The talking heads, pundits and politicians will continue to debate the significance of the Obama administration’s announcement last week that it will not deport illegal immigrants who came into the country as minors, but the incredible significance the decision will have upon those young people cannot be underrated. I consider the decision to be a moral victory, if an imperfect one. Lest anyone think I’m playing partisan games and promoting the Obama administration’s agenda, let me assure you I have plenty of gripes with this administration regarding our broken immigration system, but at least I can say they did this one thing right. Besides, it is reported that Republican Senator from Florida and potential Vice-Presidential nominee Mark Rubio was ready to put forward this same plan. Whether Democrats or Republicans do the just and honorable thing, it’s all the same to me, just as long as we aren’t deporting undocumented young people who consider themselves Americans and who are willing to serve and even die for our country.
This Executive initiative effectively does what the DREAM Act was supposed to do before it was blocked in Congress. The DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors)—if it had been passed—would have provided conditional permanent residency to certain undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as minors, graduated high school and lived in the country for five years. If they did not have a criminal record, enrolled in college or served in the military they could extend that period and even qualify for citizenship. The decision last week only did this in effect but not in law. The Department of Homeland Security will cease deportation of these young people and allow them to work in the U.S., but there is no path to citizenship available to them.
I share this information with you, because it has become personal for me. Over the last year I have been meeting with a group of people from the faith community in St. Joseph who have formed the Interfaith Alliance for Immigrants (IAI). We have learned much about immigrant communities (documented and undocumented) in St. Joseph and about the complicated nature of immigration policy and law in our country. I have become convinced that our nation’s immigration system is broken, and the consequences of this broken system are inhumane and heartbreaking. There are of course issues of national security and criminal violence, but the vast majority of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. truly only want a better life for their families.
If you or I had to face the decision between crossing into the U.S. as an undocumented immigrant or allowing our children to live in squalor, I feel sure we would choose the former option. (News broke today that Senator Mark Rubio writes in his new memoir that he would make the same decision if faced with the same options.) Our nation’s politics on immigration and our culture’s propensity for demonizing the stranger and scapegoating the other represent a deep failure of our ability to do unto others as we would have done to us. The “Golden Rule” is close to a universal value held at least in principle, yet when it comes to seeing our undocumented immigrants as worthy of the same treatment we would expect, this value is worth little. As Christians we are called not merely just to treat others as we wish to be treated but to LOVE others as we wish to be LOVED. Love goes deeper than fair treatment; it involves sacrifice and devotion to others. On this count, the American church has largely failed to live up to its own statements of faith when it comes to immigration.
During my meetings with IAI, it has been a deep honor from me to get to know a young woman named Elizabeth—not her real name. Elizabeth was brought to the U.S. from Mexico by her undocumented immigrant parents as a young child. She cannot remember life before coming to the U.S. She has always gone to American schools, had American friends and absorbed American culture. She graduated from an American university and now works for a non-profit that advocates for immigrant rights. Until last week she risked her own deportation to fight for other young people who like her are for all intents and purposes Americans. When the news broke last week, she literally was on the phone with undocumented young people waiting to board a plane in order to be deported. Elizabeth in many ways is a better American than I am, because she does not take for granted the freedoms and quality of life that I often fail to appreciate. She is the kind of person our nation badly needs to help invigorate our culture just as immigrants have done since the founding of our nation.
Elizabeth can remain in the country, but she still cannot be a citizen. I continue to dream of a day when she and those like her will be treated with God’s justice and loved by our nation as worthy members of it.
Grace and Peace,