Side by Side

The following are photos from the Lauderdale Confederate-Union Cemetery, located outside a little community a few miles north of Meridian, MS. I have driven past the big brown sign on Highway 45 several times over the past few years, always intending to stop but never having gotten around to it until last weekend. The cemetery was established to inter the bodies of men who died at a nearby hospital- both Confederates and Federals. A few of the graves are marked simply “Unknown.” I can’t think of too many cemeteries where both Confederate and Union dead were buried in the same location, making this little hill-top particularly poignant.



On Immigration, No. 1

As promised, here are some of my thoughts- in no particular order- on the subject of immigration, legal and illegal.

1. Scripture and Immigration: From the story of the exile from the Garden on, Scripture is filled with the images of wanderers, exiles, and immigrants. The story of the people of Israel leaving Egypt and coming into the promised land becomes the paradigm or symbol whereby God’s covenant people are instructed to treat wayfarers and aliens, as they themselves were once strangers and wanderers. This ethic of the alien is reiterated by the Prophets, as in Jeremiah, where justice to the alien- and this is, I think, particularly significant for our contemporary situation- is related to justice done to other marginalized people:

Thus says the Lord: Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place.

Jeremiah 22:3

Again, a similar ethic appears in Isaiah:

Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?

Isaiah 58:7

The basic message of Scripture is fairly clear: God places the alien- the wanderer, the refugee- in the category of “the poor,” those who are generally left out by wider society and thus are given special attention in God’s messages lest they be forgotten and treated unjustly. This message of the Old Testament is only amplified by the New Testament, in which the old barrier between Jew and Gentile is torn down. No longer can one argue even that the alien or refugee is necessarily without the covenant people of God, as all can be included in the covenant through Christ. Thus our relationship towards all people of all origins is fundamentally changed.

What does this mean for our stance as Christians vis-a-vis immigration? We are obliged, on the one hand, to treat the immigrant with justice and indeed love, and at a fundamental level I do not see that the distinction between legal and illegal applies to how we treat the immigrant. On the other hand, we are still obliged to respect the law and it of course makes a distinction between legal and illegal. Thus the tension for the Christian is how to reconcile those on a basic, personal level. I personally have yet to encounter a particular situation in which this tension manifests itself; but it is something well worth consideration.

It should also be added that our obligation to treat the wanderer with love and justice does not mandate a particular opinion on immigration: ie open borders or tightly guarded ones. It does mean though that we must demand that all immigrants be treated by the law and its enforcers as human beings, not as objects or abstract entities. I do not see how the average illegal immigrant, who is non-violent and is not depriving anyone of their property, can be classified as a felon; the demonization of illegal immigrants current in politics and popular discourse is simply uncalled for and reprehensible. Now, while I do not think that the Christian tradition strictly calls for one immigrant policy over another, I do think that an honest open reading of Scripture calls for the most humane and open immigration policy possible. This is particularly true when one considers the rampant poverty of much of Latin America, and the fact that is is sometimes a result or aggravated by policies issuing from the US.

2. Force and Enforcing Immigration Law: It is currently in vogue to suppose that a massive wall and perhaps a massive military presence on the US-Mexican border will end illegal immigration. The assumption here is employed elsewhere: more coercive, government force, if thrown hard enough against the problem, will solve it. It is the same logic that has governed the War on Drugs for decades now, and will probably continue to be the logic driving the “War on Immigration.” In both cases the thing under assault is an essentially market phenomemon; in the case of immigration however the motivations driving it are usually much more profound and compelling than drug use. The average immigrant isn’t merely seeking personal pleasure or a quick high; he is seeking a living, an escape from dead-end economic situations. In many cases his personal desire for self-preservation and advancement is compounded by a similar desire for his family. The US has and will probably continue to be the strongest attraction for people in such a situation. Against this powerful dynamic many in the US propose essentially only force, and lots of it, as the corrective. For the problem of illegal immigrants already here, again, force alone is offered as the solution. Yet experience should demonstrate to us that mere force is rarely a truly succesful instrument, and it usually involves unjust and downright inhuman means for its completion.

Next week: The problem of assimilation, and Christ, the Church, and multiculturalism.

Personal Dispatch: On Immigration, or, The Way We Live Now, Here

Immigracion! Manos, alto!” We yell, laughing, and the men- Mexicans, maybe Central Americans- inside the unlit dingy room laugh and wave their hands in the air. We- my friend, a local pastor, and myself, two gringos- are on our circuit around town picking up Latino guys to go play volleyball and eat at a church gym. The county is home to a sizeable minority of Latino residents, most of whom- though not all by any means- are men, some single, many with spouses and family back home in their various countries of origin. And there are people from all over the Latin American world, belying the common- and often rather pejoratively uttered- moniker of Mexican; Guatemalans, Panamanians, Peruvians, and others live and work in this once almost exclusively black-and-white Mississippi county.

I enjoy hanging out with the varied assemblage of guys who come, once every week, to play and eat and hang out. A few other gringos come and play, but most of the people there are Latino, and only a few have a significant grasp of English. My Spanish is pretty poor, despite a couple years of Spanish in college, but it’s always met with happy acclaim from the people I try to converse with, and every week I pick up a couple new words for my vocabulary, and usually transmit a few English ones. Lately I’ve managed to move a bit beyond basic personal information and chatter and manage a little humor in Spanish. On occasion I’ll pray in Spanish before we eat, usually the same sort of formula of “Thank you God for our friends and brothers here, and thank you for Your love, and thank You for this food. In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.” Amen, anyway, is pretty easy to get right in Spanish.

Since most of the guys do not have their own cars, we drive around for a couple hours before hand to pick them up. Most of them live in the poor neighborhoods of town, neighborhoods that interweave and abut the shrinking higher-income blocks with their impressive live-oak shaded late Victorians and neatly manicured lawns. Many share a house with several other guys, who may be connected by blood or a common place of origin, or just happenstance; in some houses the rooms have been further subdivided to accommodate more lodgers, and impromptu businesses- diminutive tiendas, corner (as in corner of the room) barbershops- show up as well. Some can afford air conditioning, others none or very little.

Few neighborhoods here are exclusively Latino (it’s not unusual to see trailer-parks that are exclusively Latino, however); instead, it’s far more common for half of the houses in a block to be Latino, and the other half African-American. Therein lies one of the smoldering tensions, one that gets relatively little attention in the press (as to why that is, I’ll leave off speculating for now), but is hard to ignore. Why the tensions? Obviously there are considerable cultural differences- differences which are exacerbated by the close proximity of the Latino and African-American poor, thrust into the same neighborhoods and labour markets; this new competition has created a great deal of simmering resentment in the older, established lower-class. Latinos often find themselves easily exploited by the already violent and exploitive sub-cultures that have been festering in poor ghettoized neighborhoods for decades; this tends to increase the sense of group-solidarity already present on both sides and further decreases possibility of cooperation or mutual understanding. But Latinos are hardly only victims- there are various predominately Latino criminal groups operating and exploiting both communities.

As the opening dialogue indicates, some Latinos here would doubtlessly prefer to avoid the INS. I’ve no idea how many of the guys I know are documented, and how many aren’t. I don’t ask- though even if I did I’m pretty certain I wouldn’t be any more knowledgeable for it. It doesn’t concern me, really- but more on that, and the ethical and political questions of immigration, in a later post. I doubt- and please indulge the cliché-ness of this statement- whether Jesus would have concerned himself with people’s documentation status; I for one do not make it a concern, if only because there’s nothing I could do about it anyway. I do know that the vast majority of immigrants’ I’ve been able to talk to are manual laborers; most left a dismal work market in their home countries seeking some sort of employment. Some have managed to do fairly well and get a factory job; far more are employed in the lower rungs of the sprawling chicken industry that dominates the local economy. These are jobs that Dickens would have found worthy of a novel: brooding chicken houses, the size of airplane hangers, filled with thousands upon thousands of steroid-packed chickens- chickens that must be constantly, manually, managed. Latino workers are usually the ones given the dirtiest tasks, cleaning the houses of chicken waste and picking up and burning the multitudes of dead chickens, trampled and suffocated by their drugged comrades.

It’s a strange world, this, I often think as I converse in my halting Spanish: here I live in my middle-class luxury, a relative few miles away from these neighborhoods, while the workers who help hold up the economy I enjoy eat and sleep in crowded compartments, cook in communal kitchens, and go to work long before the sun comes up, in an often hostile society. Globalization, immigration, culture-clash: these are all up-close, personalized, unavoidable issues, brought down from abstract argument, down into a real world that is much grittier, personal, and difficult than political arguments can make out.


Next week: meditations on the ethical and political questions raised by immigration. Disclaimer: I’ve no grand answers, a few mostly personal or community-based suggestions, and precious little dogma on this issue. Hopefully the above ruminations have revealed where my sympathies, anyway, lie, for better or ill.