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Undocumented Immigrants and Making America Great Again

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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.

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7 Comments

  1. Margaret Katranides says

    Excellent point, Adria. Are you sure you aren’t an economist?

    Maybe you can help me with a question: what’s wrong with “let them all in”? Suppose we had a way to identify dangerous people, those with criminal records and/or criminal intent, what would be the problem with letting everyone in the world move to wherever they want to live? Granted, the transition would be difficult, but once people had that freedom for a while, most people would be settled and stable, and those with problems finding employment or safe housing could pick up and go where the opportunities were better.

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    • You are both too kind! Yes, I am sure I am not an economist, but I am a huge fan of the discipline!

      Margaret, you ask why we can’t just open the borders, and it’s a good question. I see a few issues. First, opening up the borders only really works if everyone does it. If we open up our borders so that people can come in from, say, Ecuador, but we can’t freely move to Canada, we will be greatly increasing the supply of labor here without increasing demand by the same amount because, by and large, the people who move here will be less wealthy than the average American (the search for a better life is why they are coming, after all). Therefore, as American workers become more easily replaced, the employment levels of native-born Americans will drop or wages will drop, possibly precipitously.

      This problem is exacerbated by the welfare state. If Canada, with its low cost medicine and education and robust social safety net, opened its borders, I would move there as soon as I could find a job. Like, next month. It would be a no-brainer. And they would probably be happy to have me, a highly educated, working-age person fluent in English and French. (In fact, given their rational immigration system, my family could probably move there even under the current system.) However, if every high school dropout in the United States wanted to move there to avoid having to worry about penury and squalor in our country, the Canadians might have a problem, as the additional economic activity generated by such migrants would not compensate for the cost of educating their children, providing social services and all the rest. And such workers would be competing with native-born Canadians for jobs, making them worse off as I explored in my post. It is basically a truism among economists that you can have a high-wage welfare state or open borders, but not both. Otherwise, people would keep moving until there was no benefit to doing so – that is, until the destination country was almost as poor as the country of origin.

      Finally, on the cultural level, if everyone did open their borders, it would be the end of the nation-state.While ethno-linguistic nationalism has its pitfalls and drawbacks, I think it would be sad if Italy and Poland and France and Spain and Turkey and Japan stopped having a unique character. People would move to areas where they have a better standard of living than where they currently lived, and that would mean that countries with a high standard of living would receive immigrants as long as they had anything to offer, which would make national identity a thing of the past, in part for the better, but mostly for the worse. As Robert Putnam notes in Bowling Alone, ethnic diversity by itself decreases trust and social capital, so a total melting pot would probably not be the delightful utopia it might seem at first blush.

      I know this is an extremely long response to a very simple question, but I hope it helps, Margaret!

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  2. Chris Geary says

    If you truly believe that everyone bears the image of God and is of equal value, it is impossible to make a plausible argument why it is fine to trap certain people in poorer parts of the world by virtue of an accident of birth. Appeals to culture or ethnic identity have always historically been used to exclude – but that is antithetical to the message of Jesus – which is one of full inclusivity – ” for all nations”

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    • Thanks for your comment, Chris! I appreciate what you are saying, and I would not dream of suggesting we don’t have a Christian obligation to achieve maximum openness and opportunity to folks from everywhere, especially as most wealthy Western countries owe at least some (if not most) of their wealth to exploitation of the very countries whose immigrants we want to keep out!

      Here’s a question for you: can you see any value in the argument that the United States government owes a greater level of care to US citizens than to citizens of other nations? Or do you think that the US government has the same duty to keep, for example, Finns and Russians safe as to keep America safe? Does a mother have the same level of responsibility to nurse, bathe and diaper every infant as to do those things for her own infant? Does the commandment to “honor thy father and mother” really mean “honor all fathers and mothers”?

      I believe that Christianity encourages us BOTH to care for others expansively and to care for our own particularly, a message that comes from Jesus (e.g., Matthew 15:27, Mark 7:1-13, Mark 10:7-9) and from others in the early church (e.g.,1 Timothy 5:8; Titus 2:3-5). I don’t think that locking my door at night “traps” poor people outside or that it is antithetical to the message of Jesus to accept immigrants only in the categories and numbers that we can afford while still taking adequate care of our countrymen (which we don’t do, but that is another discussion for another day). But I’m so eager to hear more of what you think about these things, and thanks again for dropping by!

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  3. Even Paul Krugman, the high echelon of a closely-knit circle that decided to ignore the rest of the country, has reluctantly conceded that in fact, based on economic theory, we cannot have it both ways: open borders and high wages. So I think Adria is fundamentally right in suggesting the offer cannot be made ‘global’ unless we accept that what we are offering is close to zero. And I think she is absolutely right in noting that what makes the Canadian system ‘attractive’, in so far as being fair and rational, does not take away from it being also strict and protectionist. Danish-style welfare is a powerful model but might be more appropriate to a small, European, and closely guarded nation.

    As to the Christian obligation to openness and its historical foundations, I think this point needs to be seriously and carefully thought out. I cannot speak to one’s individual conscience. It is perfectly legitimate to look at immigration through Christian lenses, but I am afraid a political argument on ‘full inclusion’ cannot be constructed on the supposed historical authenticity of Jesus’ message.

    Historically speaking, Jesus was a spiritually creative Jew from rural Galilee: an itinerant, non-working craftsman and preacher with a marginal status within the Hellenistic-Roman world-system. There is very little in his experience that is eccentric from the traditional centre-periphery relations of that same world-system. Even with Paul — admittedly, a later and more cosmopolitan figure — the appeal to ‘universality’ of his new religion was orchestrated around and against the great urban centers of the later Roman empire: Antioch, Ephesus, Corinth, Rome. It is one thing to be in a networked world; it is another to live where one wants to live.

    Jesus and Paul both knew a world where mobility and communication were high, which in turn facilitated conversion, but no premium was put on relocating and acquiring new citizenship. Without entering into a difficult terrain of political theology, many Gospel passages (especially Matth 5-7 and 14.13-21) suggest that Jesus first envisioned himself as a second Moses, in order to re-establish the eschatology of the united kingdom of David; even the appointment of twelve disciples testifies to his desire to precipitate eschatological events. Things, in a second period, took a different turn. The ‘message’ was re-oriented toward the centrality of his passion, and simultaneously relocated to Jerusalem. Nothing fundamental changed within this transition, apart from Jesus’ inability to enact a revolution from the margins and his radical re-interpretation of traditional Jewish vales, including the Torah. It seems to me that the historical ‘universality’ of all this (not the moral significance) was limited to the great cities of the ancient world and their motley personnel. The real change about Christian citizenship and empire came with Constantine’s provocative religious shift, which, as some historians suggested, might have been only a strategic move to set himself off the theological self-presentation of his political rivals. In short, there is little in early Christianity that supports the view that the historical Jesus spoke to “all nations.”

    I hope these thoughts are not too long or off-topic here.

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