When immigrants live in your land with you, you must not cheat them. Any immigrant who lives with you must be treated as if they were one of your citizens. You must love them as yourself, because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.
Leviticus 19:33-34, Common English Bible
The building is impressive. The Evo A. DeConcini United States Courthouse sits in downtown Tucson, Ariz., and I had come to witness what is known as “Operation Streamline,” a program begun in 2005 by the Department of Homeland Security.
Prior to 2005, persons crossing the border illegally for the first time were detained by the border patrol and returned to their country of citizenship. All of this changed with Operation Streamline, a plan requiring prosecutors to stop using discretion in border crossing cases, requiring every person caught to be held for a court appearance followed by likely jail time in the United States before being deported. Operation Streamline practices were modified a few years ago when parts of it were declared unconstitutional, forcing the court to speak to each person individually as opposed to addressing a group of seventy or more en masse.
I came into the lobby of the federal courthouse and was asked by the security guard, “Are you a lawyer?” “No,” I said. “I’m here to observe.”
I emptied my pockets, walked through the metal detector, and made my way to the second floor courtroom. I opened the door to find a large room full of people. Actually, the first thing I noticed was the smell of old sweat. I later learned that the 70 or so waiting for their appearance in front of a judge had been captured in the last 36 hours and had not been given the opportunity to shower. They were handcuffed and chained, wearing the clothes they had worn through the desert.
Seven at a time, both women and men, they stood before the judge. They wore headsets to hear the interpreter’s voice as she translated the judge’s words. “How do you plead?” And one by one each said, “Culpable.” Guilty. And the judge sentenced each one: 30 days, 60 days, 90 days.
There was no explanation for the difference in sentences. A lawyer they did not know had worked out the arrangement. And then they left the room, chains clanging as the next group of seven came forward. I watched them as they passed by and tried to smile when I caught their eyes. I don’t know why. It was not a day for smiling.
A few years ago, while working at Furman University, I had the opportunity to visit central Mexico on a few occasions with students to learn more about the Mexican people, the economy, and the impact of U.S. policy on people in other lands. I remember traveling with our students one day to a small village where we met the people and shared a meal they had prepared. Their simple homes had dirt floors, no indoor plumbing, and mostly plastic chairs. An older grandmother cooked fresh tortillas outside, over a fire. We ate beans, fresh salsa, cactus, and warm tortillas as they told us how many men from their village had travelled to the United States, hoping to find a way to earn more money for their families. These men had gone to the North to pick produce and work in chicken processing plants, looking for a better way to care for their families.
I thought of those people as I sat in the courtroom in Tucson. As I watched the streamlined migrants pass by, I wondered if any of them were from that village. I pondered, “Have I eaten from their table?”
And the real shame of these court proceedings is in the statistics that demonstrate that while Operations Streamline is effective at increasing convictions of those persons who are crossing the border to find low-wage jobs, it actually reduces convictions of those who are involved in drug activity or other more severe behaviors. A Policy Brief from the Berkley Law School at the University of California finds that Operation Streamline “does not target drug traffickers and human smugglers but rather migrants who are coming to this country in search of employment or to reunite with family.” In the same brief one judge laments, “We are spending a lot of time catching these folks when we could concentrate on those penetrating our border to do us harm.”
I don’t pretend that issues of immigration are easy. Consider the states that passed severely restrictive immigration laws in the last few years. Georgia, for instance, after passing an immigration law modeled after the much-publicized Arizona law, ended up with crops rotting in the fields due to the lack of migrant help. Issues of immigration, massive illegal drug demand in the United States, and appropriate treatment of dreamers who have been here most of their lives require thoughtful, compassionate, and creative responses.
We as the church have a role to play, too, in the public discourse. We must continue to proclaim the radical message of Jesus who reminds us that we are always first citizens of God’s reign, brothers and sisters on both sides of the fence. The Book of Discipline keeps us grounded in our Christian faith when dealing with questions of immigration and reform:
We recognize, embrace, and affirm all persons, regardless of country of origin, as members of the family of God. We affirm the right of all persons to equal opportunities for employment, access to housing, health care, education, and freedom from social discrimination. We urge the Church and society to recognize the gifts, contributions, and struggles of those who are immigrants and to advocate for justice for all. (¶ 162 H)
My trip to Tucson reminded me that we have a need for immigration reform that affirms the worth and the dignity of all people. I don’t pretend to have all of the answers. But we must not forget that immigration reform involves real people who are members of the family of God and, with God’s help, we will find a way to honor that truth as we explore and reform laws that are always imperfect.
Rev. Keith Ray is senior pastor of Clemson United Methodist Church, Clemson, SC.
Reprinted from the South Carolina United Methodist Advocate, December 2013 edition, p. 9.