Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

“Papers, Please”: Arizona & Immigration in Christian Perspective (with updates)

Yes, friends, I know I have neglected this blog since Palm Sunday.  My deepest apologies. The truth is that, in addition to trying to catch up on paying writing and family responsibilities, I have been overwhelmed by many current events–and the activist in me supplanted the blogging theologian/public intellectual in me.  I would be mentally composing one column for this blog only to be distracted by new events. I shall try to make up for my absence this month, friends.


By now almost no one in the United States has missed the controversy over the state of Arizona’s new immigration law–which has re-ignited the stalled movement to reform federal immigration laws.  Many overseas have watched the story, too, with various degrees of comprehension.  But before I give biblical-theological reflections–never mind calls to political action–I want to sketch some historical and contemporary backgrown for broader perspective.

The U.S. had no immigration laws at all from the time we ratified the Constitution in 1789 until 1875.  Officially, at least, we favored open borders and welcomed all immigrants.  We were a “land of opportunity” built on waves of immigration.  When the French sculptor Bartholdi constructed the Statue of Liberty on Ellis Island in New York harbor, the poet Emma Lazarus (an American democratic socialist) wrote a poem (The New Colossus) to raise money for the statue that is engraved at the base–and represents the best of U.S. ideals on immigration. It reads:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name Mother of Exiles.
From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“”Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!”” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”


But if that famous poem of welcome represents our highest ideals, the reality of our policies has often fallen far short.  A Native American perspective would undoubtedly see all the rest of us as “illegal immigrants” who came–without permission–here, conquered, repeatedly broke treaties with the indigenous nations, stole ever-more of their land, spread disease (often intentionally, such as when smallpox-infected blankets were given as gifts in an early–and devastatingly effective–form of bio-terrorism), massacred millions, forced Native American children into missionary-run schools (paid with federal funds in a huge violation of the “no establishment of religion” clause of the 1st Amendment) where speaking in their native languages led to beatings, etc.  The crimes of the rest of us immigrants against the First Peoples of this continent continue to this day–and demonstrate both the hypocrisy of the anti-immigration feelings of the dominant “white” culture and that securing borders CAN BE necessary for the survival of a nation (or group of nations) or cultures.  Without security in one’s own land, the very existance of a people (or peoples) is threatened–as the genocidal near-extermination of Native Americans shows.

The history of African-Americans shows another tragic face of our bizarre contradictions in this country as they intersect the subject of immigration. Of all the non-indigenous people-groups in this country, persons of African descent are not “immigrants” in the usual sense.  They did not come here voluntarily, but were kidnapped and enslaved–stacked in overcrowded slave ships (often bearing blasphemous names like “The Grace of God,” or the “Jesus,”) whose conditions were so bad that historians estimate that somewhere between 1/3 and 1/2 of the human cargo did not survive and were simply thrown overboard.  Historical records indicate that sharks followed the slave ships for free meals.  No one knows how many millions of African slaves were kidnapped from their homelands and sold throughout the Americas, but sub-Saharan Africa had 200 years of virtually ZERO population growth, so the effect was horrendous.  And when the freed slaves finally had the status of citizens at the end of the U.S. Civil War (and the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution), they were immediately forced into competition and conflict with new waves of immigrants for both “homesteads” (in areas recently stolen from conquered “Indians”) and unskilled and semi-skilled jobs.  African-Americans have sometimes held anti-immigrant views because they feel, rightly or wrongly, that every time they begin, as a people-group, to move up the economic ladder, they are undercut by the arrival of new groups working for less money.  (On the other hand, anti-black racism among some immigrant groups that came shortly after the end of slavery–such as the Irish who are a large part of my family tree–is at least partly traceable to the fact that newly-freed slaves would work for even lower wages than poor immigrants looking for a foothold.)

The U.S. is a “nation of immigrants,” built on waves of immigrant labor.  The Chinese and the Irish in the late 19th C., along with African-Americans, built the transcontinental railroads that linked the far-flung nation together.  Numerous other examples could be given.  And, at our best, we have celebrated that heritage as Emma Lazarus did in her poem.

On the other hand, each wave of immigration (always including both legal and illegal immigration–my Irish ancestors met closed doors of a quota system at Ellis Island and so went to Canada and then snuck south into this country!) was met with suspicion and hostility by many.  Especially during economic hard times, immigrants have made convenient scapegoats for problems. I well remember the hostility to the Vietnamese “boat people” refugees during the recession of the late 197os, as well as to Haitians.  Often, our immigrants have been refugees from war–including wars in which the U.S. was a player: Here in Kentucky, recent waves of immigrants have included many from the former Yugoslavia, Iraqis, Afghans, Pakistanis, and Sudanese.

Some significant dates in U.S. immigration history:

  • The Naturalization Act of 1790 declared that “any alien being a free white person may be admitted to become a citizen of the United States.” (Notice the racism of this earliest immigration policy.)
  • 1875, The U.S. Supreme Court declares that regulation of U.S. immigration is solely the prerogative of the federal government (on this ground alone, it seems clear that that Arizona’s new law is unconstitutional).
  • 1882, The Chinese Exclusion Act, reacting to fears of the “yellow menace” of Chinese immigration, stopped, for a long time, the legal immigration of Chinese to the U.S.
  • 1885, 1887, laws prohibited certain laborers from immigrating to the U.S.
  • 1891, the federal government assumed the task of inspecting, rejecting, admitting, and processing all persons seeking immigration to the U.S.
  • 1892, Ellis Island is set up as the federal immigration center in New York harbor on 02 January 1892.
  • 1903, for the first time, immigrants crossing the border from Mexico are legally inspected–although informally (and probably illegally) the Texas Rangers and similar groups in other Western states permitted whites to raid Mexican ranches and steal horses and cattle while killing any Mexicans who attempted the same.
  • The U.S. Immigration Act of 1907 reorganized the states bordering Mexico (Arizona, New Mexico and much of Texas) into a Mexican Border District to stem the flow of immigration from Mexico. This had the effect of breaking up many families who had long traveled back and forth visiting relatives.
  • 1917-1924, a series of very harsh immigration laws set strict quotas of immigration–encouraging more Northern Europeans (light-skinned and Protestant), placing strict limits on Jewish immigrants, immigrants from Southern Europe (darker-skinned and Catholic) and banned all Asian immigrants except the Japanese.
  • 1924 Act: Greatly reduced the number of U.S. visas permitting any entrance to the U.S.–a reaction to the refugees from post-  WWI Europe in the America of the Roaring Twenties.
  • 1940, The Alien Registration Act established “green cards.” For the first time, all non-U.S. citizens in the U.S. legally (“aliens”) had to register with the U.S. government and receive a registration card.
  • 1950–The modern Green Card which allowed legal residents (non-citizens) to move and work in the U.S.
  • 1952–Modern immigration system with per-country quotas.
  • 1968–Immigration based on race, place of birth, sex, and residence is struck down. It also officially removed the banning of Asians.
  • 1976–Immigration preference to those from the Western Hemisphere was abolished. This had the unintended effect of making LEGAL immigration from Mexico, Central America, and South America much harder than previously.  The contemporary problem of massive illegal immigration from Mexico has its roots in this law signed by then-Pres. Gerald Ford which was intended to be fairer to African and Asian people seeking immigration.
  • 1980–In response to the crisis of the Vietnamese “boat people” and the Haitian crisis of the late 1970s, as well as refugees from Cuba, a law was passed that formalized the acceptance of all refugees, signed by Pres. Jimmy Carter. Later, Pres. Ronald Reagan would distinguish between “political refugees” and “economic refugees” to claim that those fleeing the military dictatorships in Central America, especially Guatemala and El Salvador, were not “real” refugees and not entitled to entry. In protest, church groups created the “sanctuary movement” harboring thousands of refugees from U.S. backed military dictatorships in South America. Throughout the 1980s, the federal government raided numerous churches and paid people to become members of sanctuary churches and spy on their activities for the Immigration and Naturalization Service.  (Full disclosure:  Although never a member of a “sanctuary congregation,” I visited several of these congregations throughout the nation during my seminary days in the 198os and wrote papers and articles on them–advocating resistance to the government’s policy and urging lawmakers to take a wider definition of “refugee.”–so that asylum was not simply granted or rejected based on whether the government of the originating nation was friendly with our government.
  • 1986–In response to the crisis of immigration in the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan granted a widespread amnesty to illegal immigrants in this country–in return for a law which tightened restrictions still further on future immigration and gave stricter penalties to letting visas expire, etc.
  • Realizing that the current system was broken, Pres. George W. Bush (in one of the few moves of his I supported) tried in 2007 to get a comprehensive overhaul of U.S. immigration law that would allow far more legal immigration, punish companies that knowingly hired or recruited undocumented workers (usually illegal immigrants), would help reunite families, grant partial amnesty to longterm resident illegal immigrants who had broken no other laws and give them a path to citizenship, while strengthening border protections.  It was initially supported by most Democratic politicians and several Republican ones, including Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), but was blocked by a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment in the Republican party.  A federal solution to the problem of immigration has languished ever since–and with border crime and violence, especially from the Mexican drug cartels, on the increase, border states have become increasingly hostile to all immigrants, legal or illegal, and of all persons from South of the U.S. border–even while Mexican tourism is a major source of income.

With this background came the AZ law.  The authors of the law may not have had pure motives.  There is strong evidence that AZ State Rep. Pearce and the orginazation FAIR that he used to help write the law, have very racist ideologies, including ties to the eugenics movement.  Gov. Brewer does not seem to have such far-right ties and I initially thought she signed this law as a harassed governor simply desperate in a no-win situation. But, as Secretary of State, Brewer did purge the AZ voting rolls of Latinos in a fashion that would have made Katherine Harris, former FL Sec. of State in 2000, blush with shame at the audacity of it. So, she may be motivated as much by a desire to suppress Latino voting in her state as by desperation over border security.

Now, to examine the law itself. The AZ law, which was SB 1070, claims to forbid racial profiling (which is unconstitutional) but the details of the law make this a contradiction in terms.  It DEMANDS that local police stop any person who “seems illegal” and ask for proof of citizenship and/or legal residency status.  It leaves up to the officer the decision as to what makes someone “seem illegal,” and what would constitute proof of legal status– in most cases simple driver’s license and Social Security card would be insufficient. I doubt I could pass muster were I to drive through AZ: I only have a photocopy of my birth certificate (the original was long ago destroyed in a fire) and don’t keep it in my car.  Who “seems illegal?” I sincerely doubt that the AZ police will be stopping busloads of Japanese tourists or “snowbirds” with Canadian license plates. Since the law is designed as an answer to the problem of a porous southern border, and especially violent crime from Mexican drug lords, police HAVE to target Hispanics. So, they will listen for Mexican accents and look for brown skin (though anyone who has spent time in Mexico, as I have, knows that Mexico has just as wide an ethnic diversity as does the U.S.–from blonde hair and blue eyes to brown skin and brown eyes, to persons of African descent, etc.). And if they don’t, the law allows any AZ citizen to sue the police for failure to comply.

The law is probably unconstitutional on several grounds: 1) The 1875 Supreme Court decision which says that immigration policy and enforcement is a strictly federal matter. 2) The racial profiling violates civil rights of individuals including freedom of movement. By presuming people are guilty of being in the country illegally until and unless they can prove otherwise, it violates the “due process” of the 5th Amendment–which, among other things, guarantees that everyone, citizen or not, is presumed innocent under the law until proven otherwise–not the other way around.  3) The 14th Amendment applied the Bill of Rights to the states.

But what should we think of this law, not just as Americans or people of good will, but as Christians?  I suggest that we who are Christian should be even more horrified than others about this law.  The Bible promotes fair treatment for foreigners, immigrants, and resident aliens throughout.  The practice of “hospitality to strangers” is made normative in both testaments.  Consider just a few texts:

“Do not oppress an alien.  You yourseves know how it feels to be aliens; for you were aliens in Egypt.” Ex. 23:9

“When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native born.  Love him as yourselves for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.” Lev. 19:33-34, emphasis added.

Christians are to consider themselves not really at home in ANY earthly country, but as “aliens and strangers on the earth.” Heb. 11:13.  This theme goes back to the founding of ancient Israel. God did not, as commonly said by many, GIVE the land of Canaan to the Israelites. Rather, he let them use the land–a land God claimed for God’s own and in which the Israelites were to consider themselves God’s guests (Lev. 25:23). Actually, this theme has even deeper roots–in Abraham’s call to leave Ur to follow God in faith to some other country “that I will show you.” Wars, famines, plagues–and the call of God–have always led to migration.  (This reminder that the land never BELONGED to Israel would also give a different shape to Mid-east peace talks, but that’s a topic for another time.)

Finally, we must remind ourselves that we meet Christ in the stranger–including the stranger from another land (Matt. 25:35). So our treatment of immigrants and resident aliens, including our perspective on immigration laws, should flow from a desire to treat the resident alien we meet as we would treat Christ–Christ who was, because of Herod’s massacre, a refugee in Egypt for some of his childhood according to Matt. 2:14-16.

In an age of terrorism, it is, perhaps, unreasonable to have completely open borders.  I do not advocate only amnesty.  But I do think the AZ law is an unjust overreaction that no Christian should support.  We need comprehensive immigration reform that brings most undocumented workers out from the shadows and gives them a path to citizenship. We need to remind ourselves that ending wars and working for economic development and a just political order globally reduces many of the reasons people flee to the U.S. (Next time someone gets angry at aid to Mexico, remind them that if they want most Mexicans to stay in Mexico they had better help them form a stable and just nation.) We also need easier LEGAL immigration–importing the skilled and unskilled workers that we need–and making it easy for people to keep their families together, too.

Crime and violence, such as currently rocks Arizona and other border states, must be suppressed–but not by a presumption of guilt by anyone with an accent, with a Latino/a name or certain skin-color, eye-color, hair-color. 

A personal final word: I resent it when people refer to Latino/as as “prone to crime,” lazy, of loose morals, etc. Not only does this insult many of my friends, but it was said about every other immigrant group when they first came to these shores.  The sweeping generalization (i.e., “lie”) hasn’t improved any with time.

UPDATE:  It seems I gave Gov. Brewer too much credit in hoping that she was motivated to sign this draconian law mostly out of fear of cross-border crime.  But the Arizona Republic has done some old-fashioned investigative journalism, today.  They found that, contrary to claims by Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan and by John McCain, it’s NOT about the violence since there is no increase in violent crime along the AZ border in the last decade!  So, for Gov. Brewer, this has to be a continuation of her voter suppression efforts  (of LEGAL Latino/a citizens in AZ) as AZ Secretary of State in order to make GOP electoral victories easier.  And for State Rep. Pearce, this is part of his continued efforts for white supremacy as documented above. 

Racism is alive and well and rampant in AZ–and trying to come to a state near you as more states seek to copy AZ’s law.  So, we have to step up efforts to push Congress for Comprehensive Immigration Reform–this year, before the November elections.  Take voter registration cards to every rally for immigrants’ rights.

UPDATE II: The Washington Post has a good, brief, article on Five (5) Myths About Immigration that is well worth reading and sharing with others.

A CALL TO ACTION:  Join in any local marches for immigration reform and solidarity with immigrants that you can. Bring voter registration cards to every march or rally.  Write, call, & email your senators urging comprehensive immigration reform THIS year.  Support the Schumer-Kerry framework.  Boycott AZ, especially tourism in AZ, until the racist law is removed.  I cancelled our family’s planned trip to the Grand Canyon this summer as soon as Gov. Brewer signed the law.  Contact Gov. Brewer’s office and the AZ Bureau of Tourism and let them know that you are boycotting their state.  Write letters to your local paper against the AZ law.  Contact the Dept. of Justice and urge them to block enforcement of the AZ law as unconstitutional.  If you are clergy, please preach on the “hospitality to strangers” theme that should undergird Christian perspectives on immigration and condemn the racism of most anti-immigrant views.  Thank-you.

UPDATE III:  Arizona’s legislators and governor are not even PRETENDING that this is about illegal immigration anymore. It’s about turning Latino/as, especially Mexican-Americans, into permanently Second Class Citizens.  The state legislature has just passed (and Gov. Brewer signed) 2 more “anti-Brown” laws.  1) No one who has a “foreign accent” will be allowed to teach English in the public schools!  2)All courses in Latino studies are hereby banned.  Neither of these laws has anything to do with immigration. They are blatant attempts to promote white supremacy and a legal (nonlethal) form of ethnic cleansing! 

May 2, 2010 - Posted by | civil rights, ethics, justice, oppression, racial justice


  1. Eye of the Beholder: I will tell you what I have seen these last few days I saw our beloved Stars and Stripes flag, the flag from Mexico and some flags from other countries. I saw children, parents and grand parents together in solidarity, my people the working class, they may not be sophisticated but they got the message heard. From publish reports the demonstrations included both US citizens and undocumented workers. This brought me a smile because I always enjoy seeing brothers helping brothers.

    This reminds me of a parable from the good book where a Levite and Priest come upon a man who fell among thieves and they both individually passed by and didn’t stop to help him. Finally a man of another race came by, he got down from his beast, decided not to be compassionate by proxy and got down with the injured man, administered first aid, and helped the man in need. Jesus ended up saying, this was the good man, this was the great man, because he had the capacity to project the “I” into the “thou,” and to be concerned about his brother.

    You see, the Levite and the Priest were afraid, they asked themselves, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?”

    But then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”

    As I see it, we should stand-up against a law is passed in anger and is against our Constitution/ Bill of Rights/ Declaration of Independence and is targets a specific group.

    God bless all my brothers and sister that stood side by side with our brothers and sisters in need. When our judgment comes I know God will not discriminate by country of origin as men do.

    Comment by Benito | May 3, 2010 | Reply

    • Thanks for this first-hand report on the May Day marches for immigration reform (and against the horrible AZ law), Benito.

      Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | May 3, 2010 | Reply

  2. […] law criminalizes “being” while brown What does an illegal immigrant look like? | race-talk “papers, please”: arizona & immigration in christian perspective … E pluribus unum: arizona's new immigration law isn't just wrong … Immigration: anarchy […]

    Pingback by Chinese Exclusion Law | May 4, 2010 | Reply

  3. “It DEMANDS that local police stop any person who “seems illegal” and ask for proof of citizenship and/or legal residency status. ”

    How does it DEMAND that? The law itself states ‘lawful contact’ has to exist (i.e. a crime already having been committed) and on top of that the resonable suspicion about them being illegal. Meaning a crime can be committed and if the second half doesn’t exist, officers still cannot question withou basis.

    Comment by Tim | May 7, 2010 | Reply

    • “Lawful contact” does not refer to a crime having been committed. It can be random traffic stops, etc. “Reasonable suspicion of being illegal” is completely subjective and, despite the ban on racial profiling, guarantees exactly that. As Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R-CA) said recently, “I was originally going to be a commencement speaker in AZ, but figured with my funny accent, they’d try to deport me.”

      Of course, he’s famous enough that even if his accent was Latino rather than Austrian-German, this isn’t true. But it shows how ridiculous the concept of “seeming illegal” is. Our Constitution and laws are based on a presumption of innocence–guilt must be proved. The same has always been true with presumption of innocence or legal status–and it’s a good thing. As I said, I couldn’t prove my citizenship if randomly asked by a cop, nor could most people. (Heck, there are still people who don’t believe Pres. Obama was born in Hawai’i, no matter how many times he’s published his birth certificate!) A presumption of guilt until proven innocent turns this on it it’s head–and cannot be allowed to stand.

      Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | May 12, 2010 | Reply

  4. Very helpful synopsis!! Thanks especially for the history. I just linked this from FB.

    Comment by Michael DeFazio | May 10, 2010 | Reply

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