What You're Not Allowed to Talk About in Washington

Jim Wallis and Lisa Sharon Harper speaking at the press conference. Photo: Brandon Hook/Sojourners

(Editors’ Note: Sojourners is running an ad in Rep. King’s district. Watch the ad and click here to learn more about it.)

Business leaders, law enforcement officials, and evangelical Christians—key constituencies that are typically part of the Republican base—have been at the forefront of immigration reform. Given the obvious benefits of, and broad public support for, immigration reform, why are many arch-conservatives in the House of Representatives refusing to address the issue in a serious way? The answer may point to an issue that we still hesitate to talk about directly: race.

Fixing our broken immigration system would grow our economy and reduce the deficit. It would establish a workable visa system that ensures enough workers with “status” to meet employers’ demands. It would end the painful practice of tearing families and communities apart through deportations and bring parents and children out of the shadows of danger and exploitation. And it would allow undocumented immigrants—some of whom even have children serving in the U.S. military—to have not “amnesty,” but a rigorous pathway toward earned citizenship that starts at the end of the line of applicants. Again, why is there such strident opposition when the vast majority of the country is now in favor of reform?

When I asked a Republican senator this question, he was surprisingly honest: “Fear,” he said. Fear of an American future that looks different from the present.

5 Reasons Christians Need to Stop Using the Term 'Illegal Immigrant'

2010 protest in Los Angeles, Juan Camilo Bernal / Shutterstock.com

2010 protest in Los Angeles, Juan Camilo Bernal / Shutterstock.com

Editor's Note: In April, Associated Press representatives said they would no longer recommend the term "illegal immigrant" in the influential AP Style Guide used by many in print media. However, the term is still used by many media outlets and in common parlance. Our hope is that more will follow the AP's lead and rethink its usage.

As the Senate recently passed long awaited immigration overhaul and the bill now heads to the House, the long-standing national discourse on the issue of immigration will likely heat up again. As we participate in these discussions, my hope is that we, especially as Christians tasked with peacemaking and reconciling, will find ways to build bridges instead of erecting walls. As a first step in this bridge building, I pray that once and for all, we will stop using the term “illegal immigrant.”

Here's why:

1. The term “illegal immigrant” is a misleading and dishonest term, which violates the 9th commandment.

The term “illegal immigrant” lends one to believe that an individual is currently doing something illegal, or that their presence in our country is an ongoing, illegal act. In regards to undocumented workers, this is simply not the case. The crime that undocumented workers commit is a violation of “8 U.S.C. § 1325: Entry of Alien at improper time or place,” a federal misdemeanor. Their crime is crossing the border at the improper time and place; however, they are not currently doing anything that is illegal.

Therefore, using this term that has a less-than-honest connotation, is a violation of the commandment to not “bear false witness against our neighbors.”

Jesus Resurrected and 'The Undocumented'

Screenshot from 'The Undocumented,' airing April 29 on PBS.

Screenshot from 'The Undocumented,' airing April 29 on PBS.

At the Full Frame Film Festival in Durham last week, I saw Marco Williams’ new documentary, The Undocumented, which tracks migrants as they hike into the United States across the border between Mexico and Arizona, trying to escape the detection of border patrol agents, and trying to survive the deadly heat of the Sonoran desert.

The documentary follows a young man, Marcos Hernandez, as he tries to find his father, Francisco,  who was last seen in the desert walking for days in the 120-degree summer heat. Francisco left their home in Mexico with a coyote — man he paid $2,000 to lead him across the border — to make enough money to pay for his son’s expensive dialysis treatments. But he never called; he never returned. The coyote reported that he left Francisco in the desert because he was sick and couldn’t keep up with the other migrants in the group. Marcos fears the worst — that his father died of dehydration, of heat exhaustion. But to confirm the death he has to find the body.

The filmmaker focuses on the morgue in Tucson, Ariz., where the medical examiner investigates human remains, looking for clues that would help identify the dead in order to return whatever is left to family members and friends, to provide some kind of closure, to honor the dead with a burial.

In the film, Marcos won’t believe his dad is dead until he can see his dead body, or whatever is left of his body — a skull, teeth, his rib cage. He will not believe unless he can see.

“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe” (John 20:25). That’s what Thomas says to the other disciples about the resurrected Jesus; and what Thomas says about needing to see the body reminds me of the story of Marcos, about the need to see in order to believe.

Immigrants Just Won't Go Away

"'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you drink? And when was it that we saw yo a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?' And the king will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.'"

           --Matthew 25. 37-40

All this immigration talk reminds me of an encounter my wife and I had at a fast food restaurant in Atlanta. The night manager was Hispanic. He came by our table to make sure everything was all right. We started talking. I told him how troubled I was over our immigration debate. 

That casual remark opened his door wide. He told me how scared many of his friends were. Some had already left the state. He told me they only wanted to work and send money back home where things were so tight. One very sick friend, he said would not go to the doctor or hospital because she was afraid of being deported. He told me he kept reading that these immigration laws had nothing to do with racial profiling. 

He shook his head. “I have been stopped six times in the last few months mostly because I was Hispanic.”

Immigration Leaders Gather to Discuss Need for Reform

Photo: Katrina Brown / Shutterstock.com

Photo: Katrina Brown / Shutterstock.com

Last week, I attended the 9th Annual Immigration Law and Policy Conference at Georgetown University Law Center, where a number of senior government officials, policy experts, academics, and advocates discussed one of the most paralyzing issues of our time —immigration.  

As each panelist attempted to provide their thoughtful legal and policy analysis on a number of issues like immigration enforcement, the federal government’s responsibility on immigration policy, and litigation developments, the differences in opinion between the speakers quickly emerged, even though there was consensus that immigration reform is significantly needed in our country. 

Many agreed that the issue of immigration is of staggering complexity. The solution that is developed by the federal government must be a conglomeration of multifaceted mechanisms that address the brokenness of our current system at the policy, legal, and administrative level. This comprehensive solution must also be a clear reflection of the historical context we currently live in since it’s not in our best interest to use an outdated system from the past as an exemplary model for the future. 

Dropping the 'I' Word

Speech bubble image, Petr Vaclavek / Shutterstock.com

Speech bubble image, Petr Vaclavek / Shutterstock.com

A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. Proverbs 15:1 

I often wonder how frequently people think about the impact their words have on others, specifically, on the development of human perception. The conclusion I’ve sadly reached is that when a language norm is established by dominant cultural forces —such as the news media, in our day – the truth seldom matters. Once something is spoken and repeated enough times people consider it to be true regardless of the real facts or circumstances.

One recent debate clearly illustrating the power of words is around which terminology the media should use when referencing immigrants who are in this country without authorization to work. Those outlets that use the word “illegal” defend this practice by pointing to the Associated Press’ Stylebook, which designates “illegal” as the appropriate term. Those using the term “undocumented” have noted the changing circumstances within the culture and recognize that using such inflammatory terminology only adds fuel to the proverbial political fire around the issue of immigration

The Supreme Court, Racial Profiling, and Brewer’s Hobbled Law

Supreme Court, Ivone Guillen / Sojourners

Supreme Court, Ivone Guillen / Sojourners

Brewer’s law had four legs. Now it has one—a lame one. The Supreme Court’s ruling was not a vindication of Brewer, rather it issued a death sentence for an unjust law. The law is not dead yet, but it may as well be a dead man walking. 

Now, all eyes turn toward Congress. 

Our U.S. Immigration system is still broken and something must be done. The Supreme Court has made it clear, that action must come from Congress. Now is the time for comprehensive immigration reform. Now is the time to declare, in concert with the Evangelical Immigration Table and the thousands of people who have signed the Statement of Principles for Immigration Reform, released two weeks ago today: “We call for a bipartisan solution on immigration that:

  •  Respects the God-given dignity of every person
  •  Protects the unity of the immediate family
  •  Respects the rule of law
  •  Guarantees secure national borders 
  •  Ensures fairness to taxpayers
  •  Establishes a path toward legal status and/or citizenship for those who qualify and who wish to become permanent residents”

Crowds Erupt in Praise as Obama Announces Immigration Policy Change

James Colten / Sojourners

Groups rally outside the White House, celebrating Obama's decision. James Colten / Sojourners

Dreams came alive today as President Obama granted relief to thousands of undocumented students. While the decision does not create a pathway to citizenship, it eliminates the threat of deportation for many unauthorized students and makes them eligible for work permits. 

Sponsored by Casa de Maryland, a number of organizations—Amnesty International, Jews United for Justice, 32BJ SEIU, National Council of La Raza, and the National Gay & Lesbian Taskforce—participated in a rally in front of the White House to celebrate the president’s announcement. 

MUST LISTEN: This American Life’s “Alien Experiment”

Old radio, adobe wall. Image via Wylio http://bit.ly/zFgPqk

Old radio, adobe wall. Image via Wylio http://bit.ly/zFgPqk

During this 35-minute audio story, Hitt walks through many aspects of the immigration bill and introduces real stories of people interacting with it — from Scott Beason, a Republican senator who was the primary sponsor for the bill last season, to Latino families pulling their kids out of school, quitting their jobs, and remaining safe in their isolated neighborhoods.

Hitt demonstrates how this is not only a huge issue for the state, but also for the church. A woman shares that people at her congregation are suspect when passing the peace, some won’t even shake hands. But again, this is what HB56 is about: making life uncomfortable to the point that the undocumented people will leave because it’s easier to flee than to stay.