You shall not pervert the justice due to your poor in their lawsuits. Keep far from a false charge, and do not kill the innocent and those in the right, for I will not acquit the guilty. You shall take no bribe, for a bribe blinds the officials, and subverts the cause of those who are in the right. You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.
– Exodus 23: 6 – 9
We have had several surprises in the weeks since the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States: former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s discussions of sanctions with Russian officials, the White House’s unprecedented hostility toward the press and the remarkable combination of wealth, political pull and inexperience of the president’s cabinet picks are not least among them. But if there is one element of administration’s policy that is not unexpected, it is the approach to immigration. We may not have anticipated the presence of White nationalist apologist Steve Bannon on the National Security Council, but even as a candidate, Donald Trump announced promises to implement a Muslim ban and mass deportations, promises that he seems to be doing his best to keep.
In the midst of the firestorm that continues to surround the implementation of President Trump’s immigration policies, an odd trend has surfaced on social media. Several of my friends and acquaintances, harsh critics of the Trump administration in general, and the president’s aggressive approach to immigration in particular, have posted articles asking rhetorically whether supporters of widespread deportations intend to engage in the challenging, poorly paid work undocumented workers so often perform. Their favorite example seems to be the agricultural labor on which our supply of fruits and vegetables depends. The argument seems to be that farm labor is so physically demanding, low-status and ill-paid that very few Americans are willing to do it. If this is true, and empirical evidence suggests that it is, then why do I find it odd, even disturbing, that this should be a key objection to President Trump’s immigration policy? Because basically what these decent, thoughtful people whom I love and respect are saying is that we should permit an underclass of underpaid, unprotected, exploitable labor to remain in the country to do challenging jobs at wages neither we nor our compatriots would tolerate. This reasoning – that we should not deport people who entered the country illegally so that we can exploit their labor for cheap fruits and vegetables – is both unfair and un-Christian.
It is unfair because having a labor force that is unable to protect its legal rights and standard of living due to fear of deportation likely exerts downward pressure on both wages and working conditions in the agricultural, construction, caregiving and hospitality sectors where undocumented labor is common, even for legal workers. A person working legally is going to think twice about starting a union or filing a complaint about unsafe work conditions if he knows that his boss could find ten people to do his job without complaint, and at half the price. While no individual undocumented worker is at fault for the problem, it seems clear that having a large amount of undocumented labor distorts the labor market in ways that cause the greatest harm to our most vulnerable workers, who either compete with undocumented workers for employment or have jobs that are only slightly better paid. It is simply wrong that the person working legally, whether native-born or a legal resident, should be denied the opportunity for a decent living just because an undocumented person is willing to work in indecent (by American standards) conditions for indecently low wages.
This reasoning is also un-Christian. Based on the Bible and historical sources, it is clear that when some are in need, Christians should share out of their abundance to fill the gap . If we need to pay more for the produce we feed our families so that those who plant and harvest can afford to feed theirs, it seems clear that this is the right thing to do. In a country that wastes an obscene amount of food each year – my dog once found a half-rack of ribs, still in its Styrofoam to-go box, abandoned on the sidewalk of our working-class Jersey City neighborhood – higher food and other costs may lead to more responsible stewardship of our resources, especially since the rise in cost is likely to be modest and diffused while wages may well go up sharply for the small group of people at the very bottom of the income distribution. I am not an economist, so I don’t know the relative size of the effects of rising costs and rising wages, nor do I know whether higher costs would primarily impact consumer prices or corporate profits. What I do know is that any economic system that depends on the exploitation of an entire class of people is contrary to God’s will. Period.
Lest there be any doubt, I do not believe that rounding up undocumented people and shipping them to homelands they may not have seen in years is how we will “make America great again.” True greatness, the greatness of the kingdom of heaven, would look like treating all residents and citizens with fairness and dignity, a goal that demands an approach to immigration that respects the needs of individuals, families and communities, while according with norms of fairness and basic decency. This is a greatness that America has never had, but our peculiar genius is that we are always reaching for it. Neither “let them all in” nor “round them all up” will get us where we need to go as a nation, and any Christian argument for undocumented workers needs to start from the reality that they are image-bearers of God rather than a cheap source of labor. Let’s keep reaching for the kingdom of heaven, with God’s help and with compassion for our fellows, keeping in mind that difficult questions won’t have easy answers.