The controversy over immigration issues has reached a stalemate over competing values – both of which deserve respect. One is the due regard for the law and the other is compassion for the stranger. One is a matter of rules that apply to all; the other is the measure of our own character. When law and compassion work together, we represent a nobleness to which the world aspires. When they are played off against each other, then we find ourselves descending into anger and resentment. The world wonders what has become of us. It is time for us to look above the fray and seek the causes of the current immigration problem. Then we can craft responses that will prove effective.

The rule of law works through its universal appeal to a basic fairness that reasonable people grasp easily. In fashioning immigration law, people on both sides of the border have to be able to see its fairness. Law that thumbs its nose at a universal appeal to reason gives up on the very principles that make the rule of law preferable over the powers of coercion. The stakes in the current debate are not just about security; they are also about own sense of what is fair and just.

Good law addresses real problems. The recent flood of undocumented immigrants is a symptom of some greater cause.  What has caused millions of Mexicans to risk life and limb to cross a border that is mostly deadly desert? This is, more than social mobility, a story of desperation. When we understand the reasons for this transnational journey, then we can make laws that actually address the problem. That would be noble.

Transnational mass immigration historically has one of two causes: war or hunger. Ben Franklin complained about too many German migrants in his day; they were fleeing wars in Europe. The Great Potato Famine drove the Irish and others to America by the millions in the mid-1800’s. The Statue of Liberty praises the compassionate welcome this land provided to the peoples of the Old World. Papers and passports were not required then (they are an innovation begun 1921). These mass migrations are of the same biblical proportions that sent Israel into Egypt, from whence Moses arises; Jerusalem into Babylon, from which come the great prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel; even Jesus himself from Judea to Egypt to Galilee. The Ten Commandments invoke compassion toward the alien as a measure of honoring  God – “for you once were an alien in Egypt.”

Our immigration laws must be compassionate. They either reflect our own immigrant origins or we lie to ourselves about ourselves – and deny any universal appeal to reason.

According to recent studies, much of the recent immigration in the Southwest results from the complex story of North American trade. Before NAFTA, corn production was 60% of Mexican farming and involved 20% of the population. With NAFTA, those numbers have plummeted. Why? Because having given 75 billion dollars in subsidies to grow more corn than our market supports, we have sold the excess in Mexico below market price. Our sales of subsidized corn in Mexico have ruined its local agricultural stability. Most of the Mexican out-migration has come from corn producing areas. In brief, trade agreements and farm subsidies have caused results that war and famine used to. To address immigration questions, trade and subsidies also have to be re-thought.

Feeling invaded by a rising drug lawlessness in Mexico, Arizona has enacted controversial legislation to identify and root out all undocumented persons. This lawlessness is increasing in the very regions where Mexican corn farmers and their families have been displaced. Politicians in other states want to copy Arizona’s law because they think it attracts votes. But it is cynical to make laws that appease frustrations without addressing the root causes of that frustration.

Mere fences cannot stop a flood of people desperately trying to survive. Tearing parents away from their children because of the difference in status is neither rational nor compassionate. Harsh ordinances penalizing undocumented immigrants dehumanize us as much as them.

We were once proud that our borders with Mexico and Canada were open. 2001 changed that. But the border itself is not broken. The border does not cause migration. Neither has our standard of living by itself drawn this migration to us. When people have a simple life of food, shelter and safety, only the adventurous risk life and limb for something more. Current policies, both international and domestic,  caused this flood of immigrants by making it impossible for salt-of-the-earth farmers to survive in the land where they are born. Put in that situation, wouldn’t each of us risk everything to find a place where our families could stay alive?

We need immigration reform to recover our sense of humanity, a humanness that is pro-family. We need border security to prevent dangerous groups from taking advantage of the current situation. We need to re-visit trade policies that ignore population shifts in low-income workers. We need to re-evaluate the over-generous corn subsidy and its unintended consequences. If we simply stalemate over the first two needs (security vs. reform), then the last two needs will continue to plague us for the unforeseeable future. In other words, without trade and subsidy adjustments, immigration reform will fail and security will be a whim.

Let us raise the immigration debate above gut-level emotions. Otherwise, we will amplify harsh feelings, squander valuable resources, and fail to make things better for any of us. A reasonable strategy with a commitment to universally recognized ideas of fairness can bring a resolution to suffering peoples and the frustration of voters – and restore respect for the law.


The Rev. Russell L. Meyer
Executive Director

14 March 2011