Before they went to Bethlehem, the wise men had a meeting with Herod. “I have a problem,” Herod explained to them, “and I need your help. I need to find this child. I suspect he’s somewhere in Bethlehem, so I need you to ask around, use your sources, follow your star — then report back to me. Don’t worry, I’ll treat him well when you find him.”
Instead, after visiting Jesus in that Bethlehem stable, the wise men went home by another road, deciding to avoid Herod and his directive. Joseph, Mary, and Jesus fled to Egypt, away from violence in their own country. And, in one of the most terrible accounts in Scripture, Herod took out his anger on the infant children of Bethlehem.
Throughout human history, individuals and institutions have had to make difficult and risky decisions in response to unjust directives — especially those directives framed as required cooperation, “for the good of the country.” Resistance can take many forms: Dissent, protest, civil disobedience. Sometimes, though, what should be done is simply declining to participate.
This new year, conversations are taking place all around the country about whether local law enforcement agencies will assist Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials in tracking down and turning over undocumented individuals living in the United States. As political discourse and top-down pressure threatens to move us further toward mass deportations, those political leaders seeking to find and arrest those without documents hope that local law enforcement officers will become de facto agents of ICE.
There are important policy and practical considerations at stake in these conversations. Federal and local law enforcement agencies intentionally have different jurisdictional responsibilities and priorities. The primary mission of local law enforcement is public safety, and one of the most important tools in pursuing that mission is establishing relationships and trust with and within communities. Reporting, investigation, and prosecution of crimes requires the participation of witnesses and other community members. When that trust breaks down — if community members feel their immigration status is too insecure to interact with the police — then public safety breaks down, as well.
So carefully crafted lines between federal and state authority should be breached only with great care. Back-door attempts to enlist state and local officers to perform federal functions undermines the thoughtful intention required to maintain the integrity of our civil leadership. As meaningful and comprehensive immigration reform languishes at the federal level, many localities are balking at what they see as enabling a broken federal system, especially as it too often relies on racial or ethnic profiling and lacks due process protections.
Much of the public attention to this tension has focused on “sanctuary cities.” The ambiguity of the term “sanctuary city” has generated significant misunderstanding, with some people assuming or insinuating that localities intend to offer total protection from deportation. Instead, the on-the-ground reality in many places is that local officials and law enforcement have decided that they will not target members of the community solely to determine immigration status or detain people solely on the basis of immigration status.
The wise men decided not to collaborate in facilitating Herod’s raid on the holy family. No doubt God would have found another way to protect Jesus, to ensure that Jesus grew up to accomplish his saving work in the world. But it is significant to acknowledge, especially in our particular moment in time, that God chose to move this salvation story forward through these holy non-collaborators. Somehow the wise men realized, whether by recognizing Herod’s duplicitousness or taking seriously the warning that came to them in a dream, that it would be unjust and unwise to serve as Herod’s enforcers.
We are called to empower our local law enforcement leaders to make the same decision today.