They are "illegal aliens". They are "undocumented immigrants". The descriptions we use about these people reflect how we frame this issue, especially since the election. First some facts, taken from a report by the non-partisan Pew Research Center, April 2017.
Eleven million women, men and children live in the United States without the protections of U.S. citizenship or the law and make up 3.4 percent of the U.S. population. Eight million, 5 percent, work or are seeking work and make up 26 percent of all farm workers and 15 percent of all construction workers. Six states claim 59 percent of this community: California, Texas, Florida, New York, New Jersey and Illinois. Sixty-six percent of the adults in this group have lived in the United States for a decade or more. Eight-hundred thousand came here as children, through no choice of their own.
Those are the facts, the numbers, and the statistics, a good starting point to ask: what are we as a nation, citizens and neighbors to do, or not do, about this reality?
I've been conflicted about this for a long time, for I consider myself a law and order person, a believer in the rule of law. At their best, human laws curb the worst of human behavior, protect our society, and give us a mutually agreed upon social compact to live in peace and safety. At their best, laws ensure a level playing field: we play by the same rules. If someone breaks the law, they should face the consequences and be held accountable. In the case of illegal immigration then, this view would advocate the immediate deportation of every last one of the 11,000,000 people who are here, in violation of the law.
Facts. Human law.
But this issue is about people too. Flesh and blood people, fellow children of God, most filled with dreams and hopes and ambitions as noble and good as mine. Real people living real lives, among us. Real friends and neighbors and co-workers and relatives and fellow church goers, who pay their taxes and go to work and just live. Real people: kids who sit in the classroom side by side with our children and then come by for a play date. Real people who take care of our aging parents in the nursing home and play soccer with us on the field. Real people who study at college and harvest our food, who build our homes and drive our school busses, who watch over our children and create beautiful art and music. Real people whose cultures enrich so deeply our American story.
Real people. A higher law.
Like all people of faith, I'm challenged to live not just by human laws, but by God's laws too. I'm taught there are moral and ethical laws about how I am to treat the "alien". “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong....you shall love him as yourself...."(Leviticus 19:33-34). And, "[For] I was a stranger and you welcomed me." (Matthew 25:34). (An important caveat: good folks of faith disagree on the immigration issue, as do many citizens. I speak for myself.)
So there's the struggle: tension between human law and divine law, human justice and heavenly mercy, secular logic and humanistic impulses. We each face this internal conflicts at some point and not just about immigration. On many social issues, we have to make choices. Where do we stand? What do we believe about abortion, the death penalty, war, or universal health care, to name but a few?
To make these choices is among the most difficult and important work we do as humans. There will always be leaders and firebrands on both sides who act as if such choices are easy or simple. They take a stand to win more votes or whip up a frenzied crowd or get more people to watch their TV show and or just pound the pulpit. Self-righteousness trumps thoughtfulness. Toughness triumphs over mercy.
Yet to be a person of faith, just to try and be a good person, is tough stuff. It demands a willingness to hear all sides, a commitment to pray and think on it, and always with care. Human law? A higher law? After much discernment, I've made my choice.
What do you think? Have you made your choice about the alien among us, the stranger, the illegal immigrant, the undocumented worker? There are eleven million real people living among us. It's about facts and the law. But it's about people too.
Real people. I hope to God we remember this.