I am convinced that most of those who oppose what I have written over the course of the past two days do so for reasons that they believe are compelling and sound. I am also convinced that most of those who take a strong stand against legalizing illegal immigrants is rooted in our past history and their present fear. These are real concerns and unless, or until, those who favor the kinds of proposals that I have set forth offer a good answer to these questions then their minds cannot change on this subject. The art of good politics is to get people to move toward each other and thus to reach agreement wherever possible.

gimmegrants_2 A major problem with the immigration debate right now is that we are less than six months from a congressional election. No one, including the President, wants to tackle this issue right now. Even Senator John McCain, who has historically favored a more balanced approach to this problem, has moved away from wanting to address what we should do with the multitudes of good people who have settled in the United States (illegally) and reared their families here for the past ten, fifteen and twenty years. Senator McCain’s stance has hardened and one has to think that this is because of the difficult primary election that he now faces in his own state. Emotions run high in Arizona where a recently signed law will soon take effect that allows the police to stop and search people on the basis of the mere “suspicion” that the person is an illegal alien. Without the necessary papers this person can be arrested. I wonder how draconian we are actually willing to become in order to deal with this deeply troubling issue.

The two most pressing concerns that I hear from those who oppose any kind of amnesty for illegal aliens that would allow them to openly pursue citizenship, or more permanent legal residence on a work visa. are these:

1. President Reagan gave blanket amnesty to illegal aliens in the 1980s and this failed miserably. We were supposed to seal the borders, thus stopping the influx of illegal immigrants, and then address the real problems. We gave the amnesty and then did nothing. The simple fact is that millions of new illegal immigrants moved into the U.S. since that time. Both the White House and Congress lost their nerve and the will to deal with the border issue. I think this concern drives most of the rhetoric that I hear on this issue. I agree with it and want the border issue addressed clearly and effectively. In effect the argument I often hear is that we must set a proper legal precedent or we will reap worse problems down the road. While I agree the questions remains as to what is a proper precedent. We all seem to agree President Reagan's solution failed in the end.

But if we are to deal with our present problem I think we also need a compassionate response to the millions who already live here with their American-born children. But a fence, and more security, will not stop this problem. It is complicated by a number of factors; e.g., deep poverty in Mexico, employers who all but welcome illegal immigrants to work here while they turn a blind eye to the law. In addition there is the social and spiritual issue of families divided by a border plus an intense national reaction that stirs up considerable angst among many Americans who fear the invasion of the Mexicans.

2. The second issue that must be addressed is how we are going to deal with those who are already here. The response that some offer is simple: “If you are here illegally then go home, period!” Besides the fact that this cannot be done without incredible social unrest and violence that will cripple the nation at a very bad time, the economic impact of this approach would destroy whole towns and sectors of our society. This is part of what my son deals with in his community. Some 30% of his town is Hispanic and likely half of those residents are illegal. Can you imagine what neighborhoods would be like if 4,000 people in his town of 29,000 simply left overnight? What would happen to the schools? And what about the churches? Can you fathom what would happen to the many jobs that these people perform in major cities like Chicago?

Some will argue that we should never offer anything positive to law-breakers and illegal immigrants are nothing but law-breakers. I find this response simplistic in the extreme. And the DREAM Act I offered a few days ago is dealing with children born in the U.S. not their parents. If we summarily deport children born in the U.S. then we have stooped to a new low. I doubt that our own laws would permit it when tested in the courts.

So, what I suggest we need is a two-pronged solution that takes the border issue seriously (and this will involve many parts working effectively to make up a whole solution) and a compassionate and just way of helping most illegal immigrants earn the right to stay here or to even become citizens.

The White House says that whatever part of this issue is addressed by Congress it will sign. The problem is that we are likely to get half a loaf again. This will only make matters worse. Tamar Jacoby, president of Immigration-Works U.S.A., worries that a symbolic partisan feint at reform this year could fail and then simply make it impossible to muster the support that will be needed from both parties in 2011. “There are 57 varieties of train wreck here and only one slim chance of success.” What Jacoby is saying is that we need to get this right the first time around or we will make things even worse. In the present Congress, and current political context, I see no chance of this happening in 2010.

We have never faced an issue quite like this in our nation’s history. The reasons we face it now are very complex. I am suggesting that Christians, of all people, ought to pursue both justice and mercy in how they frame this debate and their solutions to it. I do not pretend to have all the answers but I am certain that what has transpired in Arizona in recent weeks is not in the best interest of the nation. I am also certain that this kind of response will foster further division between people groups in the church. This ought to trouble Christians far more than the debates about our borders and deep fears over our national security. Which comes first, the kingdom of God or our loyalty to the nation? I love my country and I want to protect it. I simply think we can do that and show mercy and compassion at the same time.

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  1. Chuck May 21, 2010 at 8:45 am

    Dr. Armstrong,
    If I understand your piece you are advocating essentially two things.
    First, that border security be tightened in order to stem the flow into the US. And second, that a proper “pathway to citizenship” (not amnesty in the strict sense) be established whereby those who are already here may be able to “earn” the right to stay. I agree with you on both points. The “throw them out and build the fence” group is wrong on too many points to cite. But those who see this as purely a humanitarian issue with little or no regard for the profound legal and societal repercussions are equally wrong.
    I would also add one other huge issue that must be addressed as a part of this package – it is way to easy for folks to remain here for many years and live fairly normal lives all the while never becoming legal. They can buy homes, start a business, enroll their children in school, attend college (in Texas you even get in-state tuition…while here illegally), get a drivers license, utilize all manner of social services, etc., and never obtain legal status. This is unfair to both the US taxpayer (tax burden, jobs, etc.) as well as the immigrants who are cut off only after we have allowed them to set deep roots in our society. For those who would choose to come here there must be a strong incentive for them to become citizens as a first order of business.
    But all of this is for naught if our federal government doesn’t grow the courage to do it’s job and enforce the law. This is the weakest of the links. Americans should insist that our President and lawmakers do what they have sworn to do.

  2. John Armstrong May 21, 2010 at 8:51 am

    Chuck, you understand my view perfectly. What amazes me is that both here and where these posts appeared on my facebook page the response of many Christians was to miss what you see as obvious. The federal government has shown no courage to enforce the borders and has turned this into a nightmare. My profound concern does not lead to border compromise but to compassion for people like this young girl who is a wonderful American and should not be deported. Justice and mercy can both be served but there is little will on the two ends of the spectrum for both. The anger connected to this issue amazes me and underscores the tragedy of how the nation has impacted the church, rather than the church impacting the nation.

  3. Matt Armstrong May 21, 2010 at 10:52 am

    I like what Chuck said above. Our current system is duplicitous. We have strong rhetoric and little is actually done. Our current approach reminds me of a parent who makes big threats of discipline for the unruly child but never follows through. When the child continues to misbehave who is more at fault–the parent or the child? Clearly, the child is responsible for their actions, but I believe the parent who is inconsistent shares more of the blame as they are the one with God-given authority. How can we blame people for coming across our border to survive when we have such a laissez faire attitude? We talk a big talk but then we do nothing. We must deal with both issues now before us: 1) The 10-12 million people here without a legal right to be here; 2) Securing the border so that we don’t continue to be in the same boat for years to come. Securing the border happens many miles inland though–in places like my town in Illinois. It happens through enforcement of employment laws as the main reason people come here is for economic opportunity.
    I would like to comment once again specifically on the DREAM Act and the girl in the video. First, the young lady in the video is someone I have known for over six years. She was part of our Crossroads Kids Club in elementary school. Now she has served as a leader of other kids in Crossroads in her neighborhood. She professed faith in Jesus, and I baptized her. She is a very important part of our church community and a precious young sister in Christ. Second, SHE did not break the law when her parents brought her here at the age of seven for the simple reason that our laws recognize an age of accountability. No seven year old is ever charged with any crime. When a seven year old does something truly heinous, they receive counseling and protection, not prison. Her parents did break the law, yes, but which of us wants the sins of the parents to harm their children? (We are inclined to help children all over the world whose parents have harmed them (selling them into slavery, passing on AIDS in birth, etc.) except these people in our own backyard.) Our system has failed to deal with her parents in a timely manner and so she has grown up here, and this has become her home. She is truly caught between a rock and a hard place. She counts herself blessed to have been brought up in the U.S. even though she understands that her parents broke the law. Her parents are accountable for their actions for sure, but how can we deal fairly with their children? The DREAM Act is an attempt to do that. It does nothing for her parents.

  4. Joe Schafer May 21, 2010 at 11:05 am

    John, thanks for these helpful articles. I think that the situation has been made much worse by today’s polarized, hyper-partisan political environment. There is a great fear among conservatives that offering illegals a path to citizenship will swell the voting rolls of the Democrat party and give them a permanent majority status. And, on the other hand, I am quite sure that many on the left are salivating over the prospect of increasing the size of a Hispanic constituency that has tended to support Democrats. Yes, one could say that many of these new voters would tilt conservative on some issues (e.g. abortion), but those are probably not the issues that would drive their political affiliation. I’m not sure what could be done about this. But the possibility of upsetting the current balance between the two major parties is a gorilla in the room, and without acknowledging this, I see little hope for comprehensive immigration reform. But I do hope and pray that this would not stand in the way of a smaller and sensible initiative like the DREAM Act.

  5. David Rogers May 21, 2010 at 8:32 pm

    I often wonder why, in midst of all the rhetoric, we don’t hear more about “employers who all but welcome illegal immigrants to work here while they turn a blind eye to the law.”
    It seems to me, if there is someone wearing a black hat in this movie, it is the employers who are willing to take on illegal employees, paying them wages no one else would work for, avoiding paying for benefits and corresponding taxes, and keeping them submissive due to fear they will be turned into the authorities.
    And, if it were not so easy to get these types of jobs, the incentive to working illegally that lures so many who are just trying to provide a better future for their families would be lowered.

  6. John,
    Have you read the law?
    Your statement that the “recently signed law will soon take effect that allows the police to stop and search people on the basis of the mere “suspicion” that the person is an illegal alien.” Is a false one.
    What the laws says is “For any lawful contact made by a law enforcement official or a law enforcement agency…where reasonable suspicion exists that the person is an alien who is unlawfully present in the United States, a reasonable attempt shall be made, when practicable, to determine the immigration status of the person…”.
    Authorities are ONLY allowed to take into consideration the possibility of a person being here illegally AFTER they have been apprehended due to reasonable suspicion of another illegal activity.
    There may of course be the possibility that the police will up other false accusations in order to have an excuse to check someone’s immigration status, but that is against the law itself.
    There may be problems with the law, but giving police the right to detain people JUST to check their immigration status is NOT one of them.
    Here’s an article you might want to read on the subject: http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/opinion/columns/Byron-York/A-carefully-crafted-immigration-law-in-Arizona-92136104.html

  7. twitter.com/adamrshields May 29, 2010 at 10:40 am

    George, that is how the law was originally written. It has been modified, but reasonable suspicion can be almost anything. In my area, it has been confirmed that police have checked immigration status on people reporting a crime. It hasn’t happened often, but it has happened enough that there is a real fear of reporting a crime, staying at the scene of an accident when you were not at fault, reporting illegal job practices, etc. I think as a matter of policy, police should never be allowed to check immigration status, until a person has been charged with another crime. Suspicion is not enough.

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