Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Our Wall of Shame

I grew up in a world where the biggest perceived threat my country faced came from that place that our president-at-the-time labeled the “evil empire.” This evil empire, also known as the Soviet Union, exercised control or direct influence over a number of other countries, among them those in Eastern Europe know as the Warsaw Pact. One symbol came to define this evil empire and its satellite states: the Berlin Wall.

I won't detail here the history of the Berlin Wall. Thankfully, on November 9, 1989, while I was a student at university, this wall came down. It happened quite suddenly in the end and rather unexpectedly. The removal of this wall symbolized the victory of freedom over repression.

Twenty-some years later I find myself living in southern Arizona, not too far from the border with Mexico. We can't see it from here, but I could drive there in about an hour. This border has been the source of much controversy over the years, a controversy that only seems to be growing stronger in these years of economic downturn. In some places the United States government has erected a wall to keep out the unwanted migrants from the south. Many voices, including one that to my great relief just lost a by-election for our congressional district, advocate finishing this wall along the entire border and even doubling it just to be safe. The country that once celebrated the destruction of a wall in defense of freedom now builds one of its own. 

Some may see a significant difference between these two walls. I acknowledge that there are differences, but I'm not so certain that the underlying motive in building the two walls is all that different. Both the German Democratic Republic and the United States of America build or built their wall out of fear. The GDR feared losing too many of its citizens. The USA fears being swamped by too many migrants, despite that fact that we are a nation of immigrants.

In our region of southern Arizona, most people talk of “border security.” All conservatives and most liberals speak of the need to defend our border. Few, if any, dare suggest that we look for an alternative to bigger fences and more border guards. The climate of fear and defensiveness is too dominant.

I don't pretend that the issues are simple, but I find myself asking increasingly whether there's a different way than what has been or is currently being pursued. Especially as a follower of Jesus, I wonder whether instead of trying to keep migrants out because of our fear (whether it is based on economics, crime, or as is often the underlying issue, racism) we are called to a radically different approach. I read the Bible and hear God telling their people to welcome foreigners, to remember that they too were once foreigners in Egypt. The underlying ethic welcomes the other, not excludes them. Admittedly, Israel all-too-seldom practiced this in its own history, but we look not to their example but to the ideal that God set before them.

I am ashamed that my country, one of the wealthiest on earth with a standard of living that remains among the world's highest, a country that is built on immigration, now seeks to exclude others and particularly does so by erecting walls and physical barriers. I do not think that we really face the threat of being overwhelmed by migrants should we adopt a more humane, open policy. In fact, immigrants have been the strength of our nation, have spurred our economic growth and enriched our cultural stew.

A friend of mine offered a radical suggestion to reform American immigration policy. He stated that the government should welcome the poorest immigrants, the ones who are most oppressed, marginalized and hopeless in their home countries, and allow them to begin a new life here, Their energy and motivation could provide a helpful stimulus to our economy, while giving them opportunities they would never have at home. At the same time, the wealthy, highly-educated immigrants who we prefer to welcome today should be turned away so that they can utilize their skills in developing their own countries. Again, the idea needs some further development, but the underlying principle appeals to me because it speaks of the justice and grace that should distinguish God's kingdom. If those who call themselves by the name of Christ in the United States really want to demonstrate their allegiance to God's kingdom, our attitude and response to immigrants would be one good place for some radical change.

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