Bans, Walls, and Dreams Beyond the Law

On February 9, 2017, Guadalupe García de Rayos, a mother of two who had been living in the United States for over twenty years, checked in with her immigration officer – as she had been asked to do every year– and was arrested, detained, and quickly deported to Mexico. The comments sections of articles covering this story provide a snapshot of some common defenses of deportation: if you aren’t here legally, you have no right to stay; laws must be enforced; officers of the law are right to use the full extent of their power to punish infractions. In other words: if you’ve done something forbidden by law, you deserve whatever the state does to you next.

This argument circulates so widely, I imagine, because it sounds more disinterested than overtly racialized attacks on immigrants. It allows us to say, "It's not about race or ethnicity. It's about obeying the law." But despite its common-sense appearance, the "law and order" argument quickly folds under analytical pressure. For one thing, the legal system handling immigration is its own beast - much more discretionary than its Constitution-centered counterpart and often more discriminatory in practice. As Jessica points out in her post, this makes the "bad immigrant" vs. "good immigrant" narrative hard to sustain. In fact, immigration law can be so draconian that Hannah Arendt argued that you are often afforded more rights as a criminal than you would be as a person without nationality. 

But perhaps more importantly, “law,” even in its more democratic incarnations, is a tricky standard for separating the freedoms we should enjoy from those that can justly be taken away from us. If pressed, we would probably all acknowledge cases in which the ethical and the legal are not the same thing. We certainly don’t need to search for very long to find places and times where the right thing to do was to break the law. It was against the law to helps slaves escape to freedom in the United States in the 1850s. It was against the law to hide Jewish neighbors from the Gestapo in Germany in the 1930s. These unjust laws – which now seem so glaringly immoral as to clearly justify obstructing them – seemed like common sense and sound economic practices in their own time. So while we now celebrate the American citizens who participated in the Underground Railroad or the Danish citizens who smuggled 7,000 Jews to freedom during the Holocaust, at the time most of their countrymen were obeying the law by not saving lives. In these contexts, the claim that "it's not about race or ethnicity; it's about obeying the law" clearly does not hold up: if the law authorizes and even mandates discrimination and violence against certain groups of people, obeying the law or breaking is always about race, ethnicity, and marginalization.

These precedents force us to reconsider the limitations of “law” and “legality” as standards for what is right today. For people of faith, who hold hospitality and sanctuary as core values, this question is even more pressing. If the law makes sheltering or feeding undocumented immigrants a crime (as a recent Executive Order suggests may happen), will Christians close their doors? In nations that selectively criminalize movement across borders, do Christians accept the proposition that a person's value is dependent on lawfulness? Even when existing laws sentence would-be migrants to short, violent lives? The refugees who would be banned from entering the U.S.A. under two frozen Executive Orders are fleeing a drought severe enough to kill at least 110 people in 48 hours (Somalia); a war zone brutal enough to cause six suicide attempts by children in one town (Syria); and a combination of civil conflict, foreign airstrikes, and famine that has left 70% of the population in need of humanitarian aid (Yemen). Do we believe that people have a right to save themselves and their children from disaster, war, persecution, or life-threatening poverty? Under conditions of worsening global inequality --  and in a world where Western countries have profited from invading, colonizing, and exploiting the countries that many migrants are fleeing -- can we avoid examining how borders enforce injustice?

These questions get at a core tension between what the world calls “law and order” and what people of faith consider our higher responsibility to compassion and justice. If we want to face this tension honestly, rather than ignoring our discomfort at inhumane and un-Christian inhospitality to the suffering, we will often have to dream beyond the frameworks of the law as it exists in a fallen world. In Decolonization, Leigh Patel argues that if we want radical justice for immigrants, we can’t content ourselves with reforms that create a “kinder, gentler” version of a discriminatory system. We can’t be content with the rights of citizenship continuing to be "a project of exclusion." Instead, we are called on to have “freedom dreams”: “Not citizenship dreams. Not ‘being validated as worthy’ dreams. Not dreams of getting yours and shrugging that others don’t. Collective freedom dreams.” As people of faith, we too are called on to dream of freedom, not just for ourselves but for the most vulnerable. We are called to reject any ranking of human worth based on earthly lawfulness and to stand with stranger and the prisoner (Matthew 25:35-36). As the law increases the vulnerability of immigrants, we now have to ask ourselves: where is our spiritual allegiance? Will we use “illegal” as a reason to close our doors and turn away from state-sanctioned violence? Or will we dream collective freedom dreams, born of a radical commitment to love?