Who is my neighbor? One Christian’s perspective on immigration and love

The United States prides itself as a nation of immigrants. The Statue of Liberty stands as a symbol of America’s openness bidding, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”

However, the debate currently taking place in the U.S. Congress over immigration reform leads me to question whether we really believe what we profess, and challenges those of us who are Christians to examine our deeply held faith values.

Scripture compels us to “welcome the stranger in our midst” (Leviticus 19.33-34), which is equivalent to welcoming Jesus himself (Matthew 25.35). Yet, the House of Representatives version of the immigration bill (HR4437) tried to make it a crime to assist or help undocumented immigrants.

Many social service and church workers who serve the needs of the immigrant population could be forced to choose between following the law or their conscience. Simply allowing someone to attend church or get help at a food pantry could be grounds for arrest.

In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King described an unjust law as one that is out of harmony with the will of God. If ever HR4437 becomes law, Christians could be confronted with a choice to obey the law of the land or the dictates of God.

However, beyond our concern for the stranger is the Biblical mandate to care for the poor. God has exercised a preferential option for the poor and those who seek to follow God’s ways must stand against the powers of exclusion and oppression.

Studies of undocumented immigrants clearly indicate that they come the U.S. seeking a way out of poverty for their families. One argument for tighter immigration laws has been that undocumented immigrants take jobs from American workers.

However, most economists believe that immigrants have only a modest impact on low income wages and no impact on unemployment rates. Thus, what really lies behind the call for tighter immigration is a bias seeking justification.

Jesus places no nationalistic boundaries on the extent of our compassion. In fact it was the Good Samaritan’s willingness to transcend ethnic boundaries that made his act of compassion so commendable (Luke 10).

Arguments that justify tighter immigration measures on the basis of helping America’s poor are not only specious, but present a false dichotomy. Our commitment to seeking justice for the poor cannot be bound by race or nationality.

For me, at the heart of the immigration debate is a global economic system that disproportionately benefits the wealthy and powerful and disadvantages the worker and peasant classes of the world. Douglas Massey, president of Princeton University, points out a contradiction in our thinking on free trade. He writes, “As we move to promote the freer cross-border movement of goods, services, capital and commodities, we simultaneously seek to prevent the movement of labor.”

The global economy in which we live does not allow for the free movement of labor as it does for the free movement of capital. Companies can choose to relocate across borders in search of cheaper labor costs, but workers are restricted from crossing borders in search of better work. It’s a setup that hurts the poor, and benefits the corporate profiteers.

Before we middle class Christians shake our heads in disgust, we must realize that as consumers and participants in this economic system, we are collaborators in a process that exploits the immigrant. Economic justice for the poor of the world, whether they stay in their home country or come to the U.S., means higher prices for those of us who benefit from low-wage services.

As compassionate Christians we are confronted with the question of how deeply we adhere to the call “to love mercy, act justly, and walk humbly with our Lord” (Micah 6.8), and what price we are willing to pay.

For me, the call is clear. As a compassionate seeker of justice I must make space for the immigrant to have access to the same opportunities I enjoy. I encourage all of us to become aware of this important issue, to contact our elected representatives and to examine our consciences in light of the faith we profess.

–Dr. Drick Boyd is Asstistant Professor of Management Studies at Eastern University

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