What may be loosely called American immigration policy confounds a number of distressing issues. It is difficult to judge the justice or injustice of the policy because it is an inconsistent patchwork of requirements. Even where substantive aspects of the policy are clear, its enforcement is inconsistent in ways that seem inequitable. Fair-minded citizens become dubious of governmental legitimacy when the consequences of enforcement produce irregularities of both justice and injustice.
These thoughts were brought freshly to mind by some recent scripture reading. Moses, God's first appointed attorney general, set down some six hundred laws for God's people, the children of Israel. Now I grant that at the time Israel was a people, not a country with boundaries. But they were headed for an inheritance with "cities [they] did not build, . . . wells [they] did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves [they] did not plant" (Deuteronomy 6:10–11)—an inheritance that entailed boundaries.
Despite boundaries, there would be aliens, foreigners whose native lands were somewhere beyond Israel's boundaries. God was pretty explicit about how his people should deal with non-Israelites living among them. Those properly admitted by circumcision could celebrate the Passover: "the same law applies to the native-born and the alien living among you" (Exodus 12:49). A rationale comes later: "Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt" (Exodus 22:21). In fact, aliens were a protected class, along with widows and orphans (Exodus 22:22), and were to receive the same fair regulation and treatment that Israelites received (Leviticus 19:33; 24:22; Ezekiel 47:22). Proper entry into the Israelite community by way of circumcision guaranteed fairness and due process to all, whether native-born or alien.
The criterion for American citizenship begins with a simple but consequential statement in the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution: "all persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside." Yet some people question the right to citizenship for people who were born here but whose birth parents do not have citizenship status.
Without question, America is entitled to defend its borders. Congress has that constitutional authority and responsibility, namely, "to establish a uniform rule of naturalization" (Article 1, Section 8, Clause 4). Informed commentaries about American law in this regard keep reporting to us that the system is broken. The borders are defended, but not very well. Some twelve million noncitizens live in the country illegally. As long as employers can hire workers without verification of their citizenship, the magnet of employment opportunities will attract illegal aliens seeking economic gain.
It is unconstitutional, even unjust, for states to regulate the behavior of illegal aliens—for example, to prevent their children from attending public schools or to exclude them from hospital emergency services. However, two states, Arizona and Alabama, have made the violation of federal registration laws a state crime, therefore punishable by the state. The US Supreme Court will rule on this state challenge to a national government prerogative this summer, and it will likely deny such power to the states. But, on the other side, the states and their legal citizens have unjustly suffered the costs of illegal residents that the national government has failed to properly regulate.
Other losers in the broken American immigration policy are legal aliens who suffer diminished trust because they resemble the many who are here illegally. They suffer with regard to employment, home mortgage loans, and educational services, among other things. Additional losers are those striving for legal entry in an environment overcome with the prevention of illegal immigration.
Our country deserves a comprehensive change in the national law regarding who can enter our country and under what circumstances, which people can work here, and what penalties will be imposed on illegal aliens and the employers that hire them. There are knotty issues regarding children—those illegally brought into the country and those born here with the rights of citizenship. One of the words that should be precluded from use in the policy debate or in subsequent advocacy regarding possible solutions is amnesty. To be for it or against it is to poison the possibility of reasoned compromise.
American immigration problems challenge Christians to pray and work for justice regarding both legal and illegal aliens. God demanded fairness for aliens in Israel—fairness on par with that for widows and orphans. With the prophet Amos, we must demand of our rulers that they "let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!"
Jack R. Van Der Slik is professor emeritus of political studies and public affairs at the University of Illinois at Springfield.