This post is written by Bill Mefford
In Henri Nouwen’s excellent book, In the Name of Jesus, he characterizes the first temptation Jesus faced in the wilderness, to turn stones into bread, as a temptation for relevance. I bristle when I read this because I want the church to be relevant! But I realize after some reflection that what Nouwen is describing is a choice we must make between relevance and faithfulness. I think this applies to our struggle to defend the rights of immigrants today.
In the book Nouwen writes that irrelevance is our “divine vocation that allows [us] to enter into deep solidarity” with those experiencing suffering and vulnerability. Incarnating ourselves among immigrants who are repeatedly marginalized by our society, made to feel invisible or even demonized by current conversations about the issue of immigration, and oppressed even by those who claim to be friends with immigrants (note the record number of deportations by President Obama), will make us irrelevant. We will be tempted to become more relevant in current policy discussions, but the price we pay for relevance will be further disconnection from our calling to incarnation. I have found that too often in policy discussions in Washington DC, immigrants remain invisible, not listened too or entirely removed from the discussion, and so, continually marginalized. This is true even among advocacy organizations working for positive immigration reform.
How is this happening? This happens whenever immigration is defined as a border security and economic improvement debate, rather than a human rights issue.
Unfortunately, state compacts, which began in Utah, and are currently spreading to other states by some of the leading organizations in the immigrants-rights movement, represent a temptation to faith communities to become relevant in the policy debates. But relevance in this case comes at a price: unfaithfulness.
The compacts are focused on conservatives, but all too often faith groups are included to ease their conscience. If we sign on, or so the thinking goes, we can dull the harsh edge found in some of these statements. Practically speaking, the statements contained in the compacts call for a continued militarization of the border (and filling the pockets of defense contractors who thrive off of the money being poured into these failed projects) and the protection of businesses that exploit immigrants without accountability. It furthers the delusion that too many in the movement have that says we can have “comprehensive immigration reform” by convincing [tricking] a few moderate members of Congress into believing that the reforms we ask for are fairly mild and will actually result in greater security and economic benefit, particularly for businesses. Of course, the mild reforms will never truly solve the challenges immigrants face and certainly cannot be called “comprehensive.”
Those of us who have incarnated ourselves among immigrants know that the oppression of our friends, neighbors, family members and fellow church members will not be stopped by smoke and mirrors and DC parlor tricks. The oppression will be stopped by a transformation of our current politics and policies. And transformation does not happen through poll-tested messages and carefully selected catch-phrases, or through convincing (or tricking) a few moderates to vote for something they don’t read or understand.
Social transformation from a biblical perspective happens as we incarnate ourselves among the vulnerable and marginalized and redemptively utilize our access to resources to gain that same access to those same resources for those whose access has been restricted or denied. This is the essence of what Jesus has done for us and what he calls us to do for others.
The language of the state compacts, which define immigrants in free-market terms and how low of a threat they are to U.S. national security, is simply not faith-driven language. I am tired of signing on to statements that do not accentuate my voice as a follow of Jesus and someone who cares passionately about this issue. I just won’t sign these kinds of statements any more, not any longer.
I admit I have signed onto statements like this in the past believing people supposedly far smarter than me that this is the only way forward. I have ignored the glaring reality that these statements do not hold my values that this issue is first and foremost a human rights issue. But as the politics in DC grow more toxic and the reality of actually moving meaningful legislation forward becomes more unrealistic, I am tired of my voice not being heard in its truest form. Why should I try and sound like the gutless politicians in DC if they aren’t going to do anything meaningful in the first place? Why should I agree to statements such as these compacts when they haggle the most effective tool we yield as people of faith: our moral voice?
I won’t sell my birthright for a mess of pottage any more. I will not sign or endorse the state compacts, and I will strongly encourage others to not sign or endorse them either. It is time for our voice to be our own.
The truth is that as followers of Jesus we must advocate for policies that treat immigrants as children of God, with inherit value regardless of their function in the marketplace or the threat level that the Department of Homeland Security deems them. Thus, we need policy which protects their basic rights, which allows them to remain with their families, does not require them to pay outrageous fines or wait endless waits in order to begin any pathway to legal status. We need policies that do not separate immigrants from their families, that does not infringe on their privacy and their right to work, or to collectively bargain and gain better working conditions. We want policy that treats immigrants the same that citizens expect to be treated.
The language of the state compacts fits nicely into today’s current broken political atmosphere because it allows business as usual. It allows the current discussion to continue to be about protecting the borders and protecting U.S. business interests.
By keeping the discussion centered on border security, private prison corporations – raking in billions off of the harsh enforcement policies of the Obama administration – will continue to rake in billions because there is no inherit challenge to the continued practice of mass incarceration of people of color. Instead, the compact enhances the need for even more border security.
By keeping the discussion centered on border security, corporations like Boeing and Halliburton to name a couple – raking in hundreds of millions from building the wall and militarizing the border – will continue to rake in hundreds of millions because the language actually endorses this kind of corporate welfare through further emphasizing border security.
By keeping the discussion centered on economic growth for the already economically comfortable, which matches the messaging of supposed leaders like Newt Gingrich, we allow immigrants to be treated like objects, viewed positively only as long as they provide some economic benefit. But even if they bring our country economic benefit and uphold the “free-market philosophy,” they are not deported, but rather, given permanent second class citizenry, which has been suggested by Gingrich and others, because “we in the United States are humane.”
Since when is second class citizenship humane you may ask? Since we allowed the discussion to be centered on national security and economic benefit for businesses, which the state compacts only serve to reinforce.
The choice before us is relevance – signing on to statements like these compacts – or faithfulness. However, even if we opt for relevance, let me ask how smart is it, with national legislation nowhere in sight, to barter away our values and our moral positioning, adopt the language and policies of economic and border security from our opponents, before we are even asked to begin the real negotiations that will happen when the legislation is actually introduced and begins to move through the process? Why are we caving in to demands long before those demands are even formally made? It makes no sense!
As President Obama has found out the hard way, if you give the opposition your foot, your opposition is not going to be happy with the foot you have already given and be moved to compromise and not ask for anything more. How naïve! No, the truth is, if your starting point involves handing them your foot, then be ready to lose your entire leg and probably parts of other limbs as well. The anti-immigrant forces have not proven to be good comprimisers so where you start will largely determine where you end. I shudder to think where we could end up if our starting point is these state compacts. They are not my starting points any longer. I choose faithfulness and reject relevance.
We, as people of faith, as followers of Jesus, need to think through our purpose in this struggle. When we are asked to endorse something like this I know our first inclination is to join in any thing we think might be helpful. We are tired of the stalemate and so we are ready to sign anything that doesn’t sound absolutely horrible, even though parts of these compacts come pretty close.
I urge you to not follow this inclination though. I urge you to consider first what exactly is our role and our purpose in this struggle as followers of Jesus. We should ask, of any statement, does this language capture the essence of our mission among immigrant communities? Is asking for more border security and framing the contributions of immigrants solely in an economic framework convey what we want the world to know of our mission and passion for the rights of immigrants? Would the immigrant communities we are incarnated among be proud of what we are signing on to?
For me, the state compacts answer no to all of these questions, therefore, for me to be faithful, I cannot endorse them unless the language is radically altered. I want to be faithful to the people who are directly impacted by this issue – the people with whom Jesus has incarnated himself and who he calls you and I to incarnate ourselves among as well. More than we want to be politically relevant, we know we first must be faithful. I hope and pray our voice will be lifted up and that the policies directed towards immigrants will be transformed. And that transformation will only come as we faithfully work towards that end, political relevance be damned.