Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners, a Christian magazine, recently promised U. S. House speaker, Paul Ryan, that evangelical Christians were keeping our promise on immigration reform. So here is a message, he wrote, "for Donald Trump, Paul Ryan, Steve King or any other politician who proposes to deport eleven million undocumented immigrants -- thereby tearing them out of our nation, our lives, and our churches, and ripping their families apart: If a new president calls for massive deportation, some of us Christian leaders will call for massive civil disobedience... to block those deportations."
This sounds admirable. I would love to see all deportations blocked through a massive act of civil disobedience.
The trouble with Wallis's promise is in what he says next. He says Ryan and other Republican leaders were guilty of "morally caving in to pressure from the strong anti-immigrant white rightwing base of their party ... [thereby] closing the door on immigration reform in Congress."
With this move, Wallis brands anyone who disagrees with comprehensive immigration reform as anti-immigrant, racist, white, and a right winger. Not only is this factually inaccurate, it is harmful to the cause of migrant justice. I am a Baptist minister and one of many on the left who oppose comprehensive immigration reform precisely because it is inherently racist and would move the system to the far political right. I wrote about our concerns in this article for the Huffington Post.
Wallis apparently believes that comprehensive immigration reform, explicitly as outlined in S. 744, the bipartisan bill which passed in the U. S. Senate in 2013, was a bill to protect unauthorized immigrants from deportation. It clearly was not. It was, in fact, a bill oriented towards deportation.
The Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Bill was first and
foremost a border militarization package. The sealing of the border with walls, dogs, guns, agents, infrared cameras, and stadium lights, among other things, was at the heart of this bill. Border security was the trigger which would have allowed progression to "immigration modernization."
The militarization of the border was designed to stop poor people from Mexico and beyond who had been displaced by the North American Free Trade Agreement. To date militarization has claimed the lives of between 5,000 and 21,000 unauthorized migrants. There can be no reason to believe that further militarizing the border would do anything other than cause more suffering and more deaths. You can find out more about militarization and migrant deaths as aspects of comprehensive immigration reform in my documentary, The Second Cooler, narrated by Martin Sheen.
The immigration modernization part of the package was promoted as a path to citizenship. Many of us on the left, however, believe this thirteen-year-long process, riddled with fees and exceptions would actually shift unauthorized migrants into the deportation machine, not protect them from it. It requires that people report themselves to the Department of Homeland Security in order to get on this path. You can find out more about the trouble with the immigration modernization aspect of S. 744 in this excellent video produced by the Moratorium on Deportations Campaign called "Unmasking S. 744".
Wallis says that President Obama "courageously" issued "executive orders designed... to relieve the threat of deportation." Presumably, he is referring to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals [DACA] and the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans [DAPA]. These were not executive orders, they were executive actions.
This is a distinction with a tremendous difference. President Obama has had the authority since the day he took office to issue an Executive Order halting deportations altogether. Instead, he earned the moniker, Deporter in Chief, because of the roughly 2,500,000 deportations which have occurred on his watch.
Executive Orders have the force of law and must be obeyed. They were issued, for example, by President Lincoln when he freed the slaves, President Roosevelt when he ordered the relocation of Japanese Americans during World World II, and President Truman when he desegregated the U. S. armed forces. All of these things actually happened because Presidents ordered them to happen. Obama's actions, by contrast, are simply wishes without the force of law.
More troubling, however, is that Obama's actions may have put people at greater risk of deportation. This is a fear of Latino immigration attorney, Carlos A. Batara. He worries that those who register with the Department of Homeland Security for these postponements on deportation are exchanging short term benefits for the possibility of long term disaster, i.e. deportation.
Wallis invokes a "Pledge of Resistance" which he says Sojourners helped organize in response to the threat of a U. S. invasion of Nicaragua in the 1980s. He says that this pledge, signed by 80,000 people, promised they would "enter the offices of their members of Congress and [refuse] to leave until they were arrested if the United States invaded Nicaragua." He says this pledge "helped prevent a U. S. invasion of Nicaragua." The trouble with this extraordinary assertion is that it is inaccurate.
Under the leadership of President Ronald Reagan and the Central Intelligence Agency, the U. S. helped organize and fund the ultra right wing Contras in their effort to overthrow the popularly supported Sandinista revolution which displaced the Somoza regime in 1979. Nicaragua sued the U. S. in the World Court for mining its harbors and buzzing its cities in an illegal campaign which eventually resulted in the deaths of approximately 30,000 Nicaraguans. The World Court found in Nicaragua's favor. I have published several essays about this, one of which can be found in Subverting Scriptures: Critical Reflections on the Use of the Bible.
Jim Wallis's heart may be in the right place. But he is woefully, dangerously ill-informed on what comprehensive immigration reform actually is. As articulated in S. 744, it is a full on threat to people and families in the U. S. without status. We evangelicals on the left must, if we are truly to proclaim Good News, be careful of what we support. Other people's lives depend on it.