phoenix, Atlanta, and other U.S. cities. Some immigrant advocates dubbed the grassroots outpouring a new civil-rights movement.
“Anyone who believes” in the biblical story of the gentile who stopped to help a wounded man, Vallet says, “should be outraged that… the government is making it a crime to be a Good Samaritan.”
But other people of faith, including some evangelicals, don’t see the dilemmas surrounding immigration reform as being quite so cut and dried. The Southern Baptist Convention, for instance, hasn’t taken a position on immigration reform because there’s no denominational consensus on how to handle the justice question, according to Richard Land, president of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, which articulates Southern Baptist views on contemporary issues.
Many Baptists “are not comfortable with a government that doesn’t enforce the law,” Land says. He cites Romans 13:1-7 as warrant to say: “God forgives and forgets. Governments can’t… Government has a responsibility to punish that I [as an individual] don’t have.” Yet because mass deportation “isn’t realistic” and could be devastating to several regional economies, Land supports President Bush’s proposed guest-worker program, yet with penalties attached so it’s “not a complete rewarding of people who have broken the law.”
Thorny as the issue is, more than a dozen states are expected to join Congress this year in passing new immigration-related laws. Local and state governments say they’re sinking in expenses associated with an estimated 11 million undocumented residents. Yet many observers, including Land, say American businesses and homeowners can’t get by without their labor.
In the midst of tough economic realities, moral arguments are emerging largely from faith communities. A handful of religious voices have begun to suggest civil disobedience could become necessary in defiance of a law that would penalize givers of humanitarian aid. Leading the charge, Cardinal Roger Mahony, Archbishop of Los Angeles, reiterated his much-criticized position in a New York Times op-ed on March 22.
"Denying aid to a fellow human being violates a law with a higher authority than Congress--the law of God," Mahony wrote. And in the economic arguments, he apparently hears hypocrisy: "While we gladly accept [undocumented workers'] taxes and sweat, we do not acknowledge or uphold their basic labor rights."
Yet before lawmakers act, religious communities are trying to bring their moral views to bear on proposed legislation. On behalf of its Jewish members, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) supports principles in a bill jointly sponsored by U.S. Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Edward Kennedy (D-MA). Penalties for immigrants who arrived illegally would include a $2,000 fine, a mandate to pay back taxes, and compulsory English classes. Important for HIAS, however, the bill would also provide means to keep families together and to enable migrants to apply for legal status.
“The concern for the humanity of the migrant is really a paramount value,” says Gideon Aronoff, vice president for government relations and public policy. He points to 36 references in the Torah to a duty to welcome or not harm a stranger. Aronoff says the nation should show compassion to new arrivals, whether they are properly documented or not, while also seeking equitable ways for foreign nationals to fill vacancies in the workforce.
Muslims, especially since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, have banded together to cry foul in specific cases where they felt a Muslim immigrant was a victim of racial or religious profiling. Muslims thus have become immigration activists as a matter of community self-defense.
In other cases, religious tradition is mixing with experience remembered from a distant homeland to shape moral attitudes. Hindus from India, for instance, are used to wrestling with questions of what to do with the millions who entered India illegally from Bangladesh, India’s impoverished neighbor to the east.
“There is no support really [in India] for sending those people back by the trainload,” says Dr. Aseem Shukla, a Florida physician and a member of the Hindu American Foundation’s board of directors. “The person who is in need comes first” in Hinduism, regardless of that person’s legal status, because, as a Vedic prayer says, one should “treat a guest as God.” Still, Hinduism would support tightening border security in the meantime and working to improve the neighboring state’s economy as a matter of seeking, Shukla says, “to balance these age-old traditions with on-the-ground realities.”
Even within religious traditions, believers are wont to differ on a question pivotal in the moral discussion: Do migrants cross borders entirely of their own free will? Liberal religious activists tend to say “no” and see migrants instead as “victims of a larger situation, [that is, as] consequences of globalization,” according to Manuel A. Vasquez, associate professor of religion at the University of Florida and an expert on links between immigration and religion.
Those who emphasize individual freedom and personal responsibility, however, reject this justification. As Land explains, Southern Baptists generally “see a basic distinction between people who are refugees, who are in fear of their life [under political or religious persecution] and those who are coming over primarily for economic reasons and are not abiding by the immigration laws to do so.” The latter group didn’t have to break the law, he explains, and therefore should pay a price for doing so.