Monday, March 13, 2006

Reclaiming the Word "Illegal"

Last Friday, Chicago hosted a demonstration for illegal immigration. Yes, a rally in favor of illegal immigration including speeches from both the governor and mayor decrying any attempt to stigmatize illegal immigrants. (Governor Rod Blagojevich even used the old, “I’m the son of an immigrant” line.) The focus was HR 4437, The Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005, which immigrants say limits their rights. Technically, a rally demanding illegal activity to be overlooked is no different from having demonstrations for any other illegal act, short of capital or violent crimes. Certainly we don’t see many people protesting arrests made of shoplifters, purse-snatchers, or drunk drivers…yet. But, for illegal immigration, 300,000 people will show up to lobby for it. How has the issue of legality come to be so thoroughly muddy?

I admit the issue has many difficult moral questions to answer. Slavery, too, used to be legal; maybe all immigration will be in time as well. And with immigrants, we are dealing with human beings, not cattle, and we naturally want to be as lenient as we reasonably can. Americans are also somewhat humbled given that we are a “nation of immigrants”, and may feel some guilt about saying who has a right to this land. For Christians, it is hard to ignore the commands, “love your neighbor” and “feed your enemy.” Likewise, the example of Jesus healing the Canaanite woman (15:21-28) and the Good Samaritan (non-Jewish neighbors) are hard to ignore. Aren’t those crossing the American border like the Samaritans and Canaanites, people different from ourselves only superficially and in desperate need of love and understanding? Certainly, no one would deny the Church should defend the citizenship and rights of any in this country legally.

Consequentially, the concept of the “illegal” in illegal immigration has become fuzzy, and virtually no lobby will take on the issue. Business won’t; the economic desire for cheap, non-taxed labor is lucrative. Politicians won’t; the political payoff for looking the other way could be enormous in a close race. The Church won’t: no organized church representing the Body of Christ would ever, or could ever, come out against these poor, migrant workers in search of work. And by this point, if any of these groups did, they would be seen as hypocrites who acted too late.

But before we make any headway on the issue, we must reclaim the word “illegal” when it comes to immigration. A nation without borders is no nation at all, and every one of the above lobbies, especially the Church, should see the projected problems coming our way as we refuse to call illegal action illegal. This numbing of language creates an atmosphere of nuance legalese and subsequent distrust of the law. Even those opposed to illegal immigration may very likely begin to live in a way less respective of the law, just by observing the way major institutions ignore it.

So the Church, in fact, has a great responsibility to call any illegal action illegal, even if it is against our neighbor. To not do so undermines the understanding of church and state that has formed over the centuries, which is that they are both ordained of God, and for good order, must both be obeyed. Roman Catholics have the principle of subsidiarity, which understands the individual responsible for himself first, and the federal (or world) government responsible for him last. Reformed churches talk of sphere sovereignty, and Lutheran churches speak of the Two Kingdoms theory. All effectively say that government and the rule of law should be respected, as should the weight the Word and Church carry with them.

Yet, the Church is lobbying against any notion of making illegal immigration a point of conflict, a conflict they say would push immigrants, especially illegal ones, to the margins. This “social gospel”, though, threatens the security of the nation and the basic ability to claim sovereignty as a nation. It doesn’t mean that the church cannot visit all persons who commit crime in prison, attempt to provide better economic opportunities for those in corrupt countries, or provide a visa for those who want to work in the United States. It does mean that to undermine the law is a grave mistake, one that will inevitably lead to a disrespect for the law as a concept first, and a disregard for the law in practice second.

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