Is Christian Ministry Illegal in Arizona?

This spring Arizona enacted the harshest enforcement bill in the country against undocumented immigrants. It requires state law enforcement officials to require identity documents from anyone they have “lawful contact” with and have “reasonable suspicion” of being undocumented, and to detain them if they are. Those not carrying identification papers, even people who are U.S. citizens or green card holders, are subject to arrest.

Many fear racial profiling and are concerned that the only people required to carry papers will be those who might “look illegal”—i.e. have brown skin. Although the law is unclear, people fear they could be arrested if they are stopped and are simply with people who are undocumented—even if they are family. Parents or children of “mixed-status families” (made up of documented and undocumented, as many immigrant families are) could be arrested if they are found together. You could also be arrested if you are “transporting” or “harboring” undocumented people. Some might consider driving immigrant families to church to be Christian ministry—but it may now be illegal in Arizona.
This law is mean-spirited and will further divide communities, making people more fearful and less safe. This radical new measure is a clear demonstration of the fundamental mistake of separating enforcement from comprehensive immigration reform. We all want to live in a nation of laws, and the immigration system in the U.S. is clearly broken. But enforcement without reform of the system is merely cruel. Enforcement without compassion is immoral. Enforcement that breaks up families is unacceptable. And enforcement of this law would force us to violate our Christian conscience, which we simply will not do.
I was in Phoenix the day the law was signed by the governor, and while there I visited some immigrant families who work at Neighborhood Ministries, an impressive community organization affiliated with our friends at the Christian Community Development Association. I met a group of women who were frightened by the raids that have been occurring, in which men invade their homes and neighborhoods with guns and helicopters. When rumors of raids spread, many head for The Church at The Neighborhood Center as the only place they feel safe. But will police invade the churches if they are suspected of “harboring” undocumented people?
As always, the stories of real people get lost. Will the nurse practitioner I met at the medical clinic serving only uninsured people be arrested for being “with” the children of families who are here illegally as she treats them? Is the woman I met who came here illegally—as an infant on her farm-worker father’s back, 47 years ago—really a threat to us? Her whole life has been here, her children are here, and now she works for a Christian ministry taking care of vulnerable people. Should she just be deported?
I spoke at a rally in Phoenix, where I started with the words of Jesus, who instructed his disciples to “welcome the stranger,” and said that whatever we do to “the least of these, who are members of my family,” we do to him. Many Christians in Arizona won’t comply with this law because the people it targets are members of our “family” in the body of Christ. And any attack against them is an attack against us, and the One we follow.
Arizona’s law is a social and racial sin, and it should be denounced by people of faith and conscience across the nation. Arizona is threatening to wage war on the body of Christ. We should say that if you come after one part of the body, you come after all of us. This law will make it illegal to love your neighbor in Arizona, and it would force us to disobey Jesus and his gospel. We will not comply.
There ought to be bipartisan support for comprehensive immigration reform, but bipartisan spirit has fled the ultra-partisan atmosphere of the U.S. Congress. In Washington, politics is now just a game of win and lose, and it’s only about the next election; it’s no longer about solving problems. But there are children and families in the balance, and the politicians are playing politics with the lives of vulnerable people. They are our brothers and sisters, they are our parishioners, and they are children of God. And the faith community has come together to say the time for politics over compassion is past.
The president and members of Congress continue to assert their support for immigration reform, but actions speak louder than words. Congress is hesitant to tackle tough issues before mid-term elections. But comprehensive reform legislation must be passed. We don’t want more verbal commitments, we want action.
While politicians can write off one more piece of legislation on a packed agenda, they won’t be able to write off, or ignore, a movement rooted in our faith communities. If our political leaders won’t make room for the “strangers” among us, we will—because Jesus commands us to do so. It’s time to stop playing politics with people’s lives.
Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.

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