President Obama and the Economic and Moral Imperatives of Immigration Reform

The world around us is teaming with meaning. Words are lush with meaning. One word can point to many different ideas, emotions, expectations. Hermeneutists, people who practice the art and science of interpretation, use the concept of polysemy to think about this reality. For example: the word love can indicate a strong like for something -- I love pasta. It can mean romantic attraction -- "How do I love thee let me count the ways." It can mean no score in tennis -- she lost the set 6- love.

Such is also the case with the United States of America. When we think of our country, many things come to mind: the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, the Pledge of Allegiance, our national motto: E Pluribus Unum, the American Dream. And, each of these things in and of themselves also signifies many different meanings. The question that we ought to ask ourselves with every issue that we face in our political economy is: How does this help to define America? What is the meaning of America in relation to this issue? The question is a question of import. It is a question of values.

This week, President Obama made two speeches on comprehensive immigration reform. One was a longer speech in El Paso, TX and the other was remarks at the National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast. Each speech highlighted a different imperative of comprehensive immigration reform. In the first, he spoke of the economic imperatives; in the second, he spoke of the moral imperatives. Economics and morals go hand in hand. Economics without morals is cannibalistic. Morals without economics are lifeless. It is not unlike the biblical wisdom that teaches: "Faith without works is dead."

The economic imperatives are clear. Immigrants come to this country and start businesses. They work, often in menial, difficult, and backbreaking jobs with poor wages. They educate themselves and their children, and they become productive citizens who contribute to the economic well-being of the nation. So, it is to the nation's economic benefit to offer the nearly 11 million undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship.

The moral imperatives are less clear. President Obama cited the injustice of punishing children for the legal status of their parents and the vulnerability of undocumented workers who live outside of the protection of the law, who are often exploited by unscrupulous employers. He also said: "It's a moral imperative when simply enforcing the law may mean inflicting pain on families who are just trying to do the right thing by their children."

In both speeches, he reiterated the idea that the United States is both a nation of immigrants and a nation of laws. As we consider the meaning of America, it is important to say that we ought to be a nation of hospitality, justice, and compassion. The president today spoke of the empathy that we ought to have for the immigrant as we remember our own immigrant histories. I say: We ought to be a nation that understands the relationship between justice and compassion. When we define the United States of America as a compassionate nation through compassionate immigration reform, we will strengthen our social contract not only for the millions of undocumented workers who will become our sister and brother citizens, but we will have made it a more just social contract for ourselves as well.

We will have to become a more perfect union. This striving is also one meaning of America.

Dr. Valerie Elverton Dixon is an independent scholar who publishes lectures and essays at She received her Ph.D. in religion and society from Temple University and taught Christian ethics at United Theological Seminary and Andover Newton Theological School.

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