Federal judge Susan Bolton has blocked core elements of Arizona’s new immigration law.
According to the New York Times, “Judge Bolton took aim at the parts of the law that have generated the most controversy, issuing a preliminary injunction against sections that called for police officers to check a person’s immigration status while enforcing other laws and that required immigrants to carry their papers at all times.”
The Arizona law draws a clear line between legal immigrants and full citizens of the United States. Legal immigrants are forced to carry papers with them at all times; citizens do not.
The legal system frequently turns on fairness tests rooted in the principle of equality. Is it fair, the judge asks, for legal immigrants to be held to a requirement that doesn’t extend to the native-born?
Ultimately, the Arizona law will go before the Supreme Court. Judge Bolton feels that the most controversial features of the new statute should be placed on hold while the legal process wrestles with the issue.
I was vacationing in Arizona a couple of weeks ago with my wife, Nancy and daughter, Lydia. One night, the owners of the little resort where we were staying had a barbecue and invited all their guests. Apart from my family, everyone in attendance lived in the Phoenix area. To a person, they believed the new immigration law was long overdue and entirely reasonable.
I could understand their position. The law, state and federal, is very clear about who can and cannot reside in the United States. It’s hard to argue with the “what part of ‘illegal’ do you not understand?” argument.
If this is bigotry, most of America is bigoted–the Arizona law enjoys solid support across the nation.
This debate is personal for me. I have spent the majority of my adult life as a resident alien living in the United States. A couple of years ago they handed me a copy of the US Constitution and a little flag. I was now an American citizen with all the rights and privileges thereunto appertaining.
Not once during the decades I lived in this country on a green card (with the exception of going through customs) was I asked to produce papers proving my legal right to be in the country.
If I was living as a legal alien in Arizona the law wouldn’t concern me in the least. I’m a white guy from Canada.
If I was a brown guy from Mexico or El Salvador, the new law would concern me deeply.
Governor Jan Brewer’s brainchild doesn’t draw a line between resident aliens and full citizens; it draws a line between Anglos and Latinos. As a practical matter, Anglos will be assumed to be citizens even if they are in the country illegally. Latinos, on the other hand, will be forced to prove that they belong in the country even if they are legal aliens or, one assumes, full-fledged citizens.
Suppose a white resident alien is pulled over in a Phoenix suburb driving 4o mph in a 30 mph zone. Are the police likely to ask him to prove he is in the country legally. Not likely, In fact, they can’t pop the question unless they have solid grounds for suspicion.
Change the race of the resident alien and things shift radically. There mere fact of having black hair and dark skin, plus nothing, creates reasonable suspicion. How do you tell a Latino whose American roots go back six generations from a Mexican that crossed the border illegally? You ask to see his papers.
Or can we trust law enforcement to be more discerning?
As a practicing Christian, I naturally ask what the Bible says about the treatment of aliens.
I would ask the cultured despisers of religion not to get too flustered. I’m not suggesting that the law of the land should takes it’s lead from Holy Writ. This is a pluralistic nation where we have the right to practice any religion or no religion. We even have the right to be anti-religious if that’s our preference. I get all of that.
But I’m talking about me and people like me who use the Bible as life-guide; and I ask: what does the Bible teach about the aliens among us?
The subject comes up a lot, particularly in the Old Testament. The people of Israel were entreated to love and honor the sojourner (some modern translations use the word “alien”) who lived among them. Given the Bible’s generally dim view of foreign religions in general, and idolatry in particular, this blessing on the sojourner comes as a surprise. The explanation is given in Leviticus 19:33,34:
When an alien (sojourner) resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD you God. (NRSV)
At the feast of first fruits (described in Deuteronomy 26), residents of the land of Israel were to hand a basket of fruit to the priest and intone these ancient words:
A wandering Aramean was my father; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous . . .
The Exodus story (the heart of the Hebrew Scriptures) charts the fortunes of a slave people freed from captivity by the grace of God. Even though we were despised slaves and aliens living without the rights of citizenship, the Hebrew Scriptures say, God looked on us with favor. So we must be gracious toward the illegal aliens in our midst.
I don’t dispute the right of nations to withhold the privileges of citizenship from all but the favored few. But how should we regard the mothers and fathers among us who entered this country in search of a better life for their children?
During a series of hearings, Jan Brewer cut to the heart of the issue to Deputy Solicitor General Edwin S. Kneedler: “Why can’t Arizona be as inhospitable as they wish to people who have entered or remained in the United States?”
Kneedler was ready with an answer: “It is not for one of our states to be inhospitable in the way this statute does.”
That kind of inhospitality, the Solicitor General seemed to suggest, was the province of the federal government.
But why should any of us want to be inhospitable to the aliens in our midst?
Like the people of Israel, we were all aliens back in the day. Our ancestors may not have been received warmly; some made the trip to the Promised Land in the hold of a slave ship. But we were allowed (or compelled) to stay in the country. No one tried to deport us.
Why should it be any different for the folks who enter the country searching for an alternative to a dead-end life of poverty?
By some lucky quirk of fate we ended up in this country. Some of us were born here. Others, like me, are allowed to live here legally (and apply for full citizenship) because we married an American citizen. Virtue and merit had no bearing whatsoever. The lucky few were born with tickets guaranteeing us a space in the lifeboat.
There is no moral or spiritual justification for the hardness of heart on display across the country. A nation of immigrants slamming the door on immigration.
We’ve been down this road before. The Immigration Act of 1917 barred citizenship to residents of “any country not owned by the U.S. adjacent to the continent of Asia”.
Nothing subtle there.
We look back on the restrictions placed on Chinese, Japanese or Eastern European immigration and wonder what we were thinking.
We weren’t thinking. We were caught up in an unseemly fit of Xenophobia, just as we are now.
The history books will not be kind to Jan Brewer and the rest of the “what part of illegal do you not understand” crowd. For the moment, however, Arizona’s controversial law is endorsed by between 55 and 70% of the American nation (depending on whose poll you read).
Are we making moral progress in this nation, or have we spent the last forty years wandering in the moral wilderness?