Amnesty? If Only!
by Rebecca Hall
“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was ‘well timed’ in the view of those who have not suffered unduly…. For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ … This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.’”
Fifty years ago, those words were penned by an advocate for human rights who was brilliant, passionate, and, above all else, tired. Tired that white moderates were cautioning him to wait, to have patience until the day in which the powerful would suddenly establish justice. Tired that, although in principle white moderates supported the aims of his movement, they did so as outsiders, not as those privileged by a legacy of oppression and complicit in that sinful structure. Not as those who had a moral obligation to act.
That was the Civil Rights Movement 50 years ago. But what can we say about the atmosphere today? In the struggle against racism and inequality, undocumented immigrants are the new “segregated” class—people who live in the shadows, afraid, oftentimes unaware even of those few rights that they do have. And just as with the oppressive structure of 50 years ago, this system of inequality is our fault. We as the United States invaded their homelands, exploited their resources, destroyed their ability to survive at home. We created the conditions that forced them to immigrate. And by making our immigration system so exclusive and complicated, we have further created a system in which we, the modern-day “white moderates,” can benefit from undocumented labor and, at the same time, blame undocumented immigrants for their lack of legal status. What hypocrites we are.
Last week, the Senate unveiled their immigration bill: The Border Security, Economic Opportunity & Immigration Modernization Act of 2013. This is the bill that immigration activists have been awaiting for decades—except that, in many ways, it is not what they’ve been waiting for. First of all, let me say that I celebrate the fact that it is even on the table at all. I applaud the group of mostly white, middle-class, privileged Senators for waking up to the fact that immigration reform is in their own interests. They have my congratulations. But they are reacting exactly the way people in power do when confronted with growing social movements—they give the bare minimum and call on everyone else to applaud them for their graciousness.
Clearly, the aim of this bill is not compassionate reform—it is enforcement. This legislation will create no less than six “triggers,” security conditions that will have to be met before undocumented immigrants can apply to regularize their status. Until those conditions are met and 10 years have passed by, they will be stuck in a provisional legal status. Nothing is said about more humane enforcement for those who will not qualify, or greater efforts towards family reunification. In fact, this plan will eliminate certain categories of family sponsorship. It will do nothing to speed up the process of legal immigration for those families who are currently waiting decades to sponsor relatives from abroad.
The focus of this bill is about ending what the Gang of Eight calls the “de facto amnesty” that undocumented immigrants are currently living under. There are hardly words to describe my reaction to that phrase—and certainly none of them should be published on a Christian website. De facto amnesty? While they work for low wages and are discriminated against and exploited in the workplace? De facto amnesty, when ICE hunts them down like animals and detains them in prisons for months on end? De facto amnesty, when their family members aren’t even allowed to say goodbye before they are deported, as are more than 400,000 people each year? Senators, if that is what you call amnesty, then I would like to see how you treat people you actually prosecute!
Fifty years ago, in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr. wrote the following words:
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an
inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.
Instead of supporting the white moderate view of “fairness” contained in this bill—a fairness that requires people to jump through so many hoops they won’t be able to see straight—let’s fight for justice. Instead of magnanimously granting citizenship to immigrants despite their “violations,” let’s recognize our own complicity in the system that dehumanizes and exploits them. Instead of regarding undocumented immigrants as “outsiders,” let’s see them as members of our communities, our neighbors, and, most of all, human beings made in the image of a just, diverse, and merciful God.
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.