Monday, June 24, 2013

Considering the "Biblical" opposition to immigration reform

Recently I came across an article on immigration reform entitled "Evangelicals for Biblical Immigration — But Not for the Gang of 8 Bill (S. 744)" by Kelly Monroe Kullberg writing for "Evangelicals for Biblical Immigration." Since I am more or less evangelical (or at least that's what my blog name says), take the Bible as authoritative, and have more than a passing interest in immigration issues, I was intrigued. I even hoped to learn something.

I was greatly mistaken.

You see, the problem with these arguments is that I happen to know something about immigration. I studied immigration law in law school (think of it like tax law, only more poorly written) and was a member of my school's Immigration Law Clinic, where I represented immigrant clients. I also wrote a honors paper on some of the shortcomings with asylum law. So I'm not speaking in a vacuum here when I say that Kullberg's argument reflects more poorly on herself then it does on the immigration reforms she attempts to oppose.

Kullberg starts off strong, affirming that "God loves us all, the sojourner and the citizen" and "God invites us into his Church as a new kind of family. At the same time, He has purposefully placed us in this century, and into families, tribes and nations. Many people are displaced by war, famine and in need of kindness.  We can help. The Church, and America, almost always has helped. We are a generous nation." Amen. There are lots of great examples of the Church helping immigrants, the 1980 Sanctuary movement, where a network of churches defied the Federal Government by sheltering Central American refugees, being one of my favorites.

However, Kullberg quickly demonstrates that the Sanctuary movement--or any help to illegal immigrants--isn't what she has in mind. Instead, along with terrorists, she labels them as the "other." She writes, "There are other foreigners, however, such as the Boston-based Tsarnaev brothers, and others who do not mean to come as blessing, who do not belong in America."

I keep seeing the Tsarnaev brothers used as examples of how our asylum structure is too lax (try telling that to the Romeike family). In reality, the Tsarnaev brothers were granted asylum as derivatives of their father when they were still minors. Absent some form of PreCrime unit, I’ve seen no evidence that these were any warning signs at the time of immigration. And concerns were delaying the citizenship application of the elder brother, just (unfortunately) not quickly enough. Insofar as this was a failure on the part of the government, it wasn't an immigration failure. Should we really start interrogating 9-year-olds if, in 10 years, they plan to preform terrorist acts? Do we really think we'll get reliable answers?

Kullberg then transitions into an argument for making what she calls "Biblical" distinctions:
While the Bible teaches us to be kind to the sojourner or “resident alien,” it also teaches that kindness to the sojourner ought not to be injustice to local citizens and their unique culture. To steward and cultivate, whether a garden or a nation, involves wisdom and discernment. We, like our Founders, want to conserve what is true, good and beautiful. We want to nurture a nation that would welcome our children as well as the well-intended sojourner.
I've noted before the legitimate concern over tensions caused by immigration, but lately that has begun to feel like a pretext to oppose immigration reform in general. And while her appeal to the founders is nice, I wonder if Kullberg has heard the nasty things the founders said about, say, German immigrants, who seem to have assimilated just fine (with the possible exception of certain parts of Michigan). As a side note, it was people standing up to just this sort of derogatory treatment directed at the Germans that laid the foundation for the homeschooling rights that we have today. Actually, fear of a lack of assimilation seems to be popular with each generation. First it was the Germans and Irish and Jews, then the Chinese, now the Hispanics and Muslims. But each time the fear has proven overstated. The children and grandchildren of immigrants do assimilate. After all, I am writing in English, not German or Danish.

Anyway, back to Kullberg and her "Biblical" distinctions.
Old Testament scholar James Hoffmeier states that the Hebrew word “ger”, translated “alien” or “sojourner” refers to “a person who entered Israel and followed legal procedures to obtain recognized standing as a resident alien.” This lawful sojourner (“ger”) was not necessarily given all the rights and privileges as the Hebrew citizen, but was treated kindly, indeed much more kindly than was customary among tribes and nations of the ancient world. God commanded Israel to be kind to the sojourner.  In other words, Hoffmeier continues, biblical “… verses about sojourners refer to legal immigrants into the country. But other people who did not have this recognized standing were simply termed ‘foreigners’ … and did not have the same benefits or privileges that sojourners did.”
I’m not going to get into an ancient Hebrew discussion here, so for the sake of argument I’ll assume that Hoffmeier is correct in his interpretation of the words. However, a cursory review of Hoffmeier's book shows that his argument fails to prove its own conclusion. He writes:
The distinction between the two is not only that the aliens (gerim) have resided with a host nation for a period of time, but that ‘they have abandoned their homeland for political or economic reasons and sought refuge in another community.’ In other words, the ger regards the land of his sojourning as the new home for a protected time period, while the foreigner does not …. the alien was a permanent resident. The foreigner, on the other hand, was not... foreigners were those who were passing through the land with no intention of taking residence, or perhaps they would be temporarily or seasonally employed.
The distinction Hoffmeier makes is between temporary visitors and permanent residents, not permanent legal residents and permanent non-legal residents. I’ve seen no evidence that the Bible even makes a distinction between “legal” and “illegal” immigrants--and it certainly doesn’t look anything like this.

If anything, Hoffmeier’s analysis proves the opposite point he’s trying to make--there is a Biblical mandate to show kindness to those foreigners living among us on a permanent basis. Those would be the undocumented immigrants that S. 744 is extending status to, since surveys indicate that 98% of undocumented immigrants would prefer to be here legally if they could. The issue is that many cannot comply with the law regardless of how much they want to. Once you understand that, your entire perspective changes.
Kullberg then argues that the proposed immigration reform bill (S. 744, summarized here) is bad because it is too expensive in economic and social costs: "The bill would dramatically affect the future of 300 million current citizens by reshaping America’s sovereignty, economy, spiritual and moral compass, political dependencies, public safety and national security."

The national security and "spiritual and moral compass" arguments are completely undeveloped, so I won't even attempt to determine what she means. The cost question, however, is a little more defined. The primary study on the cost of amnesty is by the Heritage Foundation, which as the Cato Institute points out, is based on many questionable assumptions. Even a former Heritage scholar now at the Hudson Institute has criticized the report, writing "The report’s authors may sincerely believe that unlawful immigrants are costly, but their study clearly makes assumptions to prove that point, while ignoring research to the contrary." Such research to the contrary estimates significant economic benefits from legalization. And the Congressional Budget Office just released an analysis concluding that passage of the bill would actually reduce the federal deficit by close to $900 billion over the next 20 years.

Then comes this gem. Kullberg  writes: "We’re primarily concerned that S. 744 is ideologically and politically driven, and not motivated by compassion for, and justice to, actual human beings." Apparently, however, "ideologically and politically driven" opposition to S. 744 is just fine, as the rest of the letter demonstrates.

I've heard this argument repeated numerous times: the Democrats only support the bill because they want to ensure a permanent democratic voting majority. Yet here is what I fail to grasp. If the Democratic support for a bill that may help their political majority is anathema, isn't opposition to a bill that undermines Republican political power equally condemnable? How come supporting "our" majority for the sake of power is noble, while the other party doing the same thing is somehow evil? At its base, the argument is circular. The Democrats are evil because they want to vote themselves a permanent majority, and a Democratic majority is bad because Democrats are evil. Or, to use Kullberg's own words, "at least a few people in high places are there to manage the decline of the America we love." Given arguments like this, the Republicans deserve to lose the immigrant vote, which, of course, merely turns the argument into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Alright, next issue: "Few immigrants are being deported. America leads all nations in allowing hundreds of thousands of foreigner’s unlawful entrance each year (the exact number is uncertain)."
I think we also lead all nations in the number of people trying to get in, so that's a bit of a false comparison. But let's look to the evidence. Illegal border crossings are at a 40 year low and deportations are currently at a record highs and getting higher. (Oh wait, I just used part of the “Media Propaganda State.” But Fox News agrees, so it’s all good.) Net Mexican border crossings are falling to near zero, while immigration enforcement spending is greater than all other federal law enforcement spending combined. And in some parts of the country, border enforcement is so aggressive that legal residents and citizens are being detained. But of course, all those are just "ideologically and politically driven" facts, while Kullberg's thin-air assertions are gospel truth. Is anyone else beginning to see why the Republicans don't have much credibility on immigration?

Kullberg ends with a plea:
I am asking my Senators, and all of Congress, to pause and read all 1,000 pages (and growing) of the S. 744 bill itself, and to kindly consider the citizens of the United States whom they are elected to represent. Our poor. Our widows. Our unemployed, many of whom are African- and Hispanic-American young people. Our veterans and college graduates having trouble finding meaningful career paths.  Passing another comprehensive bill full of good intentions and empty promises is unjust, immoral and unwise.  This bill is not “better than nothing.”  It is flawed to the point of being unworkable.  Please, scrap it and start over.  Give us something short enough to read.  Something clear enough to understand.  State what the bill will do, when it will be done, and how much it will cost. Use our common dictionary as well as our vocabulary (enough with the Alinsky/Screwtape rhetoric). No more obfuscation — let your words mean something real.
She is long on critique, but short on solutions. Please, Ms. Kullberg, offer a constructive alternative. I'm all ears, but so far haven't heard of anything that actually makes sense. Do the opponents even have a viable counter-plan? Or is this just another pretext for opposition?

Kullberg likes to compare immigration reform to health care reform. Let me do the same for a moment. The Republicans lost the health care debate, in large part, because they had no plan. They had no alternative. The only argument was "it's unconstitutional," and when that lost there wasn't anything else. It doesn't help that the individual mandate was the brain-child of the Heritage Foundation offered as a counter to the single-payer system, so in a way, they did have a plan before the Democrats stole it, and as soon as the Democrats proposed it the Republicans denounced it. The consequence is that even if Obamacare fails, Obama still gets credit for trying. The Republicans don't even have that. As a recent article on the youth vote noted,"Republicans lost so badly among young votes because Republicans were rarely heard and had nothing to say." The lesson has not been learned.

In her conclusion, Kullberg attempts again to incorporate Biblical examples into the debate.
Let’s leave behind the sloganeering and confront the hard task of discernment. Just as Paul taught the Church (1 Timothy 5) to delineate among widows for whom the Church should provide, we are called to discern among  “sojourners” (like Ruth and Rahab who intend to assimilate and bless) and “foreigners” (who do not intend to assimilate and bless) and to welcome the former with hospitality. Observance to the whole counsel of Scripture yields growth and goodness to those in need.  America is a nation rooted in the truth of God’s love for the individual and for the whole world.
Oh the irony. Ruth had no blood relatives in Israel and no job--she would be ineligible for admission under our law today. Additionally, she had no income and ended up gleaning from the fields, which makes her a "welfare user" of the time, a deportable offense today. And as for Rahab, prostitutes are inadmissible (not to mention the national security, cultural, and spiritual threat she posed).

Yes, discernment is a hard task. So is identifying, asking, and addressing the hard policy questions. Unfortunately, none of that is happening here. Instead, we get "sloganeering," shoddy theology, poor reasoning, and a de facto defense of a system with faults that the defenders can't even comprehend.

But after all that, I must admit that Kullberg convinced me. After reading the article I have much greater support for S.744. It's one of the consequences bad arguments have on me.
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