Over the past several years, there has been a stalemate in Congress over immigration reform. As a result, state legislatures have taken the matter into their own hands. The most draconian law passed has been the Beason-Hammon Alabama Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act, which was signed into law on June 9 and lambasted in a Nov. 27 New York Times editorial for its "moral repugnance."
Alabama's law touches on every aspect of an immigrant’s life in the United States, stipulating conditions in which immigrants can rent housing, earn a living, enter into contracts and interact with law enforcement officials, as well as conditions in which immigrant children can attend schools. Most alarming to the Christian community is a section of the bill that would criminalize certain behavior related to transporting, harboring or shielding unauthorized aliens, which would criminalize ministries for picking up undocumented immigrants for church or providing services to immigrants through thrift stores.
“The law,” said Archbishop Thomas J. Rodi of Mobile, “attacks our core understanding of what it means to be a church.” Several provisions of the law were recently enjoined by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, including a section which required schools to collect data on the legal status of their students. The state, however, is enforcing other provisions of the law which were not blocked, including a requirement for police during stops or arrests to check the legal status of those they suspect to be in the country without legal status.
Laws of this kind institutionalize segregation in our communities and justify such segregation by creating a whole subset of laws that determine how immigrants without legal status are to be treated and interacted with. Such anti-immigrant laws are passed under the misconception that our federal government is not doing anything to stop illegal immigration, when in fact, our federal government deported a record number 396,906 immigrants last year and spent over $17 billion on border security.
Also driving these laws is the mistaken view that immigrants do not contribute to the economic vitality of the state. In reality, undocumented immigrants make up a significant percentage of farm workers in Alabama. Farmers in Alabama have started to protest the law saying that despite efforts to hire native-born Americans and pay higher wages, many local people are not willing to do arduous agricultural labor (a fact lampooned in the above clip from "The Colbert Report"). Many local crops have thus been left to rot in the fields.
Immigrants also contribute enormously to the social fabric of any community. Immigrants are our brothers and sisters in Christ. It says in 1 Corinthians that when one part of the body suffers, we all suffer together. Laws like Alabama's will inhibit the work of churches in the state to carry out the good news of the Gospel to their immigrant neighbors, people made in the very image of God.
State-based anti-immigrant laws will do little to stop illegal immigration into the United States. Instead, neighbors that have gotten along for years will suddenly be divided along the lines of legal status. Congress - not the states - should enact comprehensive immigration reform which will make our borders more secure, reform our visa system to make it harder for people to enter illegally and easier to enter legally, while bringing people out of the shadows to correct their status and earn the right to stay in this country.
Christians have a responsibility to seek justice and to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves. This rings especially true in the immigration debate. Many immigrants are here without legal status and are unable to speak for themselves in a climate that often denigrates their very presence in our country. We must create a more welcoming community in which Biblical principles of compassion and justice are carried out in our actions, attitudes and also public policies.