Few subjects can stir up hot debate like the current immigration crisis in America. Regular readers of (insert name of political blogger here) or watchers of (insert name of fair-and-balanced cable news network here) cannot help but have strong opinions on the subject.
M. Daniel Carroll R., author of (, ) confronts the issue on a very personal level. Born to a Guatemalan mother and American father, he divided his formative years between the two cultures. Currently a professor at Denver Seminary, he continues as adjunct professor at a Guatemalan institution.
With this background and sympathetic point of view, Carroll seeks to “move Christians to reconsider their starting-point in the immigration debate” (p. 19). Elsewhere he states that his intended audience includes believers of both the dominant culture and the immigrant community. The preponderance of the book, however, is clearly aimed at non-immigrant American Christians.
The author’s stance becomes quite clear in the helpful section “Defining Terms” at the end of the introduction:
“I prefer the term undocumented rather than illegal for several reasons. Illegal can carry a pejorative connotation, suggesting by definition that the person is guilty of some act, has few scruples, and is prone to civil disobedience. This is not the case with the overwhelming majority of Hispanic immigrants. Most would gladly regularize their status with the government, but the present system simply does not provide appropriate avenues to do so.”
The Usual Suspects
In his first chapter Carroll presents an overview of the immigration situation. He begins with four accounts which illustrate the crisis faced by America today. He goes on to propose that the immigration situation is a “complicated landscape” with no easy answers. To his credit, Carroll makes a valiant effort at impartiality. In spite of this, however, his sympathy to the plight of Hispanic immigrants is quite evident. On page 27 for example, after an emotional description of the struggles of the “undocumented” (which includes the phrase “wiles of the coyotes“—clever) he sums up the other side of the story this way: “But citizens of this country have also suffered violence in car wrecks, robberies, and other crimes of undocumented immigrants, some of whom have been able to evade apprehension or conviction. These victims cry out for justice too” (emphasis mine). This is followed up immediately by a paragraph which bemoans the “rhetoric” that flows from the media, particularly labels such as “flood,” “tidal wave,” “horde,” or “invasion.” As he states: “Red flag language, such as ‘amnesty’, the ‘war on terror’, or the ‘terrible human cost’ punctuates discussions that can degenerate into unfruitful diatribes.” The previous phrase is the closest Carroll gets to admitting that the uncontrolled southern border presents a real and worrisome national security threat. Also missing is any reference to organizations such as La Raza, while on page 42 he has no compunctions about labeling Tom Tancredo and Pat Buchanan as “shrill in their tone.” In the footnote to this section, he even puts the Minutemen (he calls them “border vigilantes”) and white supremacists in the same extremist boat.
One of the most important and informative sections of this chapter is entitled “The Ignored Dimension: Christian Faith and Hispanics.” In it Carroll gives some important statistics about the nature of the Christianity of Hispanic immigrants and its potential influence on the American evangelical scene. As Carroll’s focus on a Christian response to Hispanic immigration, this section is key. His major conclusion is this: “Many immigrants are brothers and sisters in Christ, with all the respect and attention this fact should engender in those of the majority culture who claim to love and follow Jesus” (p. 59). Later, he goes even farther: “In other words, if Christians of the majority culture take a very different look at Hispanic immigration, they will see that something much bigger than they might have imagined is happening. The church of Jesus Christ is growing and being impacted in unexpected ways. This work of God is part of an enormous movement that spans the globe. “This is the overall theme of the book. Christians should have a different response to the immigration issue—one that transcends the current political debate.
A Biblical Mandate?
The following three chapters delve into the Scriptures in an attempt to extract a coherent and biblical theology of immigration. Two chapters deal with the Old Testament, and one with the New Testament. Carroll begins the first chapter of this section with a treatise on what it means to be created in the image of God. He very carefully puts forth the three main theories as to the meaning of “Image of God” (the inherent-quality, relational and dominion aspects). He then makes the obvious important observation: immigrants are humans (p. 67). The conclusion he extrapolates from this is that treatment of people should be the same “irrespective of whether they are here with or without the documents the government might mandate” (p. 68). Carroll goes on to cite Old Testament examples of immigration: Abraham, Joseph, Ruth, the Exile, etc. From these he draws the conclusion that immigration is not new, it is a fact of life, and—because the people involved are sinners—it is not “tidy” (p. 88). In the following chapter the author deals with the Old Testament law as it relates to the “sojourner.” This section deals with the subject of hospitality in Near Eastern cultures and in Old Testament law. Clearly Carroll, who specializes in Old Testament studies, is in his element here. The studies are detailed, interesting, and informative.
It is at this point that Carroll puts forth what I consider to be his strongest argument. After explaining how the Old Testament law can serve as a paradigm for law in general, he makes a valid argument that Christian culture should be characterized by compassion for the sojourner. As he moves into the New Testament, Carroll focuses on Jesus’ time as a refugee (fleeing with His family from Herod) and on His treatment of outsiders (particularly the Samaritans). He expounds on the compelling concept (from I Peter 1 and Philippians 3) of Christians as sojourners in a foreign land. Our own status as foreigners should give us a new mentality towards others who find themselves in similar situations.
Finally, Carroll takes on Romans 13—the legality issue. His treatment of it follows the line of reasoning used by most immigration activists: “If one believes that [immigration] laws do not fit the teaching of the Bible and the ethical demands of the heart of God, some Christians will not say ‘What is it about illegal’ that you don’t understand?’; instead, they might declare with the apostle Peter and John: ’Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God’ ” (p. 132).
In the next paragraph Carroll is quick to assert that he is not advocating civil disobedience—at least not on a “large scale.”
While I applaud Dr. Carroll’s sincere attempt to address this issue and appreciate the fresh approach he brings to the debate, I cannot help but have some serious problems with what he writes. Before I get into these, however, let me provide a little background. I too approach this subject from a very personal point of view. I am married to a beautiful Brazilian woman, and did battle with the tangled web of immigration policy on numerous occasions during the five years we lived in the US. We did everything legally and aboveboard, and were constantly brought face-to-face with the detrimental effect that illegal immigration has on those who are trying desperately to “do it right.”
Now the tables are turned, we live in Brazil, and suddenly I am the immigrant. I know what it is like to be in the minority, to be discriminated against, to be taken advantage of and to be demonized. I have even had to stand in a separate line at an airport “just for Americans.” Every week I confront a bureaucracy designed specifically to make life difficult for me. As if this weren’t enough, for nine years before coming to Brazil I lived in central Florida, home to the citrus industry that brings in thousands of “undocumented workers” every year. I have been in their homes, seen their plight, and observed their effect on society at large. I have even refused employment to otherwise qualified people because of their “documentation issues.” One of our supporting churches is a vibrant, dynamic Hispanic congregation in Florida which carries out aggressive evangelistic campaigns among the Latino citrus workers. Together, these issues influenced my opinion of Christians at the Border.
My first problem with Carroll’s treatment is his obvious bias to one side of the debate. He seeks to marginalize arguments that I see as legitimate and gives no time to important issues—such as the overt actions on the part of certain Latin governments encouraging their citizens to enter the US illegally. I also disagree with his rationalization of the “illegal” status of undocumented workers. I find his arguments—particularly the ones based on “Imago Dei”—to be unsatisfying. Another point of concern for me was his glowing descriptions of Latin Christianity. While there are indeed many vibrant Latino churches which have much to contribute, he fails to mention the huge impact of “prosperity Gospel” preaching—the largest of which being a Brazilian export, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God. This church and others like it entice immigrants with promises of wealth in their new home, and have nothing to offer to the larger evangelical community. Also, I don’t see how we can see the huge influx of devotees to the Virgin of Guadalupe as anything other than a mission field.
My final complaint has to do with his conclusions. The last chapter—entitled “Where Do We Go From Here”—is surprisingly devoid of concrete steps to take. In fact, the author states as much on page 138: “This book does not propose any legislative solutions, economic panaceas, or advice on cultural negotiations.” After all of the biblical research and cultural analysis of the previous chapters, I was expecting a little more. I would be remiss if I did not mention here a very valid point made by Carroll: “…the government turns a blind eye to many employers because the country needs the cheap labor, but then closes the door to social services on these same workers” (p. 134).
This is a great injustice being perpetrated in our country—a modern-day version of slavery. As I mentioned earlier, I have seen this firsthand. If “undocumented workers” are going to face penalties for breaking the law (as I think they should) then the businesses that hire them should also face penalties. Perhaps one thing Christians in the US can do is work for tougher legislation on these companies. While I disagreed with many of his conclusions, M. Daniel Carroll wrote this book with the intention of getting Christians to think about the immigration issue. In this he has been singularly successful.