Editor’s note: This is the second installment in A More Welcoming Way, a series of TC articles on the immigration experience, attempts at reform and the church’s role in the process.
The Obama administration requested today that a federal judge allow the president’s immigration plan to proceed while the administration seeks to overturn his ruling against the plan. It’s the latest piece of political gamesmanship that has recently surrounded immigration reform, all of which begs an important question for Christian consideration: how do we balance our belief in policy change with the process for how that change is affected?
On Feb. 27, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will run out of money. Bills that would fund DHS passed in the House but have failed in the Senate because Republicans attached riders calling for the end of President Barack Obama’s deferral of deportation for some undocumented residents (commonly known as DACA and DAPA). In turn, Senate Democrats blocked the bill until the strings are removed. If DHS runs out of money it will continue to operate because so many of its employees are considered “essential” and must work through a government shutdown. But this issue raises a question about the way people govern. Is it legitimate to get the policy you support by any means necessary, or is there something about the process of politics that can reflect one’s worldview?
When Christians do public policy analysis there are two different kinds of questions that we must keep in mind. Most people focus immediately on the content of the policy in question. In this TC series, we are asking what it means to seek justice for immigrants. But as we consider policy through the eyes of faith we must also think about how the policy is achieved and implemented. One part of this inquiry involves the structure of government. Who should regulate in this area - states or the federal government? The executive branch, the judiciary or the legislature? The other part involves the issue of compromise. If I believe a particular policy outcome is Biblical, do I work for it in every way possible, believing that the ends will justify the means, or do I follow a process and work toward compromise with those who disagree with me?
On one level these structure of government issues are not very interesting, yet on a foundational level they are important because they force us to ask the same questions that the framers of the United States Constitution faced. Given human nature, will people always abuse power or can we count on them to rise above petty power politics? Should power be decentralized or can it be concentrated? Is process important or is the only thing that matters the content of the policy?
Is it legitimate to get the policy you support by any means necessary?
This might seem like a no brainer to some - of course the content is key. But I’d argue that process is equally important. In fact, I’d say that the process we use reveals what we believe about humans in a fallen but redeemed creation.
When James Madison wrote the Federalist Papers he said that men are not angels. Power will corrupt everyone, so the bedrock of our system has to break apart concentrated power. This is why separation of powers among the executive, judiciary and legislature is so important. Power is divided up and overlapped - and this makes things very frustrating. It slows down the process. It makes it hard to get things done. It brings about gridlock. But gridlock is necessary in that dividing power is a tool to help guard against tyranny and injustice. Madison’s structural approach to government reflects concern for what we in the Reformed tradition recognize as sin impacting both people and social systems. Given the human propensity to abuse power, decentralized power can help us counteract the impact of the fallen creation.
So, the grappling that we see between the president and Congress can be a good thing. Some would say that Obama breached separation of powers when he made an executive decision to handle part of immigration reform without Congress. Others respond that Obama’s decisions were about the priorities of the Attorney General’s office and that they were well within the responsibilities of the executive branch. The matter is now in the courts after federal judge Andrew Hanen ruled that the judiciary must determine the constitutionality of the president’s action.
Still, office holders have a responsibility to actually govern, not hold each other hostage over particular issues. For those of us who value process, we differentiate between debate over separation of powers and the “power politics” use of procedure to introduce unrelated issues to a bill or to halt discussion on something important. Playing with DHS funding to force a point about immigration is a mistake.
Not everyone agrees, of course. Many Christians would say that when the stakes are high, policy makers should use any means necessary to achieve a certain end. But that worries me. With Madison, I believe that concentrated power will always be abused. Content of policy is important, but process is also part of looking at policy through the eyes of faith.