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.
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.