The debate about Arizona’s law on immigration continues as the decision heads toward a federal appeals ruling in November. I keep looking for balanced and compassionate ways to address this problem that so clearly divides Christians and the nation. (One poll says the majority of Americans favor the Arizona law!) With this in mind I recently read the opinion piece of syndicated writer Ruben Navarrette, a Mexican-American immigrant. Navarrette offers, I believe, a more hopeful perspective in his San Diego Union-Tribune column about Arizona’s changing situation.
Navarrette spoke of taking a trip to Arizona (in August) and how he needed to make sure that he took his passport. For those who have not followed this case closely the state of Arizona is presently appealing U. S. District Judge Susan Bolton’s decision against it’s controversial law on checking people for their proof of citizenship if they are stopped by the police for any reason. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is not scheduled to hear this case for several more months so the debate will surely rage while the law is specifically challenged.
Navarrette notes that 70% of white Arizonans support the new law while about the same percentage of Latino Americans oppose it. Navarrette once lived in Phoenix and thus has, I believe, an interesting perspective on this controversy. He wrote that his recent trip to Phoenix was made in order to “find out what became of the racial/ethnic comity that once seemed as much a part of Arizona as cactus, turquoise and kachina dolls.” As a result of the fierceness of this present debate people are now openly divided. Families are divided and long-time friends are separated. And, as I have noted here previously, children are the really big losers in this context.
After Prop 187 was passed in California in 1994, a decision that denied education, welfare and health care to illegal immigrants and their children, the federal court ruled against the California measure. At that time many immigrants decided to move to Arizona where the laws (and social context) were more favorable. Today many Arizonans see this as the time when the new “invasion” began. Navarrette writes: “To be honest, it was more like a massive job fair where Arizonans eagerly hired illegal immigrants to do everything from cleaning houses to building them, from tending gardens to tending children, from working in the fields to working in the restaurant kitchens. If the chores were hard, dirty, tedious or unpleasant, they inevitably fell to immigrants since the native-born weren’t interested.”
During the next ten-plus years Phoenix boomed. For awhile this was fine with city leaders because the city was prospering. Phoenix was rising in the desert like a great major metropolis, which it has now clearly become. But the demographic side effect was the growing sense that whites were losing control and the state was changing dramatically, which it also was. The real fear (always below the surface of course) was that whites would become a minority just as they had in California, Texas and New Mexico. One Phoenix reporter told Navarrette, “They’re taking over. There is a fear [here] that this was becoming an immigrant city.”
Something had to be done and Navarrette believes the result was the strong political response that produced the new law. Activists call this: “The Mexican Removal Act.” Many insist the law makes bigotry acceptable. Just as many deny it and believe the law is now necessary. State and national security is threatened and action must be taken. The debate rages.
What has prompted this intense response? More than one person told Ruben Navarrette that “the fear factor went through the roof when Barack Obama was elected president. “ Navarette concludes: “For many Americans, this [i.e. Obama’s election] was a sign the country was changing too fast for their taste. And for their own comfort level, they wanted to change it back to the way it used to be.”
Is Ruben Navarrette right? The answer is easy if you are on one side or the other in this contentious debate. He is wrong if you frame the question by national “security” concerns. He is right if you frame it by “concern over racism.” I am personally persuaded that real leadership in this crisis is lacking, at least among most elected officials. I am also convinced that Christians, of all people, should be the ones who step up on this issue. We should address our fears and concerns with a deep commitment to reconciliation and justice. We should do this, first, in our local congregations. We failed to do this during the civil rights era, at least until after the law was changed in the Congress. Once again we seem to be paralyzed and thus unable to meaningful lead in the broader culture. Where is our commitment to compassion and justice in the present immigration debate? If our role is faithful presence then how are we being faithful when our words sound more like the left or the right and offer no hope of real change?