Arizona’s law is a social and racial sin
The harshest enforcement bill in the country against undocumented immigrants recently passed the Arizona state legislature and was signed into law by Governor Janet Brewer. This law requires law enforcement officials in Arizona to investigate someone’s immigration status if there is “reasonable suspicion” that the person might be undocumented. I wonder who that would be, and if anybody who doesn’t have brown skin will be investigated. Those without identification papers, even if they are legal, are subject to arrest; so don’t forget your wallet on your way to work if you are Hispanic in Arizona. And although the law is unclear, it appears that you could also be arrested if you are stopped and are simply with people who are undocumented — even if they are your family. Parents or children of “mixed-status families” (made up of legal and undocumented, as many immigrant families are) could be arrested if they are found together. You could be arrested if you are “transporting or harboring” undocumented people. Some might consider driving immigrant families to and from church to be Christian ministry — but it will now apparently be illegal in Arizona.
For the first time, all law enforcement officers in the state will be enlisted to hunt down undocumented people, which will clearly distract them from going after truly violent criminals, and will focus them on mostly harmless families whose work supports the economy and who contribute to their communities. And do you think undocumented parents will now go to the police if their daughter is raped or their family becomes a victim of violent crime? Maybe that’s why the state association of police chiefs is against the new law.
This proposed law is not only mean-spirited — it will be ineffective and will only serve to further divide communities in Arizona, making everyone more fearful and less safe. This radical new measure, which crosses many moral and legal lines, is a clear demonstration of the fundamental mistake of separating enforcement from comprehensive immigration reform. We all want to live in a nation of laws, and the immigration system in the U.S. is so broken that it is serving no one well. But enforcement without reform of the system is merely cruel. Enforcement without compassion is immoral. Enforcement that breaks up families is unacceptable. And enforcement of this law would force us to violate our Christian conscience, which we simply will not do. It makes it illegal to love your neighbor in Arizona.
Christians for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, a coalition convened by Sojourners, as been highlighting stories of immigration in our country and exposing the flaws in the current system. As people who believe that everyone is made in the image of God, we want to restore the human element to the conversation around immigration reform, including subsequent legislative and policy decisions. I went to Phoenix for a rally and press event the day the law was signed. While there, I visited some immigrant families who work at Neighborhood Ministries, an impressive community organization affiliated with the Christian Community Development Association, and heard their stories.
I met a group of women who were frightened by the raids that have been occurring, in which armed men invade their homes and neighborhoods with guns and helicopters. When the rumors of massive raids spread, many of these people flee both their homes and their workplaces, and head for The Church at The Neighborhood Center as the only place they feel safe and secure. But will police invade the churches if they are suspected of “harboring” undocumented people, because it is the law? Will the nurse practitioner I met at their medical clinic serving only uninsured people be arrested for being “with” the children of families who are here illegally as she treats them? Is the woman I met who came here illegally — as an infant, on her farm-worker father’s back 47 years ago really a threat to us? Her whole life has been here, her children are here, and now she works for a Christian ministry taking care of vulnerable people. Should she just be deported?
At the rally, I started with the words of Jesus (which drew cheers from the crowd gathered at the State Capitol), who instructed his disciples to “welcome the stranger,” and said that whatever we do to “the least of these, who are members of my family” we do to him. I think that means that to obey Jesus and his gospel will mean to disobey the law in Arizona. We must boldly declare that it is morally wrong to keep families apart, and that it is morally right to fix the broken system so that immigrants are treated with respect and mercy. At this crucial turning point, we must take the call of our scriptures seriously and act prophetically for justice.
Arizona’s law must be named as a social and racial sin, and should be denounced as such by people of faith and conscience across the nation. This is not just about Arizona, but about all of us, and about what kind of country we want to be. It’s time to stand up to this new strategy of “deportation by attrition,” which I heard for the first time today in Arizona. It is a policy of deliberate political cruelty, and it should be remembered that “attrition” is a term of war. Arizona is deciding whether to wage war on the body of Christ. We should say that if you come after one part of the body, you come after all of us.
There are Democrats and Republicans who in the past have said they supported comprehensive immigration reform, and so there ought now to be bipartisan support for such a bill. But in the ultra-partisan and poisoned atmosphere of the U.S. Congress now, bipartisan spirit has fled the halls of power. In Washington, politics is now just a game of win and lose, and it’s only about the next election; it’s no longer about solving problems. But the problem is that there are children and families in the balance, and the politicians are now playing politics with the lives of vulnerable people. Those people are our brothers and sisters, they are our parishioners, and they are children of God. And the faith community has come together to say the time for politics over compassion is over.
The president and members of Congress continue to assert their support for immigration reform; but actions speak louder than words. We all know that Congress is hesitant to tackle tough issues before mid-term elections. But comprehensive reform legislation must be passed. We don’t want more verbal commitments, we want action.
While politicians can write off one more piece of legislation on a packed agenda, they won’t be able to write off, or ignore, a movement rooted in our faith communities. If our political leaders won’t make room for the “strangers” among us, we will — because Jesus commands us to do so. It’s time to stop playing politics with people’s lives.
Jim Wallis is the author of Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street, and Your Street -- A Moral Compass for the New Economy, CEO of Sojourners and blogs at God’s Politics.