Distributed Mind

On the Tension Between Compassion and Law

One thing I keep seeing Christians write about immigration is that there is that they feel a tension between the need to uphold law and order and the need to show compassion. I am no fan of the "law and order"-style Christians usually because the vast majority of the time that is merely an excuse to get their own way or to give in to fear, whatever. But I can appreciate that on the immigration issue, some people are really having trouble with this. Let me then suggest to them, hopefully to their benefit of their conscience, that they have made a false dichotomy.

Entering the country and remaining and working without approval from the proper authorities is against the law. But (1) so are many other things which we do not consider serious problems; for example, I've met precious few Christians who don't speed, for better or for worse. And, more importantly, (2) there is nothing inherently immoral about immigration. Although there are policy implications, some of them moral, for immigration on the whole, no single act of immigration could ever be considered immoral. This is absolutely critical because it means that in the context of the current debate, where we are discussing comprehensive immigration reform, we can choose what is and is not illegal. Technically we can make anything not covered by the Constitution illegal - but we don't need to, and usually we don't, and we can do the same thing to a lot of immigration. When all these leaders are sweating that being compassionate will require us to not show proper respect for the law, they are getting everything out of order. First, let's decide what immigration should and should not be legal. Increase the immigration limits already - there is absolutely no reason for them to be as low as they are. Even from the American perspective they seem to be too low (though admittedly this is difficult to establish, given all of the biased parties involved in the debate - it benefits certain economic interests to claim that there are not enough working immigrants). Then, only after we have decided what should be illegal, should we talk about what punitive measures are appropriate. Finally, the debate about what to do about immigrants already here for some time should happen in conjunction with this or last after all those things have been settled. And then, most of the problem has already disappeared, hopefully. No one has to choose this sort of dichotomy yet.

Yet - see, the time has not yet passed when we can make a difference by advocating for a fundamental change in our approach to immigration. The Judeo-Christian tradition, American history, and civil libertarian ideals all favor a more permissive position on immigration. For those worried about making laws upholding their moral tradition, this is a perfect opportunity. And for a change everyone can be on the same side even! But if we take a hands-off approach, and let Congress debate this on their terms (which has from the outset been determined by the worst, most xenophobic tendencies in our society), then we may risk having to choose between respect for law and compassion. For now, we still have a choice, so let's not give in to paralysis.

(Incidentally, it may seem strange to some that I am so quick to defend those who break the law on immigration, but so quick to condemn corporations and persons of power for breaking other laws. But that word is the key: "power." I defend immigrants in part because I think that immigration should not in general be illegal, but also because the vast majority of immigrants in this nation are precisely not the rich and powerful. Although the Bible condemns favoritism, it also upholds the principle that we need to protect the vulnerable.)

posted at 02:55:24 on 05/22/06 by ben - Category: Religion


cscotta wrote:


You're a master at capturing the Bible's implications for politics today and are able to speak on this with much greater grace than I'm often able to muster.

I'm living in a multicultural neighborhood this summer and have to say that it is nothing like my suburban life up to this point. The diversity is incredible and beautiful. Though the majority who live nearby are black (i.e., likely not recent immigrants), they offer the area a great deal of character that you just don't find in a gated community.

It's interesting to live in an area where crime takes on the form of broken windows and petty theft rather than corporate fraud, vanishing 401k's, and exploitation at which we're quite adept.

In fact, I think I might prefer it.

Xenophobic rhetoric is just a little too accessible; we're trained to resonate with it (even if only to a minute degree), though few of us consider its larger implications.


05/26/06 03:08:37

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