The primary charge by critics is the deprivation of civil rights. Since the bill's passing, we've all heard of public outcry from immigrant groups as well as boycotts by cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles. Liberal Christian and Sojourners founder, Jim Wallis, has gone as far as calling for all Christians to blatantly violate the new law. Despite threats to sue Arizona, at least two leading White House officials who voiced their opposition to the bill admitted they haven't even read it. So, before I decided how Christians should respond, I read it myself.
The text of the bill begins by laying out the specific way in which the bill is to be implemented. Despite the claim by Jim Wallis, in a Huffington Post article that the bill "would require law enforcement officials in the state of Arizona to investigate the immigration status" or "all law enforcement officers will be enlisted to hunt down undocumented people," nothing in the text even implies as much. The bill doesn't require law enforcement to do anything. In contrast, the bill specifically requires what law enforcement is NOT to do. You'll find it's actually pretty restrictive.
First of all, the bill explicitly forbids any law enforcement officer enforce this law unless ALL of the following conditions are met:
- Lawful contact is already engaged between the officer and the individual
- There's reasonable suspicion (a well established objective legal criterion used for police action) that a person is an alien unlawfully present in the U.S.
- Enforcement must protect the civil rights of "all persons" and respect the privileges of US citizens.
The bill directs how an officer is to obtain the individual's immigration status. Remember, we only get to this point if conditions 1-3 above are met.
- Reasonable attempt to determine the immigration status of the person, but only "if practicable."
- This verification must only be made in accordance with the pre-existing federal law which already requires federal authorities provide immigration status information to local law enforcement.
Next, the law restricts law enforcement from arresting anyone in violation of this law with an even more stringent criteria: probable cause. This standard is the very same level of proof required of law enforcement to make arrests for crimes in every state.
So what is the penalty for violating this law assuming someone is detained after all the above conditions are met? Actually, it's just a misdemeanor. Having witnessed the federal and state systems at work, I can tell you not everyone who gets arrested for a crime is charged by prosecutors. And for those who are, almost no one is convicted of the charge they were arrested for and sentenced at the maximum penalty described in the law. Virtually all defendants enter a plea bargain resulting in reduced sentences, especially for first or second offenders. Even if a radical judge overrides the plea agreement or the person goes to trial and looses, it's still just a misdemeanor. The bill actually limits the amount of court costs the convicted person is liable for. The person can only be charged with a felony if they are trafficking dangerous weapons, possessing illegal drugs, smuggling human beings, or committing another serious crime. I have yet to hear any complaints about this part of the law.
In fact, it's unusual to hear anyone object to the bill's particulars at all. The common negative reaction tends to be that of generally dismissing the bill as a whole. But why? After reading how restrictive this is for law enforcement, I want to know exactly what part is causing all the controversy. Jim Wallis seems to think it's anti-Christian. While it's difficult to see what parts he's critical of (because he never cites the sections), he does make some specific complaints. Since this relates to the moral responsibility of Christians, this is where I will focus for the purpose of this blog post.
Wallis warns Hispanics, or people with "brown skin" to carry their wallets to work, implying that anyone who appears to be Hispanic could be arrested if they aren't carrying proof of legal residency. A Hispanic deputy friend of mine in Tucson similarly joked when he heard I was moving there by jesting, "Be sure to bring your papers!" Wallis goes as far as comparing this to Nazi or Communist oppression, and he isn't trying to be funny.
The big problem with this objection is that it ignores the constitutional requirement that we are all innocent until proven guilty. No matter how guilty one really is, it's not up to us to show we're innocent, but rather the burden is on the police to show we're not. To borrow a common philosophical catch phrase, absence of evidence (immigration papers) isn't evidence of absence (illegal residency). As explained above, the stringent restrictions requiring law enforcement to show evidence that probable cause exists (greater than 50% likelihood) that the person is illegally present in the U.S. falls upon them. No one has to show papers to anyone. Our culture values freedom so much that we would rather err on the side of innocence than convict the wrong person. The Rodney King and OJ Simpson trials are memorable examples of this.
Ironically, the judicial branch of the government has already had their say on this issue. In the 2005 U.S. Supreme Court case Muehler v. Mena, the court ruled much more radically than Arizona's legislators did. In the majority opinion, the court wrote “the officers did not need reasonable suspicion to ask Mena for her name, date of birth, or immigration status.” In other words, the supreme court has already reviewed a case where this was presented and gave police more freedom to question people of their immigration status than Arizona does.
Wallis's next complaint is that we can be arrested for "simply being with people who are undocumented." Using the illustration of driving immigrant families to work, he's clearly referencing the section on page 5 forbidding the "transporting, moving, concealing, harboring, or shielding of unlawful aliens." This applies only to those who transports AND "knows or recklessly disregards" that the people are in violation of law. Can we agree with Wallis that this a bit too harsh?
I understand part of his concern here. We Christians are called to minister to people who need to hear the gospel. But there is an underlying assumption smuggled inside this objection showing it to be somewhat disingenuous. Wallis assumes that intentionally violating federal immigration law isn't wrong. Would Wallis have the same complaint if a new law outlawed transporting someone to church knowing that they are carrying endangered animals or counterfeit $100 bills which are likewise federal statutes not typically enforced by local police? Of course we need to follow God's command to spread the gospel to everyone, but the evangelism isn't the issue here. Knowingly cooperating with criminal activity is what we're talking about. In this case, the crime is presence in the country. Wallis's disagreement with the law doesn't mean he can violate it because he's sharing the gospel. We must address the main issue first.
While the act of transporting, by itself, doesn't sound criminal, we need to consider the context of the crime. For example, driving to drop your kid off at school doesn't seem like something we should be arrested for. But if you ask the same question in the context of a crime - such as driving while intoxicated - driving a child to school is no longer an innocent act. Likewise, anyone transporting illegal immigrants is involving themselves in the crime itself. If Wallis has a problem with the law, he needs to face it head on rather than distract us with a story of taking someone to church. Besides, if we recall the strict criteria in the text of the bill, law enforcement has to already be engaged in contact with you. In other words, you have already given police a reason to suspect you of doing something wrong!
The major problems illegal immigration has brought to Arizona shouldn't be ignored. Women and children are often exploited by those desperate to come to America. Stories of people found dead in the desert or locked in storage containers reminds us of the tremendous hazards involved in crossing the border illegally. For the past few years, Phoenix has led the nation in kidnappings which almost exclusively relate to human or drug smuggling operations by non-U.S. citizens. The extensive anti-terrorism screening undertaken at our ports is useless if we ignore those coming into our country by land. Sadly, not all the people coming to the US come with noble intentions. Allowing this to continue surely can't be the Christian thing to do.
There is also a penalty to those who work legally in Arizona among citizens by birth or the legal immigration process. For every legitimate dollar earned, legal residents are taxed on that income while the illegal worker keeps all their wages. Further more, immigrants receiving undocumented income even benefit from government subsistence programs paid by the resident's taxed income, especially while such programs are forbidden from asking immigration status. Additionally, each taxable dollar also brings the legal worker closer to the eligibility threshold for government social programs while the illegal worker qualifies for many social programs because their actual income is hidden. As long as illegal immigration continues unenforced, there will remain a cost of being a Christian who tries doing things the right way.
Wallis claims this law will serve only to cause more division among communities in Arizona. He cites immigrants who report raids by agents in helicopters and who fear their churches will receive the same kind of enforcement without compassion. Complaining that such action is immoral, Wallis remarks that it's now become "illegal to love your neighbor in Arizona." Citing Scripture, Wallis says Jesus wouldn't have treated people this way. Wouldn't he?
Anyone reading the accounts of the life of Jesus in the four gospels can see God's compassion in the person of Jesus. Jesus would certainly have compassion on immigrants as he would for anyone in need. Here I agree with Wallis in the sense that Jesus would have compassion on families struggling to find a better way of life, even those who come across the border from Mexico. But why stop there?
Jesus would also have compassion on those coming from Honduras, Ecuador, Cuba, Haiti, India, Thailand, Afghanistan, Sudan, and Uganda. If our standard is going to be compassion as Jesus would have compassion, what's our basis for giving preference to those with the means of traveling here? What grounds do we have for discriminating against those who cannot be here because of financial, political, or geographic hardships? If we are going to base our civil law on the basis of who Jesus included in his kingdom (which is the true context of the verses Wallis used), then we need to step up and provide transportation to the 4 billion needy people who would have a better way of life in America. The obvious problem is that this would be impossible. Even if we could afford it (by borrowing more debt), the burden would be too great. The impact would lessen conditions for all of us so it would be like jumping from a life raft into a sinking ship. So as nice as it would be to invite all to the banquet as Jesus does for his infinite kingdom, the objection just doesn't work in our limited world.
Lastly, Wallis says,
I think that means that to obey Jesus and his gospel will mean to disobey SB 1070 in Arizona. I looked at the governor's Executive Tower and promised that many Christians in Arizona won't comply with this law because the people they will target will be members of our "family" in the body of Christ. And any attack against them is an attack against us, and the One we follow.
As we've seen in examining the text of the bill and in the failure of Wallis's objections that we are far from justified in ignoring this act of democracy. Perhaps there are improvements to be made in our current immigration policy, but we have to face circumstances as they are, not as they should be at some point in the future. Until those changes are made in the civil discourse of the legislative process, we must "give to Caesar what is Caesar's" because we are called to something greater as the children of God.