A Both/And Approach to Immigration Reform

The following reflections were prepared in preparation for my participation in a June 6, 2018 panel presentation in Storm Lake, Iowa on the topic “Leading the Way: A Living Room Conversation on a New Approach to American Immigration” that was sponsored by the “Bibles, Badges and Business” network that is a project of the National Immigration Forum

The two prompts for my initial comments tonight are lifted from two announcements that I received for this important event. One announcement suggests that “we” need to “explore a new, reasonable approach to immigration.” A second announcement asks “how we can move forward together.”

Who is the “we” being talked about? Is it only those, like me, who believe that undocumented immigrants need to be provided with a reasonable pathway to citizenship? If I only talk with those who agree with me about that, then I will only be listening to an echo of myself. And nothing can happen politically if you listen only to an echo of your self.

Is the “we” referring only to those, unlike me, who believe that undocumented immigrants should face immediate deportation? If so, they will only be listening to people who already agree with them And nothing will happen politically if they listen only to echoes of themselves.

My radical thesis this evening is that in our current dysfunctional political climate, there is no way forward in the current contentious immigration debate unless the “we” being referred to in these announcements includes BOTH those who propose a pathway to citizenship AND those who propose immediate deportation. The only hope for a way out of the current quagmire is for those who disagree about the fate of undocumented immigrants to have “respectful conversations” about their disagreements with the goal of identifying some common ground.

I base this radical thesis on some painful experience I have had as a Co-Director of CASA of Sioux County (Center for Service, Assistance and Advocacy). CASA is a non-profit all-volunteer organization whose mission statement includes the phrase “we envision transformed northwest Iowa communities that welcome, empower and people from all cultures” (with a special focus on our Latino neighbors). Our method of operation typically starts with building personal relationships with those we try to influence toward seeking the flourishing of our Latino neighbors. And we try to do this by arranging for face-to-face conversations.

So, we have had extensive conversations with our Sioux County Sheriff, Dan Altena, about honoring ICE detainers, or not, and about the idea of providing temporary driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants. And we have had face to face conversation with two of our political representatives at the national level, Steve King and Charles Grassley, and a number of our past and present state political representatives: Randy Feenstra, John Kooiker and Skyler Wheeler.

But the painful experience I have to report is that none of these conversations have gotten too far, primarily because of “conversation stoppers.” And the most common conversation stopper when it comes to discussing the possibility of providing a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants has been the following: They have broken the law, so they should be punished. I wish I had a dollar for every time I have heard that said.

I believe there is a cogent response to this conversation-stopper. In my meetings with the political representatives noted above, there never was enough time for me give my response. So, I will now outline that response for you.

Those using this conversation-stopper view themselves as upholders of the rule of law. I agree with them about the need to respect the rule of law. But I submit that it reflects a total lack of moral imagination to not be able to envision a middle ground between no punishment for breaking the law by entering the United States without proper documentation (which is the definition of “amnesty”; no punishment) and the devastating punishment of deportation that is tearing apart so many Latino families.

What is such a viable middle ground? As a preface to suggesting what such a middle ground may be, I note a month long conversation on the topic of “Immigration” that I hosted this past April on my web site, www.respectfulconversation.net. My two conversation partners, chosen because I know they disagreed with one another about the fate of undocumented immigrants were Robert McFarland, a law professor at Faulkner University in Montgomery Alabama and Matthew Soerens the U. S. Director of Church Mobilization for World Relief (who some of you may know of because of his involvement with the Evangelical Immigration Table and his co-authoring, with Jenny Hwang, of the fine book Welcoming the Stranger). 

McFarland entered this conversation focusing on a belief that “justice” requires “obedience to laws” and Soerens entered this conversation focusing on justice calling for “helping the marginalized and vulnerable.” Although the month ran out before Robert and Matthew could sort through all the ins-and-outs of what “justice” calls for, I believe it is fair to say that they both ended up the month being sympathetic to the view that these two views of justice are not mutually exclusive. Soerens’ final articulation of the way in which to BOTH respect the rule of law AND help our marginalized and vulnerable undocumented Latino neighbors to flourish was as follows:

I … think it is appropriate to insist that violation of U. S. law is inappropriate … But the penalty for that infraction need not necessarily be deportation. A better solution, in most cases, would be to allow those who are unlawfully present to come forward, pay a fine (which is what would distinguish this from amnesty, …), and then receive a probationary legal status that would allow the individual to stay and work lawfully in the country. Over the course of time, these individuals could earn permanent legal status if they meet particular requirements, including paying all appropriate taxes and not being involved in serious criminal infractions, and then, like any Lawful Permanent Resident, eventually earn citizenship.

Note that the middle ground between no punishment and deportation that Soerens proposes is the levying of appropriate fines on a pathway to citizenship. 

If the “middle ground” that Soerens proposes has a familiar ring, it is because it is the essence of the comprehensive immigration reform bill that the U. S. Senate passed in 2013. Alas, that bill died in the U. S. House of Representatives.

My point in mentioning this example from my web site is not to promote my web site (although some of you may be interested in perusing this full month-long conversation). 

Rather my point is to present what I think is a compelling example of possible common ground that can emerge if persons who disagree about contentious immigration issues are willing to listen to and talk respectfully to one another about their disagreements. I present that example in support of my radical thesis that there is no way forward in the current contentious immigration debate unless those who disagree commit to talking respectfully to one another toward the goal of identifying some common ground.

By now I am guessing that a number of you are thinking that I have lost my sanity. My radical thesis is unrealistic in light of the current toxic, polarized political culture. There is no way that you will be able to get those who disagree vehemently about the fate of undocumented immigrants to have “respectful conversations” about their disagreements toward the goal of identifying some common ground.

So, let me frankly acknowledge two reasons why many may consider my radical thesis to be totally unrealistic: lack of humility and political tribalism.

First, lack of humility.

Ask yourself when the last time was that you heard a politician or staunch supporter of a particular public policy position say “I may be wrong.” 

It takes genuine humility for me to express my beliefs with clarity and conviction while acknowledging that “I may be wrong.” The ideal of “humility” that I aspire to can be summarized as my acknowledgement that however strongly I hold to my beliefs and express them with deep conviction (and, yes, even with deep emotion and passion), I may be wrong.

Note that such humility does not mean being “wishy-washy” about your beliefs. Rather, it involves you holding in tension that very rare combination of holding to and expressing your beliefs with clarity and great conviction at the same time that you publicly acknowledge that you may be wrong.

Both Ian Barbour and Richard Mouw have given eloquent expression to the nature of this rare combination. In his book Myths, Models and Paradigms, Barbour proposes the following definition of “religious maturity.”

It is by no means easy to hold beliefs for which you would be willing to die, and yet to remain open to new insights. But it is precisely such a combination of commitment and inquiry that constitutes religious maturity.

In his splendid book Uncommon Decency, Richard Mouw draws on the theologian Martin Marty in highlighting the importance of “civility” in living out this rare combination of commitment and inquiry, calling for a “convicted civility.” 

One of the real problems in modern life is that the people who are good at being civil often lack strong convictions and people who have strong convictions often lack civility.… We need to find a way of combining a civil outlook with a “passionate intensity” about our convictions. The real challenge is to come up with a convicted civility.

Openness to the beliefs of others without commitment to your own beliefs too easily leads to sheer relativism (I have my beliefs, you have yours; end of conversation). Commitment to your own beliefs without openness to listening to and respectfully discussing the beliefs of others too easily leads to fanaticism, even terrorism. (As C. S. Lewis has observed, to which past and recent world events tragically testify, “Those who are readiest to die for a cause may easily become those who are readiest to kill for it.”) One of the most pressing needs in our world today, is for all human beings, whatever their religious or secular faith commitments, to embrace, and hold in tension, both commitment and openness; giving living expression to “convicted civility.”

The second major obstacle to realization of my radical thesis is the “tribalism” that is so rampant in our political culture today. By this I mean the us/them mentally that causes those on both sides of the political aisle to totally discount any ideas coming from the other side of the aisle because that is what “they” believe and we all know that “they” are the bad guys; not only are they “wrong” but they are downright “evil.” And because they are the “bad guys,” there is really no point in sitting down with them to listen and talk about our disagreements.

Given these huge obstacles to the realization of my radical thesis, why do I persist in my attempts to orchestrate respectful conversations among those who have strong disagreements? One reason is that I am a “persistent cuss” by nature. But more importantly, I persist because it is the “right thing” to do, whether or not it proves to be successful. This conviction flows from my understanding of my commitment to the Christian faith.

As far as I can tell, there is universal agreement among Christians that a follower of Jesus is called to love his/her neighbor. But there is significant disagreement as to how that neighbor love should be expressed. 

My commitment to calling for ororchestrating “respectful conversations” among those who have strong disagreements (about immigration issues or anything else) is based on the following deep conviction: Providing someone who disagrees with you a safe and welcoming space to express that disagreement and then to talk respectfully about your disagreements is a deep expression of love.