What does immigration have to do with the gospel?

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The good Christian is a law abiding citizen – so Sister told me in grammar school. An eternal truth that perhaps conceals more evil than appears to the eye. We have only to reflect back to Germany in the 1930s or Central America in the 1980s. We have only to look at the immigration issue to reveal that an insistence on being law-abiding can create dilemmas for the good Christian. Simply to ask yourself: what do I do about the Mexican “illegals” dying in the Arizona desert in their desperate attempt to get into this country? No easy answer.

The dilemma, as Father Daniel G. Groody of Notre Dame University demonstrates, belongs not just to the American Christian. It’s faced by our European brothers and sisters as desperate migrants from sub-Saharan Africa perish swimming the Straits of Gibraltar. Migration is a global phenomenon in our time, the down-side perhaps of globalization. Its magnitude is so great that today rivals any other time in human history for movement of peoples. As in other times migration has not been welcomed without resistance and created long-reigning tensions and disruptions. It is and has always been a challenge to the Christian faith.

Much of our religious consciousness, as Groody also demonstrates, has been fashioned by migration. Abram was called out of Ur to live in a land that God would show him. Those who cursed him would be cursed by God (Gen. 12:1-3).  And God changed his name to Abraham for he was to be “the ancestor of a multitude of nations” (Gen. 17:5). When the Jews where in slavery in Egypt, God heard their cry and through Moses led them to a new land (Exodus passim). Israel was enjoined to welcome strangers and treat them with respect for their human rights – “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Lev. 19:34).

We ought not to forget that Mary and Joseph were newly arrived in Bethlehem (Lk. 2: 4-7). One might argue that Joseph and Mary were not “illegals,” since they were only returning home to David’s city. Still they were quickly outlawed and had to flee with Jesus into Egypt (Mt. 2:16-19). As the church built up in the early years, at times Christians also were forced to seek refuge from persecution. And they called themselves “sojourners” even before Christians. Groody suggests that even the incarnation was a migration – from the divine to the human: “In the Incarnation, God, in Jesus, crosses the divide that exists between divine life and human life. In the Incarnation, God migrates to the human race, making his way into the far country of human discord and disorder, a place of division and dissension, a territory marked by death and the demeaning treatment of human beings”.

Over the centuries Christianity has served as a bridge for migrants to a new reality. Most dramatically it ministered to the Germanic and Slavic invaders of the Roman Empire and so created Europe. The American church later was called to minister to a multitude of 19th century and early 20th century immigrants, fashion them into a united church, and set them to being good citizens. That same mission the American church has been engaged in through its current advocacy for the new immigrants. Some cynics have argued, with the decline of church attendance and secularization, the church is turning to the immigrant to shore up its numbers. That it is not. The church is responding to what it sees in the relation of God to Abraham and the enslaved Jews, that God hears the cry of the poor. And from the story of Jesus we see that the cry comes often from the stranger in our midst. 

For more on the gospel call to "welcome the stranger" see also the U.S. – Mexican bishops’ pastoral letter, Strangers No Longer .

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Pew Hispanic Center issues report on Hispanics and health care

The Pew Hispanic Center, on the basis of information gathered in 2007, estimates that almost 60 percent of the undocumented are without health insurance. As we mentioned in a previous blog, the undocumented will be excluded from all but emergency health coverage in all the bills being considered by Congress. The bill that seems mostly likely to be enacted, the Senate Finance Committee’s, would extend health insurance to 94 percent of Americans. Of the excluded 6 percent, 3.4 million will be the undocumented.

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New twist to enforcing immigration law: Fire the "illegals"

Last year the Bush administration took heavy criticism for its factory raids because of the collateral damage. Mothers picked up on the factory floor were not allowed to return home to care for dependent children or the sick. The Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) of the Department of Homeland Security modified their raids, and they seem to have disappeared in the Obama administration. But enforcement has taken a new twist. Secretary Janet Napolitano had earlier announced that ICE would go after the employers of unauthorized workers. The twist actually was not entirely new, since it began under Bush.

The instrument of enforcement is no longer the raid, but the audit. Instead of pulling a raid after checking hiring documents and detaining those workers whose papers did not jibe, ICE now asks the employer simply to fire the workers. It hasn’t given up the raids and still deports workers rounded up last year. But it has found the threat of court action against the employer to be more effective. Besides it’s neater and less messy.

This new way may look more humane than wrenching mothers from their children; still it has caused significant pain in the immigrant community. The argument was that such an approach would go after the unscrupulous employer who exploits the undocumented as cheap labor and cheats them on wages and safety. But the most publicized case of the new approach has been of a company that has actually been a model of fairness to workers – American Apparel of Los Angeles. They recently were forced to fire 1,800 undocumented workers – some of whom were there for decades. American Apparel was not sweatshop. It is unionized, pays decent wages and provides health insurance. The work force while predominantly Hispanic also includes immigrants from China, Korea, Vietnam, and Portugal. There is wonderment why ICE went after American Apparel. Perhaps ICE was sending a message to employers. But the mayor of Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa, sees the action as “devastating.” American Apparel is one of the largest employers in central LA.