The Common Good

Immigrant Rights as Human Rights

The issues surrounding immigration are politically complex and emotionally charged, especially at a time when many Americans are experiencing severe economic distress. Under the circumstances, many people's attitudes towards immigrants have hardened, and we are seeing a rash of harsh punitive laws aimed at driving out people in the U.S. without visas. However, I believe that people of faith ought to recognize that global immigration is a human rights issue. Recognizing immigration as a human right means acknowledging that people should have the freedom to cross national borders in search of a livelihood, or to escape physical danger. Indeed, the United Nation's Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizes the freedom of movement across national borders as a fundamental right. It also grants every human being a right to a nationality.

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While the Declaration effectively grants all humans a right to have rights, in reality those rights are determined by individual nation-states that by their very nature include some people and exclude others. Since even long term immigrants are now often excluded from accessing citizenship rights in many countries in which they have settled, they are effectively excluded from having any voice in determining their own status. Immigration is one of the few policy arenas in which the people whose lives will be most affected are excluded from the decision-making process. Thus, the presence of roughly 12 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. once again challenges Americans to conceive of our democracy more broadly and inclusively.

Since Americans are citizens of one of the world's leading global economic, political, and military powers, we need to be aware of how our actions affect the well-being and freedom of people in other nations. Consequently, we carry ethical responsibilities to address the unintended negative consequences of our individual and collective actions on the lives of people in other parts of the world. These moral obligations can take multiple forms, including commitments by the U.S. and other wealthy nations to assist in a process of global income redistribution. It can also lead to an acknowledgment of an obligation to open one's borders, especially to groups of people who are suffering the negative consequences of one's own nation's economic and political policies. Within liberal democracies, this requires an electorate willing to support policies that accept responsibility for the consequences of global interdependence.

Broad support for the basic principles of human rights can be found within the world's major religious traditions, including Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. In the Hebrew Bible, which serves as a foundational text for all three of the Abrahamic faiths, God instructs the Israelites to respect the rights of the "alien" or the foreigner in their midst. In early Israel blood ties connected each person to one of the twelve tribes, which in turn determined that person's right to inherit the lands God had given to each tribe. Those who did not possess such blood ties were considered to be aliens, even though, given the ethnic hybridity of the region; they may have been long term residents in the land given to Israel. This situation demanded that the Mosaic Law pay considerable attention to the rights of immigrants or resident aliens. Already in Exodus 22:21-22 God instructed Moses as follows: "You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. ... If you abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry: my wrath will burn and I will kill you with the sword." This admonition is reframed positively in Leviticus 19:33 where it states, "The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself." Repeatedly, the rights of aliens are grounded in the remembrance that Israel had been given refuge in a foreign land. Numbers 15:15b instructs the Israelites that "you and the alien shall be alike for the Lord. You and the alien who resides with you shall have the same law and the same ordinance." For aliens or immigrants to have the same law effectively meant that they were granted the same rights.

According to the Christian political philosopher, Nicholas Wolterstorff, human rights are grounded in a worth-imparting relationship between all human beings and God. Wolterstorff argues that it is the quality of being loved by God that gives every human being great worth. "And if God loves equally and permanently each and every creature who bears the imago dei, then the relational property of being loved by God ... gives to each human being who bears it the worth in which natural human rights inhere." Other religions contain similar understandings of the worth of every human being even though they construct those understandings differently.

Given the religious grounding for human rights, I am particularly grieved when I encounter fellow Christians who are openly hostile to the presence of immigrants in the U.S. It seems that too often people come to regard American citizenship as some form of exclusive birthright, forgetting that most of us were also once aliens in this land. Shouldn't support for contemporary immigrant rights be an act of obligation in remembrance of our own histories of sojourning?

Dr. Helene Slessarev-Jamir is a political scientist and serves as the Mildred M. Hutchinson Professor of Urban Studies at the Claremont School of Theology.

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