Taking Cues on Immigration from Jesus
By Derek Penwell
I received a call a while back from someone I’ve known since we were kids. Caesar, lived in the children’s home my grandparents established in San Luis Potosí, Mexico, in 1964. I spent my summers there. I’ve also known his wife, Sophie, from the time she was a baby. She grew up in the home, too.
Some years back, Caesar came into the States illegally to work as a painter in Atlanta, leaving Sophie and their son, Caesar, Jr., in Mexico. Hard life, living in one country illegally, while your family lives in another.
Lonely. Anxious. Scared all the time you’ll be discovered, and sent back.
Out of the blue, Caesar called me and asked if I could send him a little money via Western Union, so that he could help bring his family to Atlanta. He explained to me how difficult it is living without the people you love the most next to you; how uncomfortable it is living in a country that takes every opportunity to tell you how much they wish you’d leave … “after you finish that last job for me”; how painful it is to contemplate having to return home to a country where you’re afraid the violence will swallow your family, leaving nothing behind but shattered lives and spent shell casings.
What’s a man to do? He’s got a wife, a son. All he cares about is keeping them safe, and making enough money to create a future he’s sure is unavailable to them back in his homeland.
Where does one start when speaking of illegal immigration?
It strikes me that the best place to start is with people’s stories, and, if you can manage it, with the pictures of people’s faces in your mind. Numbers and abstractions are a poor substitute for the thick description necessary to make another human being’s fears and anxieties, hopes and dreams intelligible.
But if numbers and abstractions are necessary to discuss illegal immigration, then OK. Let’s talk about numbers and abstractions for a moment.
Of course, we must contend with the “illegal” part that presumably makes the “immigration” part unsavory to so many.1 “Why,” the thinking goes, “should we embrace people who’ve come to our country in contravention of our laws? That only encourages more lawbreaking, after all. After they get here, why should we expect them to pay attention to the other laws? Moreover, it sends a signal to our own citizens that we as a country don’t have the courage of our convictions about this being a ‘nation of laws.’”
This objection has the virtue of coherence. Incentivizing law-breaking requires us to walk down a fairly dangerous road — or, if you prefer, take a step down the metaphorical slippery slope. We would hate to wake up one day to discover that we had become a nation of outlaws.
However, the rhetoric doesn’t appear to be borne out by the facts. If you take 1986, for instance — the year that Ronald Reagan championed amnesty (“legalization” is the preferred term) for three million undocumented workers, as the base year — you find that crime didn’t increase dramatically in the aftermath. In fact, the following year (1987) saw an overall drop in violent crime — both as a percentage (i.e., number of violent crimes as a percentage of population, .61%, down from .62% in 1986), as well as, more importantly, total number (1,483,999, down from 1,489,169 in 1986). In other words, we had more people in the United States in 1987, but fewer violent crimes — all while working to assimilate three million “illegals” into American life.
In the 27 years since the 1986 immigration reform, the country has seen a dramatic decrease in crime — total crime in general and violent crime in particular. The crime rate in 2011 (the latest year reported) was almost half the 1987 rate (3.29% vs. 5.57%). And the violent crime rate shrank from .75%, at the high water mark of 1991, to .38% in 2011.
Now, someone might object that “just because crime fell after amnesty doesn’t mean that there’s a causal connection. They might be totally unrelated.”
True. Admittedly, there are a lot of moving parts in any analysis of why crime grows or declines. Recessions. Gun Laws. Lead paint.
However, if you wanted to make the case that issuing amnesty to those people who came here illegally didn’t make crime go down, you would certainly be forced to say that the argument that allowing “illegals” to “cut to the front of the line” undermines the rule of law (making the prospect of following the law less likely) doesn’t hold much water. It’s hard to take seriously the complaint that if you do X that Y will surely follow, when after doing X, you don’t even get Y, but the opposite of Y. Not only is there no bright line of causation between amnesty and a rise in crime (either because of those who are undocumented themselves, or because the “rule of law” has been subverted by “turning a blind eye” to their law breaking), according to the numbers there isn’t even a correlation.
So why all this hand wringing about amnesty as a “back channel [way] to reward illegality?” For people who came to this country and displaced whole nations, our talk of illegal entry as the ultimate barrier to citizenship betrays either a short memory or a stunning lack of irony.
More importantly, for Christians, an inability to figure out ways to talk about immigration that sound more like Christian reflection than a cribbed statement from the Minutemen Project is cringe-worthy. Reading Jesus say in the judgment of the nations that one of the criteria for adjudging faithfulness is the way foreigners (xénos) are treated (Matthew 25:35,43), then turning around and saying, as 63% of White Evangelicals have said, that illegal immigration “threatens traditional American customs and values,” demonstrates a debt to partisan politics that transcends the priority of Christian commitment.
Look, if you love Jesus, you better love the people Jesus loved. And it’s difficult to modulate the imprecation to “Get out of my country!” into anything that sounds even remotely loving to the stranger.
After all, we’re not screaming at abstractions, we’re not dehumanizing numbers; we’re screaming at real live human beings who want nothing more than a chance to drag themselves out of poverty and keep their children safe.
Christians ought to be taking their cues on immigration from Jesus rather than from Caesar … unless, of course, it’s a painter from Atlanta, trying to borrow a few bucks to reunite his family. That Caesar’s got a lot riding on it.
1 I don’t have time to go into the “Yeah, but they take good American jobs” argument, or the “They sponge off the largesse of the American welfare state without contributing to it.” But I will take a moment to point out that those are myths that have been widely discredited.