Promoting public justice in a dysfunctional political system is not for the faint of heart. Systemic obstacles are enormous, such as closed primaries that minimize the number of moderate voters and candidates participating in the nominating process; gerrymandered voting districts that protect or harm the political interests of incumbents and parties; winner-take-all elections that militate against the diversity of voices within our pluralistic society, and the inordinate political influence of those with wealth since Citizens United (See Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein. It’s Even Worse Than it Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism. New York: Basic Books, 2012, 143-160).

These seemingly intractable obstacles are enough to tempt a Christian to give up hope, or succumb to a truncated view of God’s redemptive purposes that focuses exclusively on modeling Christian values within our Christian communities. To be sure, such modeling is important. But if we wash our hands of the messy business of political engagement, we ignore our calling as Christians to plant seeds of redemption in all areas of life, including the political realm (Colossians 1: 19-20; Matthew 13: 31-32).

So what then are we called to do in the political realm? While some of us may address these systemic problems head on, others will sense a calling to embark on local citizen initiatives that are seemingly more modest… at least until you try them.

What follows is an account of my local endeavors as an advocate for immigration reform in Sioux County, Iowa, arguably one of the most politically conservative counties in the United States. My report here does not reflect any formal education in political science (which, for me, is nil). Rather, it is a story “from the trenches,” focusing on my attempts to promote legislation in the Iowa Legislature that would grant Temporary Visitor Driver’s Licenses (TVDLs) for undocumented immigrants. This is an initiative of the Center for Assistance, Service and Advocacy (CASA) of Sioux County, where I serve as Chair of their Advocacy Group. The vision of CASA is to bring about transformed Northwest Iowa communities that welcome, empower and celebrate people from all cultures.

In the 2015 session of the Iowa legislature, TVDL legislation received some discussion, but never came to a vote for lack of broad support. This legislation would have granted TVDLs to undocumented immigrants who met stipulated eligibility requirements and then passed a driving test and obtained auto insurance. Possible eligibility requirements could have included the submission of a valid foreign passport or consular identification and proof of legal residency. Twelve states and the District of Columbia have approved TVDLs with specific, yet somewhat differing requirements. A TVDL cannot be used to register to vote, to vote, to apply for public benefits, to apply for a Firearm Owner ID card, to board an airplane, or to enter a federal building.

 Benefits of TVDLs

Citizens like me who support and promote the granting of TVDLs see it as a win-win-win situation, reaping obvious benefits for public safety, for employers, and for immigrant families.

It appears that the main argument that has convinced legislators in twelve states and the District of Columbia to approve TVDL legislation focuses on its benefits for public safety. It insures that all immigrant drivers get tested on driving skills and know the rules of the road, it requires them to carry auto insurance, and it enables first responders to medical emergencies to use the license to identify the individual they are assisting.

TVDLs will also help local employers by insuring that their immigrant workers will have a dependable means to travel to work.

Finally, TVDLs will be of great benefit to immigrant families by enabling workers to drive to work and by legalizing family travel to schools, churches, medical facilities and shopping outlets.

Obstacles to TVDL Legislation and Comprehensive Immigration Reform

Given these benefits, what is not to like? I have heard a number of concerns and responses, one of which is the legitimate concern that TVDL legislation needs to be carefully crafted to avoid abuses, such as forging the required documentation to meet eligibility requirements.

But two other major obstacles to TVDL legislation reflect the widespread dysfunction and brokenness that I have found in the current political system. One sign of this pervasive brokenness is that the primary goal of too many politicians is to get elected, and then re-elected, rather than to govern well in a manner that promotes the well-being of their constituents.

I experienced this when talking face-to-face with elected law enforcement officers about the possibility of getting their support for TVDL legislation. While a handful of elected law enforcement officers in Iowa support such legislation, the majority of elected law enforcement officers, whose very job is to promote public safety, oppose it. Why? My paraphrase of an underlying reason I have discerned from my conversations is that even if an elected law enforcement officer acknowledges the many benefits for public safety, employers and our Latino neighbors, going public in support of such legislation could lead to being voted out of office since the majority of constituents are against any type of immigration reform.

A second, often unspoken, but extremely prevalent obstacle to TVDL legislation is captured in the words, “That would be rewarding those who have broken the law.” I have found that those who express this concern have usually succumbed to a second symptom of the current brokenness of politics– a hyper-partisanship that takes an either/or approach to solving societal problems rather than seeking the both/and solutions that could emerge if those on both sides of the political aisle genuinely engaged one another. 

The current debate about comprehensive immigration reform, which includes and goes beyond potential TVDL legislation, is a case in point. Those on one side of the political aisle focus on strengthening border enforcement and punishing those who have broken the law by entering our country illegally. Those on the other side of the aisle focus on providing a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Very few politicians say we need to do both, possibly because such both/and thinking typically gets punished on Election Day. In 2013, the U S Senate passed a bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill that included both a pathway to citizenship and punishment for those who have broken the law by means of appropriate fines. But House leaders who embrace either/or thinking refused to even bring the bill up for a vote.

Such either/or thinking is also prevalent among Christians who are committed to promoting justice consistent with their understanding of the biblical record. Some Christians focus exclusively on those biblical teachings that call for a proper respect for the “rule of law” (e.g., Romans 13: 1-7 and 1 Peter 2: 13-14). They conclude, and rightfully so, that the restorative/retributive dimension of justice requires punishing those who have broken the law. Other Christians focus exclusively on the call for Christians to “welcome the stranger” (Deuteronomy 10:18 and Matthew 25: 31-40). They conclude, and rightfully so, that the distributive dimension of justice calls for seeking the well-being of all people groups in society, with a special focus on those who are marginalized and disadvantaged.

When I listen to Christians talking about the possibility of immigration reform, I often perceive this disturbing either/or thinking that does not adequately address the tension between these two dimensions of justice in the biblical record. Christians committed to promoting justice should embrace both of these dimensions, which were duly included in the Senate attempt in 2013 to forge legislation for comprehensive immigration reform and which can be addressed in TVDL legislation.

Christian Responses to the Obstacles

To address the obstacles to TVDL legislation or any type of immigration reform, Christians should begin with “getting their own house in order” and think carefully about the biblical teachings about justice. The Center for Public Justice has numerous resources to inform that task, among them its Guidelines for Government and Citizenship.

The Guideline on Citizenship highlights the urgency of political advocacy for immigration reform by asserting that “Responsible citizenship includes … helping to shape the political community to conform to the demands of justice.” The Guideline on Government embraces the need to find a proper balance between restorative/retributive and distributive justice by asserting that “Upholding public justice for a political community must include responsiveness to a variety of interrelated principles, such as distributive justice, which holds for the way government allocates benefits, and retributive and restorative justice, which holds for the way government punishes offenses and seeks restitution and reconciliation.”

Finally, the Guideline on Family points to the need to address the devastating effect that our current broken immigration system has on the unity and stability of immigrant families. The Guideline asserts that “Government should aim to uphold the integrity and social viability of families.” 

However, as important as these educational efforts are, a more adequate understanding of  the biblical call for justice will have minimal impact on the ground if Christians do not directly address the two main political obstacles noted above: the current focus for politicians on just getting elected, and the hyper-partisanship that precludes both/and approaches to solving societal problems.

Therefore, for those seeking to address these two obstacles, I’d like to offer a proposal, one that echoes a truth stated by Mark Prosser, the Director of Public Safety and Police Chief in Storm  Lake, Iowa, who has worked tirelessly for many years advocating for immigration reform: “Working for immigration reform is a marathon, not a sprint.” My proposal calls for a marathon run and not a sprint because it seeks to change hearts and minds by means of developing personal relationships, which won’t happen overnight. 

My experience in the trenches tells me that too many Anglos who are unsympathetic to the plight of their immigrant neighbors haven’t taken the time to get to know them. Too many legislators argue for bills that can have profound negative effects on immigrants that they don’t know. So, our immigrant neighbors too easily become faceless statistics, not real human beings who have the same aspirations and dreams as all other human beings.

I believe that a profound change in perspective happens when we get to know our immigrant neighbors on a personal level A few years ago, I led a series of seminars at my church in which we didn’t talk at or about our immigrant neighbors. Rather, we talked with our immigrant neighbors, listening to their painful stories about how the current broken immigration system was decimating the unity and stability of their families. We found out that many of those who were undocumented fled to our country to provide their families with food and other basic necessities that they couldn’t get in their homelands, and that we wouldn’t think of doing without. We admired their close-knit families and the ways in which they have made important contributions to local economies by working faithfully at low-paying jobs that Anglos would no longer take.

Since then, CASA has arranged for our Sioux County Sheriff to meet with small groups of our Latino neighbors to listen face-to-face to their expressions of concern about law enforcement issues. For the past four years, we have sponsored an annual Latino Festival that celebrates Latino culture and enables Anglos and Latinos to get to know one another better around good Latino food, entertainment, and children’s activities.

So, my proposed strategy for winning the marathon of immigration reform is this: Get to know your immigrant neighbors and take whatever steps are necessary to encourage and enable your political representatives to get to know their immigrant constituents on a personal level. That will have a profound effect on who you vote into office and the political initiatives your legislators decide to promote. Implementing this strategy will take a long time and will not be easy. But running a marathon has never been easy.

Questions for Reflection:

1- What is your experience with politicians who are preoccupied with just getting elected and practicing hyper-partisan either/or thinking? What have you tried to do to overcome such obstacles?

2- What would be the most appropriate balance in immigration reform legislation between the biblical calls to “welcome the stranger” and respect the “rule of law?”

3- What concrete steps can you take in your neighborhood to get to know your immigrant neighbors and to encourage your political representatives to get to know their immigrant constituents on a personal level?

-This essay was first published in the November 16, 2015 issue of the Capital Commentary of the Center for Public Justice (CPJ). Harold Heie has served as a Trustee of CPJ.