Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Approaching Immigration With A "Spirit of Compassion"

Perhaps you heard that Arizona passed an immigration law that is controversial.  Most of the controversy centered around the following language from the bill (read it here in pdf), Article 8 paragraph B:
For any lawful contact made by a law enforcement official or a law enforcement agency of this state or a county, city, town or other political subdivision of this state where reasonable suspicion exists that the person is an alien who is unlawfully present in the United States, a reasonable attempt shall be made, when practicable, to determine the immigration status of the person.
As for the legal side of the thing, first, "lawful contact" may be the most broad language ever written in the history of American legislation.  It encompasses almost anything apart from an explicitly illegal traffic stop (which almost doesn't exist anymore: one mph over the speed limit, faulty tail light, "you looked like you were swerving within you lane", you vaguely fit the description of an alleged malfeasor, etc.) or the police barging into your home without a warrant.  Basically, lawful contact is not a limitation at all, let alone a reasonable one.

Second, the Constitution’s equal protection clause forbids the government from differentiating between anyone, including illegal immigrants, on the basis of race. Under the Arizona law no one has suggested any other potential grounds for the police to reasonably suspect someone is an illegal immigrant besides the fact that they have Latin American-colored skin.  What else could possibly fall under "reasonable suspicion"?  I can't think of anything.  Governmental racism is, bluntly, unconstitutional.

Third, being an illegal immigrant is a crime of status. There are no other real objective facts besides skin color that would indicate that a person is here illegally, unless a police officer actually saw them sneak across the border. Without objective facts beyond skin color, any time a police officer stopped someone asking for proof of legal residency would be an illegal search under the Fourth Amendment.

All of this was impressed upon Arizona in fairly strident terms and, as a result, they decided to change the language a little to read, instead of "lawful contact," "lawful stop, detention or arrest."  Slightly, but not much, better.  This change may or may not improve the legal side of the bill but it doesn't improve our basic approach to immigration.

It is important to first dispel a nasty bit of false information and state that immigrants, whether legal or illegal, are less likely to commit crimes or be incarcerated than U.S. citizens.  These are not inherently violent people.  They come here, almost universally, to get a job and, more often than not, to send the money to family back home in Latin America.  This makes for a complicated economic issue.

One the one hand businesses love illegal immigrants because they provide cheap labor.  They cannot avoid paying sales tax and gasoline tax and the like.  On the other hand they are likely taking jobs away from legal Americans, likely suppressing wages overall, likely not paying any income taxes while likely taking advantage of things like public schools and hospitals, and likely not spending very much money in our economy as they send a huge amount back home.  This last point, euphemistically called remittances apparently, is fascinating because it represents Mexico's second largest form of income behind the oil industry.  It's a mixed economic bag but probably mostly negative.

The moral bag, on the other hand, is less mixed, in my opinion.  I think we fail to take into account how much of this is our fault.  I cannot abide arguments that we, the United States, should never admit our weaknesses, and here is a pretty glaring one.  The reason illegal immigration is mixed up in our minds with violence is almost completely related to the drug smuggling.  Guess what, America, if we weren't so addicted to heroin, cocaine, and, to a lesser extent, marijuana, there wouldn't be drug smuggling problems.  We have created a huge market for illegal drugs and, as a result, a huge problem with violence.  Mexico's number one problem, and the number one reason regular old non-drug related immigration is at the levels it currently is, is tied directly to our insatiable appetite for drugs.  The corruption and violence in Mexico, leading to a depressed economy and emigration to the United States, is caused by the drug cartels.  Take away America's need for drugs and we take away the immigration problem.

No amount of harsh language and unconstitutional legislation will fix this problem.  We will only fix the problem by partnering with Mexico to reduce drug trafficking.  And racist laws like Arizona's will make it more difficult to work with Mexico, exacerbating the problem.

But more than that we have to ask ourselves how moral our general attitudes are regarding immigration.  And the church has made clear that this is a moral issue more than a political one.  The church's stance on illegal immigration was given by Elder Marlin K. Jensen:  "The church's view of someone in undocumented status is akin, in a way, to a civil trespass.  There is nothing inherent or wrong about that status."  He stated that immigration legislation should be enacted in a "spirit of compassion."  In response to criticisms of this position church spokesman Mark Tuttle said, "I wonder how they'd feel about the second great commandment, to love thy neighbor as thyself. It's not an answer to your question, but it's another question."  Actually, it seems like a perfect answer to those criticisms.

Now go back and look at Arizona's approach to illegal immigration, and the anti-immigration rhetoric being spewed throughout Utah and the United States, and members of the church.  Does it seem infused with a spirit of compassion?

Additionally, should we be morally satisfied by arbitrarily drawing a line on the map and telling the people below that line that they must live in poverty while we above that line live in wealth? Especially considering that they did not choose where they were born any more than we did?  Would we treat Canadian or English immigrants like we treat the darker-skinned Mexican immigrants?  Knowing how successful the church is in Latin America, should we really be looking down on these immigrants and wanting nothing more than to put them in prison or send them back from whence they came?  Are we truly treating them like equal children of God?

It is an incredibly complicated issue.  I understand that there are national security implications, economic implications, and counter-moral implications.  None of this is lost on me.  But it seems that too many of us are staking out dubious moral and ethical positions that are not in harmony with the Gospel's spirit of compassion.


Iliana said...

Thanks Jake. Probably the first time I've agreed will everything you have to say. It kinda bugs me that it was a mormon who wrote the dumb bill. And I hear way too often by people (LDS too) how Mexicans are committing the majority of crimes and that they take away jobs. Bull crap... they take jobs you are too proud to do. Not that there isn't any issue with pay and taxes, of course, but I've never heard such racism and plane bigotry from LDS people. Well, I guess you could consider the whole Prop 8 issue along the same lines, but I won't get into that...

peter said...

Jake, I agree with a lot of what you said, but I do have some questions.

1. Obviously I'm not a lawyer, what is the rational behind it being illegal search to merely ask someone to provide a legal form of id? Why is it invading someone's privacy to ask if they are a legal resident?

2. I understand the economic impetus behind illegal immigration and I wish the circumstances were different. It is not just drug cartels keeping their economy down, but their governmental system. What do you suppose is the moral thing to do? Open our borders and just let in anyone who wants to come? Do you have any solutions?

3. I don't think that immigration reform is directly tied to racism and bigotry. As you pointed out there are many economic and political problems with illegal immigration. Can someone oppose illegal immigration on those grounds while still maintaining compassion?

4. As you pointed out, illegal immigrants, though not commiting violent crimes, are still trespassing the law. If deportation is not an appropriate consequence, what is? A fine? Community service? Who is going to cover the court fees?

I have a lot of compassion for these people (not just latinos...like the guy from Africa here who we doubt is legal), I wish them the best and I admire the work they do to better their lives. But I have compassion, also, for the state of Arizona that is failing financially and has that large economic burden from illegal immigrants. The status quo isn't working. I don't have the answers, but I don't blame Arizona for trying something new.


peter said...

I just read over what I wrote, I truly wasn't trying to sound combative, I am interested in understanding. I'm sorry if it sounded a little abrupt.


Jacob S. said...

Kristy, I didn't think you came off as abrupt or combative. These are complicated, sensitive issues and I don't think anyone has all the answers, and I probably have fewer than anyone.

As for "searches" under the Constitution, the term is much broader than just rummaging through your stuff. The problem is we don't want to live in a country where the police, under the strength of state authority, can simply demand proof of anything from anyone based solely on skin color or accent and detain people that aren't carrying proof with them. What if I ended a sentence with "eh?" and the police therefore questioned me as being an illegal Canadian immigrant and detained me for not carrying proof of my legal status? I don't want to live in a country where that level of intrusion is possible.

I don't personally have answers to all your questions. I think we would solve a lot of problems by creating the "tall wall, broad gate" strategy where it is easier to get into the country legally so we can track and tax immigrants, but boost border security for those trying to come in illegally. This would also encourage people to bring their whole families and avoid sending so much money back to Mexico.

Finally, I don't think that all people that oppose illegal immigration are racist, or lack compassion. I think a huge chunk fall into that category, but it's impossible to say how many, of course. I think there are more xenophobes than outright racists. But Arizona is a state that rounded up illegal immigrants and forced them into tent cities with inadequate food, water, sanitation, etc. It was human rights nightmare. Actions like that, and this new bill that allows police to essentially question any brown-skinned person about their legal residency, are not, in my mind, pillars of compassion. We need to treat people more humanely than that. I think a huge step forward would be for Americans to approach the discussion from this angle: These are mostly good, family-oriented, hard-working, smart people that are trying to escape poverty and violence and create a better life for themselves. We have the means to provide some of that, so what is the best strategy to help them?

Nate said...

A nice, thoughtful post. Just a few things to add:

A lot of the growth in the LDS church comes from these illegal immigrants. Look at congregations in CA, and you'll see some ageing and dwindling of the Anglo population--many are leaving for white-collar jobs elsewhere, like Texas--but a lot of the youth and vitality in the church is found in the spanish-speaking units.

I also know, from firsthand experience, that undocumented people get baptized, hold temple recommends, and serve missions for the church. I don't know how he got on the airplane, but when I was the mission leader in the Canal Street branch in NYC, one of the missionaries posted to the unit hopped over the fence at the age of 8 with his family, wound up in East LA, and grew up in the church from the age of 10 on. The church welcomed his service as a missionary, and assigned him to learn Chinese in NYC.

I view much of the conservative/liberal dialectic from the justice/mercy tension described in the scriptures (particularly Alma). We need laws that can be enforced, and there are unsavory people who jump the fence that get involved in the drug trade, and cause problems. We cannot dismiss these real concerns of law and order. And yet, the fact that the church itself does not shun those who are willing to live the principles of the gospel, despite not being in the country illegally, says A LOT about this issue. And I must admit to taking some pleasure at the furrowed brows and "does not compute" stare whenever I mention these facts to someone who's #1 LDS and #2 goes off on some "why don't these people learn English" or "lock 'em up and haul 'em away" rant.

Mexicans in the USA illegally are allowed to hold temple recommends. And we allow them to worship and learn the gospel in Spanish, even here in the US of A.

However, I do see some wisdom to an approach the Manhattan stake took, whereby the youth in a particular Spanish ward were grafted into the English speaking ward that met in the same building. This way, members from the older generation had access to the gospel in their mother tongue, but the youth were not stuck in a "language ghetto" that prevented them from adapting to and learning church doctrines in English.

Sorry--didn't mean to hijack this post! I guess I just have strong feelings on the matter...

Kelly said...

I actually agree with the post (just want to throw that out there first), but want to respond to something Nate said. The Church doesn’t necessarily allow members who are in the country illegally to hold temple recommends or serve missions. I’ve seen first hand faithful members who could not partake of these blessings because of their illegal status. (My understanding is illegal status is at odds with obeying the laws of the land.)

Based on my own experience, balanced with the experiences Nate shared, I’m guessing this is handled stake by stake.

Architect said...

I live in a "Rule of Law" city. Scores of people have been taken into custody, had their immigration status determined, and deported. Many were violent felons, sexual offenders, or minor criminals. Some were only violators of immigration laws.

The church should encourage people to obey the law, not attempt to enforce it. Only members that are law enforcement have a duty to enforce the laws. Their employment is in jeopardy if they knowingly help people violate the law.

I doubt that this difficult situation will be resolved with a NEW law. I think it may be necessary to REPEAL some of the out of date laws to improve the situation.