Where corporations are persons and the undocumented are not

By Alan Bean

With the first presidential debate looming, Mitt Romney has moved to the center on the immigration issue.  He still promises to oppose the DREAM act, if elected, to veto the bill if it passes congressional muster.  But Romney now says he would honor the work visas which, at President Obama’s direction, are currently being awarded to young undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children.

As Ross Douthat (with admirable cynicism) pointed out in a recent column, when it comes to the immigration issue, presidential aspirants can win votes by exhibiting compassion (George W. Bush, Rick Perry) or by playing mean (Mitt Romney during the primary season), but there is no advantage to waffling between these two strategies.  Like most right-leaning pundits, Douthat favors using immigration as a wedge issue:

 Taking a more restrictionist position and using the issue to portray the Democrats as beholden to their party’s ethnic interest groups and out of step with blue collar Americans’ concerns.

The wise course, in other words, is to drive a wedge between hardworking Latinos and Anglos.  Nice, Ross.  A self-proclaimed “Christian” columnist advocates this sort of nastiness and no one cries “for shame!”  That’s the America we live in.  Christianity, it seems, has no moral application unless we’re talking about abortion.

Texas politicians like George W. Bush and Rick Perry are “soft on immigration” because their support base includes a lot of agribusiness people who couldn’t survive without cheap undocumented labor.  Alienating Latino voters might benefit Republicans in the short-term; but it is a long-term loser.

It is also devilish, but hey, in American politics you’ve got to give the devil his due.

Romney and Obama are both waffling on the immigration issue.  Obama claims to be working for comprehensive immigration reform (known as CIR in immigration reform circles), but he also deported a record 400,000 undocumented immigrants last year, three-quarters of them to Mexico.  To put that in context, that’s the same number of undocumented residents the United States deported between 1908 and 1980. In theory, the feds are deporting criminals, “the worst of the worst”.  In reality, half of the deportees have no criminal record and most of the “criminals” represent little threat to American public safety.

Historically, American politicians of both parties have waffled on immigration, bouncing between compassion and demagoguery.  In 1986, Ronald Reagan signed a bill that exchanged amnesty for many undocumented immigrants for assurances that the border would be closed to new arrivals.  Typically, the approach has been to privilege on group of undocumented Americans at the expense of other undocumented groups.  The DREAM act, for instance, would allow young people who came to the United States as children to obtain work permits and apply for citizenship, but their parents, and children who arrived too late, would be out of luck.

This good-immigrant-bad-immigrant approach is fundamentally unfair and utterly unworkable.  We gain nothing by kicking the immigration can down the road.

Politicians like Obama and Romney can’t be more progressive (or regressive) than the American middle.  A new poll suggests that the majority of Americans now favor providing a path to citizenship over mass deportation.  This shift occurred, I suspect, because Barack Obama found the courage to protect (albeit temporarily) DREAM act young people from immediate deportation.

Few of us think our way to an opinion.  We listen to what significant others are saying and follow suit.  We don’t all march to the same drummer, but few of us supply our own drum track.  True reform will come when both major parties realize that they can get one of their people elected president, or they can enrage the Latino electorate, but they can’t do both.

Here’s the results of the CNN poll:

The poll indicated 56% of registered voters said the main focus of U.S. policy on undocumented immigrants should be developing a plan that would allow them to become legal residents. Thirty-nine percent said the focus should be on deporting undocumented immigrants and stopping more from coming to the U.S.

That’s a change from one year ago, when 55% said the focus should be deportation, and 42% said the focus should be developing a path to legal residency. In 2010, 61% named deportation as more important, while 37% identified a plan for legal residency as a priority.

The good news is that the punitive consensus on immigration (“toss them all out and build a wall a mile high”) is eroding.  Politicians are of two minds on immigration because the electorate can’t make up its mind.  When we harden our hearts to the sojourner in our midst, politicians talk tough.  When politicians talk tough, our hearts harden all the more until something happens to change the wind.

Friends of Justice is working to change the wind driving the issues of mass incarceration and mass deportation.  We refuse to confine ourselves to one issue or the other.  From a tactical perspective, this makes little sense.  If you talk mass incarceration, at least a handful of opinion leaders in the African American community will rally to the cause.  If you talk mass deportation, Latino leaders will give you a hearing.  Combine the issues and you give everybody something to hate.  Anglos get uncomfortable when either subject comes up.

But here’s the point politicians can’t afford to grasp: justice is all of a piece.  You can’t advocate justice for one group while ignoring everyone else.  We are for justice, or we are not.  Anything short of a thoroughgoing pro-justice position is opportunistic identity politics.

Here’s the big question: do undocumented immigrants qualify as persons?  As things presently stand corporations are persons and undocumented American residents aren’t.  We need to reverse that equation.  If the undocumented rate as persons in the eyes of God,  all arguments to the contrary are irrelevant, at least for believers.

But whose “God” we are talking about?  Donald Trump recently told 10,000 adoring fans at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty College that he believed in “getting even” with his enemies.  No turning the other cheek for the Trumpster.  When Trump’s anti-Jesus rhetoric raised eyebrows, Michael Cohen, The Donald’s press secretary, asked school administrators if they disagreed with Trump.  Here’s what he learned:

“The biased liberal media continues to distort the success of Mr. Trump’s speech at Liberty University to more than 10,000 students. Most recently they question his advice to the student body ‘to get even’ and call the statement anti-Christian. Wrong!” Michael Cohen said in a statement to ABC News.  “I conferred with Johnnie Moore at Liberty University and questioned whether Jesus would ‘get even.’ The answer is ‘he would & he did.’  Johnny explained that the bible is filled with stories of God getting even with his enemies, Jesus got even with the Pharisees and Christians believe that Jesus even got even with Satan by rising from the dead. God is portrayed as giving grace, but he is also portrayed as one tough character — just as Trump stated.”

You can find evidence in the Bible that God regards one arbitrarily selected subset of the human family with particular favor and wishes to exclude (and ultimately damn) everybody else.  But look up “resident alien” or “sojourner” in your Bible Thesaurus and you will quickly discover that God loves these people, defends them, and insists that they be protected, embraced and celebrated.  This position was radicalized by Jesus.  If you purport to believe in the God revealed in the Hebrew Scriptures or the Christian Bible, undocumented American residents aren’t just persons, they are precious.

If I am right about that (and I am), why aren’t American preachers proclaiming this surprising truth from the pulpit on a regular basis?

Because American preachers are politicians first and prophets second.  (I could have said that American preachers are politicians, not prophets, but that might have sounded harsh.)  I have never been a politician, but I spent two decades as a pastor, so I know how it works.  Pastors, like politicians, cannot be more compassionate (or cruel) than their congregations.  If you know your people resent undocumented Americans, you will think twice about proclaiming God’s love for the sojourner from the pulpit.

What if the congregation is as split on the immigration issue as the rest of the American people?  Then you ensure the subject doesn’t come up at the Wednesday night Bible study.

Pastor’s are referees, not fight promoters.

Friends of Justice believes that if you can get Latino, African American and Anglo Christians in the same room, with the Bible at the heart of the discussion, a Common Peace Community will gradually emerge.  The trick is getting these folks into the same room.  The American moral conversation easily segregates along racial lines.  Concrete and considered steps must be taken to create the proper environment, so that’s what we are doing.