Two years ago my current home state of Arizona passed a bill, commonly referred to by its senate designation number SB 1070, designed to hinder illegal immigration and to remove illegal immigrants from the state. Its location on the Mexican border, along with tighter enforcement of border crossing in California and Texas, has made Arizona a popular place for illegal migrants to enter the United States. Given its already sizable Hispanic population, many of these migrants naturally chose to stay, live and work in the state. Many in the state, including a majority of our state legislators, view these migrants not only with distrust but with outright enmity. They see illegal immigrants as a drain on our state economy and a threat to our health, welfare and security.
At the time it was passed, I was living outside of the country and had been for several years. My initial information and impression of the bill came through online sources and personal contacts back home. Most of those contacts are strongly conservative and favor very strict immigration policies and enforcement of those. They, naturally, supported this measure. I also initially favored it. I have lived as a legal resident in other countries in which I was required to carry immigration documents at all times, so that if questioned by authorities I could always demonstrate my immigration status. So it did not strike me as unjust or even unusual for the state of Arizona to require the same thing.
Since returning to Arizona my view on this has shifted significantly. My objection comes not along the lines that the federal government is contesting the law. I am not particularly concerned with the question whether the states have authority in these matters or not, although I understand how some see this as a key issue in the debate. That appears to be the issue that the Supreme Court will decide this summer, looking specifically at Arizona's law. My objections come rather from two different fronts. These are not unique to me.
First of all, the question of racial profiling. The law not only entitles but requires state and local law enforcement personnel to inquire about the immigration status of any person during a “lawful stop, detention or arrest” or during a “lawful contact.” Supporters of the law claim that this does not involve racial profiling, but in a state located on the southern border of the US, where the overwhelming majority of immigrants are of Latin American origin, how can it do otherwise? I hardly imagine that the state police would be inclined to question a white guy like me about my immigration status. The default assumption is that white guys like me are here legally. So it's the Hispanics who will get the extra attention. That's called racial profiling.
Furthermore, I object to this clause because we do not have standard documents in the United States that prove someone is a legal resident or citizen. More accurately, such documents do exist, but we are not required to possess them or to carry them at all times. So a Hispanic who is a citizen or legal resident when stopped by the police and asked to produce his or her papers showing proof of legal residency, has no legal obligation and may not have any document to prove this. Most Americans don't own passports and even those of us who do will not normally carry them with us while traveling around our home city, state or country. This marks a big difference between the situation I faced while living overseas and the Arizona law. In the countries where I lived, all citizens have a residency document, usually called an “internal passport” that they carry at all times. So in such a situation, it is less unreasonable to ask resident foreigners to have a similar document with them.
My second objection relates to the first in that the whole immigration issue focuses on people from Latin America. I don't hear many calls to tighten the Canadian border. I don't see us building big walls to keep the Canadians out. Naturally not, because they aren't trying to come across illegally. They don't need to. They have decent (better, in fact), living conditions in their home country. So our call to crack down on illegal immigration stems from our fear of people whom we view as different from us, people who threaten our cultural way of life, who make us feel uncomfortable. I don't buy the argument that they take American jobs, because more often than not they are doing jobs most Americans don't want for wages most of us would not accept. In fact, I argue that these immigrants (including the illegal ones) add value to our economy. I don't have the facts to back this up, but I'm confident they exist. Our efforts to stop illegal immigration come from our fear of the "other." It's not a new issue in the history of immigration in our country, although it seems to have taken a stronger, more virulent form.
As I wrote yesterday, I read my Bible and hear God calling people to welcome foreigners and strangers, and to provide for them. God reminds people that they too were once strangers and slaves in Egypt. I hear God calling us to reach it and include those who are in need, those who are hungry, thirsty, naked, poor, desperate. I don't hear God telling us to build bigger walls of exclusion, to circle the wagons and try to protect what is ours, to react in fear to those who are different than us.
What would an open, inclusive immigration policy look like? I'm looking for someone to offer such a proposal and I'm looking for others who would dare to step up and support such a proposal. I'm encouraged by the small step taken at the instigation of Sojourners, which you can read about here. Are we willing to put God's kingdom above our own sense of country, our own sense of safety and security, and our own fear? Are we willing to stand up for those in need?