Tikkun Magazine

In the Name of God: Interfaith Activism, Immigration Reform, and the Dangers of Pragmatism

The recent release of the “Gang of Eight” proposal in the Senate means that the possible passage of some sort of immigration reform has taken a big step forward. Not surprisingly, the bipartisan proposal embodies what the Obama administration has championed as the “three-legged stool” at the heart of what it describes as “comprehensive immigration reform”:

  1. More “security” and policing—along the country’s perimeter and within.
  2. An expansion of employment-related (temporary) immigration.
  3. A long path to the regularization of status and, eventually, citizenship for many (but far from all) of the millions of unauthorized migrants living in the United States.

In other words, a key component of the proposal would entail a strengthening of the very system of immigration control and exclusion that has given rise to the current “crisis” and underlies the push for change. It will also permanently bar many now living and working in the United States—regardless of their ties to the country—from ever having the possibility of regularizing their status, while making their lives, and those of future unauthorized immigrants, more difficult.

A makeshift monument at the Tijuana-San Diego border memorializes those who have died attempting to cross: each coffin represents a year and the number of dead. Credit: © Tomas Castelazo (www.tomascastelazo.com).

No doubt, millions now living in the proverbial shadows will benefit. But this should not obscure the ugly realities of what will likely prove to be a Pyrrhic victory in many ways. (What will come out of the House of Representatives is expected to be more restrictive.) In this regard, what has long been striking in the discussion surrounding comprehensive immigration reform is the effective refusal of the progressive elements of the religious and human and immigrant rights communities (with rare exceptions) to call out the system for what it is: fundamentally racist.

In a context of deep inequality and insecurity between and within countries, national territorial divides and their associated apparatuses of exclusion have profound implications. Which side of a socio-geographical boundary one is born on determines to a significant degree the resources to which one has access, where one can go and under what conditions, and thus how one lives and dies.

As such, our world is one in which the few—the relatively rich and disproportionately white—are generally free to travel and live wherever they would like or have the means to access the resources they “need.” Meanwhile most of the world’s inhabitants—relatively poor and largely people of color—are typically forced to subsist where there are not enough resources to provide sufficient livelihood or, in order to overcome their deprivation and insecurity, to risk their lives trying to overcome ever-stronger boundary controls put into place by rich countries that reject them. And if they succeed in migrating, they must endure all the indignities and hazards associated with being deemed “illegal.”

This is the essence of racism, and the nation-state system as well, as it allows for double standards based on the assumption that some should have fewer rights because of where they’re from or because of their ancestry.

Dismantling such institutionalized injustice requires characterizing the system appropriately and confronting it directly. The discussion surrounding comprehensive immigration reform presents an opportunity to do so, but up until now, it has been very difficult to find high-profile, U.S.-based immigrant rights advocacy groups that are willing to make a systemic critique and to champion structural change. Instead, advocates tend to accept the mainstream parameters of what passes for debate.

To draw on one of the more progressive, visionary examples, take the work of the Interfaith Immigration Coalition and its “Platform on Humane Immigration Reform.” A document signed by scores of national religious organizations and denominations, hundreds of local bodies, and hundreds more faith leaders, it opens stirringly with an invocation “to welcome our brothers and sisters with love and compassion—regardless of their place of birth.”


Residents of Omaha, Nebraska, participate in a prayer vigil for immigration reform sponsored by the Interfaith Immigration Coalition. Credit: The Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc.

It then calls upon Congress and the White House “to enact humane and equitable immigration reform,” while invoking the teachings of some of the world’s great religions—such as the Hindu Taitiriya Upanishad’s words: “The guest is a representative of God.”

Yet the actual components of the coalition’s proposed reform fall short of the radical words that preface them. The components include a process by which unauthorized immigrants can “earn” legal status and eventual citizenship, restoration of due process protections and reform of detention practices, and the alignment of immigration enforcement with humanitarian values so that family and community cohesion are valued and the moral obligation to provide refuge to those in need is upheld.

These demands are, no doubt, far better that is now on order within mainstream discussion. Nonetheless, they ultimately end up affirming key elements of the ideological infrastructure that underlies Washington’s regime of immigration control.

If, for instance, all people “are made in the image of God,” as the interfaith platform asserts, and immigration is a “matter of human rights,” why must the guest or immigrant “earn” the right to remain? Moreover, why is the immigrant detention system to be reformed, as opposed to abolished?

To draw on another example, the Platform on Humane Immigration Reform asserts that “border policies must be consistent with humanitarian values and with the need to treat all individuals with respect.” It then goes on to say that these policies must allow “the United States to implement its immigration laws and identify and prevent the entry of persons who commit dangerous crimes.”

In other words, some—those who meet humanitarian criteria (e.g., they have family ties or they are fleeing persecution)—should be allowed to stay or migrate. But as suggested by the platform’s qualified endorsement of the U.S. immigrant exclusion apparatus, it is acceptable to keep out those who fall outside “humanitarian values”—say, those who are simply poor, exploited, or hungry.

Given the myriad factors that drive people from their homelands, the strong ties between sending and receiving countries, and the sheer drive and creativity of migrants to reach and survive in their destinations, one can be certain that unauthorized immigrants will continue to arrive, reside, and work in the United States and other relatively advantaged countries despite the existence of immigration controls.


St. Aloysius Roman Catholic Church in Washington, D.C., holds a “Mass for Immigrants” before an immigration rights protest. Credit: Creative Commons/R. Renner.

That, combined with the fact that many who are now in the United States without authorization will not be eligible for adjustment of status under comprehensive immigration reform as currently envisioned, means that any sort of reform, including those of a “humane and equitable” variety, will likely lay the groundwork for another “crisis” in the coming decades—with all the attendant forms of injustice and violence that immigration control produces and necessitates.

There are certainly good reasons born of political pragmatism why, in trying to push immigration reform discussions in a progressive direction, one who holds an abolitionist position might not lead with it. Nonetheless, those same reasons need not lead one to acquiesce to the unacceptable in the name of realism, and thus undermine what one ultimately wants.

As political theorist Joseph Carens has written, “Even if we take [unjust social arrangements] as givens for purposes of immediate action in a particular context, we should not forget about our assessment of their fundamental character. Otherwise we wind up legitimating what should only be endured.”

In the context of the here and now, this requires a set of initiatives that do not strengthen the system’s “fundamental character,” nor reproduce the institutions and mechanisms that have created the need for “comprehensive reform” in the first place. Instead, any reform must truly—to borrow the words of the Interfaith Immigration Coalition’s platform—“uphold the God-given dignity and rights of every person, each of whom are made in the image of God.”

It would seem indisputable that such words do not allow for the existence of the “illegal alien” and the associated practices of nation-state-based exclusion. Thus, if we are to be true to these words, this means that any reform that deserves to be characterized as “humane and equitable” must not, at the very least, undermine efforts to achieve freedom of movement, work and residence for all.

(This web-only article is part of a special series on immigration associated with Tikkun’s upcoming Summer 2013 print issue, Away With All Borders: Embracing Immigration and Ending Deportation. Subscribe now to make sure you don’t miss the next print magazine’s lively discussion of these issues, and sign up for our free email newsletter to receive links to future web-only articles on this topic, as well! Visit tikkun.org/immigration to read the other articles published so far in this series—we will continue to update that page as new articles come out.)

Joseph Nevins teaches geography at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. Among his books are Dying to Live: A Story of U.S. Immigration in an Age of Global Apartheid (City Lights, 2008) and Operation Gatekeeper and Beyond: The War on “Illegals” and the Remaking of the U.S.-Mexico Boundary (Routledge, 2010).
tags: Activism, Immigration, Spiritual Politics