Playing by the Rules

passportby Rebecca Hall

We Americans are practically born with a sense of justice, aren’t we? From the time we squabble over toys with our young siblings to the time we enter the job market, we are inculcated with the idea that if we work hard, pay our dues, and perhaps have a little luck, we can achieve anything we want. It’s why we hold religiously to free-market capitalism; why we as a society have little patience for anybody who doesn’t seem to have the same motivation (read: opportunities) as we do. We believe that, in the end, we will each get exactly what we deserve. Justice.

Of all the places for it to rear its ugly head, this attitude surfaced recently in the Obama administration’s plan for immigration reform. Don’t get me wrong; I am completely in favor of updating this country’s outdated immigration system. I applaud President Obama for standing his ground and insisting on a path for citizenship for the millions of undocumented workers currently living in the shadows. I commend him for tackling this issue now, in the midst of a budget crisis, while he still has the political clout to do so. And yet…

The basic premise of the proposal, evident in its title—“Fixing our Broken Immigration System so Everyone Plays by the Rules”—is that 11 million people did not play fairly. That they lied, cheated, stole, etc., their way into this country. That if only they had followed the rules, paid taxes, waited in line, we would have welcomed them with open arms. It’s a convincing argument, one that no doubt many Americans believe. The only problem is that it’s complete rubbish.

Never, not once, in our entire history, have the same rules applied to every immigrant seeking entrance into this country. Our current immigration system carries within it a legacy of racism, colonialism, and inequality. With laws such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 entire peoples deemed racially inferior were prohibited from entering the country—at the same time that Ellis Island was welcoming all European immigrants who were neither terminally ill nor criminal. It was not until 1952 that immigrants classified as other than caucasian were finally allowed to naturalize and become citizens. Even today, it is much easier for Europeans or citizens of other developed countries to visit the United States than it is for others.

As Charlene Obernauer wrote recently in HuffingtonPost, it seems as though lawmakers labor under the delusion that “immigrants choose to come to this country as simply as one might decide on the location of an exotic vacation.” This is simply not true. What we are dealing with now is a population of economic refugees—people who simply couldn’t make ends meet at home. And before we start hammering and hawing about how this is Mexico’s or China’s problem, let’s remember who caused a lot of this economic devastation in the first place: us. We passed free trade laws like NAFTA, which made it impossible for Mexican farmers to survive. We turned the Philippines into our own personal playground. Yet current attempts at immigration reform conveniently ignore the causes of immigration itself, including our own culpability. Here’s a question: Ever wonder how our immigration system might be different today if the United States had played by the basic rules of international law?

For potential immigrants today, the playing field is still far from level. If they’re lucky, they have a close family member in the US who can sponsor them. And then they wait – anywhere from two to 20 years, depending on their country of origin. Those who are less lucky might still be able to immigrate, if they can find an employer with enough sympathy, patience, and money to sponsor them, a process that can take up to five years. For economically impoverished immigrants who lack a professional degree (and, above all, a staggering amount of luck), this is not an option. For them, there is simply no line to get into, no visa to apply for. And so, they enter the United States the only way they can: with temporary visas, or with no documentation at all. They didn’t play by the rules, because the rules barred them from playing the game in the first place.

And now, they’re here. They may have come seeking their own self-interest (read: survival), and yet, contrary to what the administration seems to imply, their presence here in the United States has been beneficial to all of us. To start with, the vast majority of undocumented immigrants already pay taxes. So let’s not make a big deal about how this is an added responsibility we’ll ask of them now they’re being legalized. They contribute to our economy in other ways as well, as business-owners, consumers, and workers (the Senate’s plan recognizes the importance of undocumented agricultural workers so much that it offers to set them on the fast-track to permanent residency). But more than that, they enrich our communities with their presence, their cultures, their distinct languages and ways of being.

The word used for justice in the Hebrew bible is tsedeqah. It not only means justice but also righteousness. Mercy. The justice of a community that provides for the poor, for the needy, and the foreigner. God’s sense of justice is so different from our own. In fact, you might say that God would be less outraged at a person’s “illegal” status than at the nation that uses and exploits them. So these coming months, as the debate over immigration reform continues, let’s remember that God does not ask us to play by the rules. God asks us to promote justice—a justice that might end up looking more like compassion than anything else.

Rebecca Hall is an MDiv student and Sider Scholar at Eastern University’s Palmer Theological Seminary. She has spent several months volunteering in Latin America and is currently completing an internship in the Philadelphia area, educating congregations on immigration issues.

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