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Comments on Immigration, Pinnacle Theological Center, January 2011

Pinnacle Theological Center hosted a Symposium on Immigration on Friday and Saturday, Jan. 21 and 22, 2011. Here are my opening and summary comments from the event. They seek to put the question of immigration, so pressing in Arizona, in spiritual and philosophical context.

Opening comments, Jan. 21, 2011

The great issues facing our communities, our nation, and our world are multi-dimensional. They admit of political, economic, ideological, rhetorical, and theological dimensions. And each dimension effects the others in varying ways at varying times. There is no escaping that. Robust and positive responses to the issues of the day, therefore, must be equally multi-dimensional. Responses that deal with only one dimension of an issue will fail in their persuasiveness and fall short of their potential impact.


As Reformed Christians, Presbyterians do not always agree on how to interpret those many dimensions of contemporary concerns, or even what the most pressing concerns of our time might actually be. But we do agree about this multi-dimensionality, and we agree that persons who see the world through the lens of faith must both keep a secure place at the table of public conversation also welcome others to that same table. We believe in a large and active public sphere, characterized by civility, care, and mutual respect. We equally believe that human imagination is not only wonderfully fertile, it is also flawed, and so the great conversations, and sometimes arguments, that feed democracy must be grounded by a healthy dose of humility among all who participate, and must also be bounded by basic hope, and perhaps trust that there is a will at work among us that would have us live in peace with each other. And we believe that this peace would see all persons thrive in communities of moral depth, shared concern, openness to strangers.

It is for these reasons that the Pinnacle Theology Center works to create settings of informed conversation about issues of the day. We seek to bring people of intellectual accomplishment, spiritual awareness, and ethical sensitivity to lead us in this work. Our symposium this weekend is one such occasion, and it is one about which we are particularly excited, and one that we are both honored and humbled to host.

We know this evening and tomorrow will be helpful and informative. We also trust that it will be open, civil, and fulfilling of the purposes for which the Center has been dedicated. And we are grateful for all who have contributed to its coming about, and for each one of you for being here.

Summary comments, Jan. 22

There is an ancient concept in Greek Rhetoric, from studies in argument, called topoi (singular, topos). The word means “places.” It’s the word from which we get the English word “topics.” In Greek philosophy, it means a little more than what we mean by the “topic” of an argument. It means those “places” in a conversation, or argument, where there are basic conflicts to be resolved. It’s where the conversation simply stops, and where we must find some sort of agreement (however we decide what agreement is) before we can proceed. Topoi get our attention, gather our emotions, shape how we approach each other. They are the places, or passions, or ideas we stand on when we enter an argument. It’s enough to point to a topos when you’re talking, as if to say to someone: “If you can’t agree with me about this, then we have nothing left to talk about.” When we get stuck in an argument because of basic disagreements about our topoi, we are a place the Greeks called stasis, when the discussion simply can’t move forward without tending to that basic difference.

Why in the world am I talking about topoi and stasis to sum up this long and fruitful discussion of the many and multi-dimensioned issues surrounding immigration today? Well, I guess it’s because of something that stood out for me in Ted Alden’s comments last night, which has also been a theme working through our presentations today. Ted outlined for us the many facts, policies, and rationale that can persuasively lead us to the conclusion that a comprehensive approach to immigration reform is the only way that the many dimensions of this question can be addressed. And yet more than once he also suggested that the present “political climate” in the country will prevent any comprehensive approach from moving forward.

Why? Why would we resign ourselves to the prospect that we know the broad outline of what is needed, even if we can justifiably quibble about the details, and yet are unable to act on what we know? If it’s “politics” that prevents us, what is this politics? It is, in large part, public and private argument. If we can’t do what we know we must, then the fault is ours—as a civil society. And so it is our responsibility, as citizens, as persons of faith, and members of a shared community to think about how we do our arguing, or our talking. If we can argue better, we can make better decisions. We can get unstuck.

If we must tend to our talking before we can get to our deciding, then the ideas of topoi and stasis become very important. So let’s take a moment and step back, to ask what are the topoi that effect this discussion and how they bring us to our stasis points. Let’s ask about those, “If you can’t agree with me on this, we have nothing else to talk about,” moments in our discussions. If we can see these things, perhaps we can approach each other with a bit more of the humility I suggested earlier, and get beyond our sticking points by recognizing others’. There’ll be no solution that satisfies everyone, but there might be approaches that nevertheless keep us moving forward. And these will involve lively discussion of the topoi that fill our arguments.

Bottom line: our arguments about immigration are never, first, about immigration at all. They are arguments about some basic passions that make us who we are and shape our assumptions about the world around us. Those are the topics we must tend to if we want to get unstuck. So let me suggest seven, and see where they leave you. Maybe you’ll disagree with one or two, saying they aren’t as important as I think they are. Or maybe you’ll insist that only one or two of them really matter. Or maybe you’ll add others. I can nevertheless assure you that at minimum, each one of these does matter, very much, to one or another of us. The seven are these:

1. The Rule of Law vs. The Rule of Love.

You see it on the bumper stickers, hear it from others, or say it yourself: “What part of illegal don’t you understand?” “These people are not ‘undocumented persons,’ or ‘irregular immigrants,’ or ‘guest workers’! They’re criminals, breaking the law of my country, and they deserve to be treated as such.” Some would simply dismiss these claims, but they would be wrong to do so. The topic must be addressed.

We’re taught from childhood that we are a nation of laws, and that the rule of law prevents us from descending into a war of all against all. Where laws are broken consequences must occur, we are taught. Even though we tolerate a certain level of lawlessness (speeding, misdemeanors) in a free society, there are limits beyond which we cannot tolerate law breaking. Is this one? If it is not, then what does this say about our visions of a law-abiding society? These are the questions.

Next to this, however, is the Rule of Love that our religious communities have always set alongside the Rule of Law: do unto others what you have them do unto you. Some stop right there, and insist that anyone not looking first at the “human” dimension of immigration is lacking in basic human compassion, and therefore, ipso facto, unworthy of participation in the solution.

2. Human rights vs. the sovereignty of the state.

Internationalist and nationalist perspectives butt against each other here. On the one had, the very sovereignty of the State seems to be at issue, and that concern seems to feed the passions of those who would say, in Arizona, that if the Federal government cannot meet its obligations to preserve the integrity of our borders than the local authorities will—for the very boundary that makes the nation sovereign is at stake. Anarchy is threatened — whether it is the anarchy of irregular (illegal?) immigration or the anarchy of individual states taking authority from the Federal government.

On the other side, however, are those who would feel, even if they don’t articulate it this way, that individual human rights are always transcendent to the State. This is the impulse of the American Declaration of Independence, that human rights derive from divine authority and that the State’s role is not to grant those rights but to protect them for all people—not just citizens. Do irregular (illegal?) immigrants have rights that the very State whose borders they have breached is duty bound (divinely bound?) to preserve? This feeds arguments about providing health services, police assistance, and education to “illegals” or their children. It is the topos behind arguments about the DREAM Act.

To move forward, we must identify and tend to this conflict.

3. Whose justice, which fairness?

We often hear concerns that granting some form of amnesty to the some 15 million undocumented (illegal?) immigrants in the U.S. would be unfair, and therefore unjust, to immigrants who have come regularly (legally?). We also hear that basic justice requires consistent applications of the law, and without that the whole system of justice is threatened.

Yet, on the other side of this topos, three claims are made. One is that the regular (legal?) path to immigration is dysfunctional, biased, and itself unjust—thus rendering the entire situation unfair from the start. As such, there is no solution that will be fair to all. This view would insist that justice demands compromise and pragmatism, and that the solution must serve a vision of justice set off into the future rather than attempt to achieve complete equity or fairness in the present. We are to declare an “all come free” in order to set things right, despite the fact that many have achieved the same end by “following the rules.” And, second, that if it is accurate to say that that both demands for cheap labor in the U.S. and NAFTA related economic shifts in Mexico have, in effect, invited irregular (illegal?) immigration to the U.S., then it would be unfair, and so unjust, to now penalize those who have been welcomed here (however irregularly). And, third, there is a pointing to those who are innocent as particularly deserving of justice, namely children brought over the border. Advocacy of the DREAM Act and other policies defended in the name of the “children” comes out of this view.

4. National identity (historic and contemporary).

Ted Alden rightfully indentified “Old World” vs. “New World” views of national integrity, inherited from Europe, as part of this topos. The “New World” view of American national identity is summed up in the last line of the poem inscribed at the Statue of Liberty: “send these, the homeless, tempest, tossed to me. I lift my hand beside the golden door.” We see ourselves as a “nation of immigrants,” however we came. We tell our family stories, identifying ourselves with hyphens (Asian-Americans, African-Americans, German-Americans). We see ourselves as a generous, welcoming people. We see assimilation into a “melting pot” or “salad” to be characteristic of the “American experience.” This view go deep, to the point of being unconscious.

And yet this view also butts against a certain Nativist impulse that would “circle the wagons” against outside threats to our very identity as a “free” and “self-determining” people in which people “earn their way” through good citizenship. This is combined with a sense that America’s role has changed, and that we can no longer welcome anyone who comes. The Statue of Liberty holds lovely poetry, but not a promise to be taken literally. We are now “Old World.”

5. Religious identity and citizenship.

American Protestant life has been characterized by a certain Civil Religion that has, in varying ways, identified the project of building a nation with the project of “establishing the Kingdom of God” on earth. While we haven’t had a state religion, we have nevertheless inherited a notion that “to be a good Christian” is also to “be a good citizen.” We sing The Battle Hymn of the Republic. We invoke God’s blessing when we inaugurate presidents or hear speeches about the State of the Union.

This comes up against the universalism of religious identity, or what Christians call their “catholicity.” Images of people sharing communion through a border fence are meant to appeal to religious emotions surrounding this topos. We’re asked: “Does God see borders?” We’re challenged to decide to whom we are most strongly bound as people of faith—to the border patrol or to the poor seeking work to support their families?\r\n\r\nThese are not simply policy questions. They go to our basic religious as well as national identity.

6. Economics: victims or beneficiaries?

We butt economic assumptions against each other, with emotions attached to each. We hear an emotional claim from folks (sometimes folks who are themselves struggling economically) that they do not want their hard earned tax dollars going to provide health care, education, or other services to “illegals” who do not pay their fair share, work for dollars under the table, or take advantage of the system. The image is, frankly, of freeloaders. The assumption is that many, if not most, irregular (illegal?) immigrants do not pay taxes. The assumption of some who hold this claim is also that jobs for citizens are being taken away by illegals (irregulars?).

On the other side of this topos, of course, are those who will stop an argument by pointing to cheaper prices for lettuce, chicken from meat packing factories, nursing home care, childcare, or gardening service and pool care. Some will also point to an estimated 10% of the Social Security Fund derived from people working with falsified social security numbers, who will never collect the money the put into the system. These folks will justify their claims by pointing to those undocumented workers who, do, in fact pay taxes.

No one knows the full balance of these claims, except to say that the distribution of economic cost and economic gain from illegal (irregular?) immigration is haphazard at best, non-rationalized for sure, and hard to determine. The economic topos is more often used to buttress other claims than it is taken as a proof on its own merit. That’s because we have little more than impressions upon which to determine facts for this topos. Yet emotions still run high.

Another aspect to keep in mind here is tensions that run through the labor movement in regards to this immigration. On the one side is anxiety over American labor being undercut by low-paid, unbenefitted, workers. On the other side is the ethics of solidarity, by which the potential oppression of workers with no rights, underpaid, and mistreated becomes a cause for organizing and seeking redress for the sake of those workers. This tension runs deep.

7. National and personal security.

Emotions are high for this topos, for claims made on its basis tend to fuel fear, and fear is a strong motivator of opinion.

Fear of criminality fuels the personal security side of this topos. Statements made include, “I don’t want to be afraid to open my garage door at night.” “These people don’t respect our laws.” “I feel less secure.” “If they’ve broken our laws to come, why would they obey our laws once here.” Drug smuggling and labor smuggling get quickly equated in this topos. Images of beheadings in the desert, garbage strewn paths, ranchers on the border defending their land are evoked.

The personal side of the security topos has been strongly supplemented since 2001 by post-9/11 worried over terrorism and the threat of terrorists crossing open borders to do violence on American soil.

On the other side of this topos is a simple dismissiveness. Folks simply ignore the argument, insisting that the border will never be “secure” no matter what measures are taken, that walls won’t stop violence, only just policy will. Those standing on this side of the topos of security will harness various “facts” to buttress their case that criminality has not, and does not, accompany the irregular (illegal?) flow of labor across the border to the extent claimed and that the concern regarding illegal smuggling of drugs should be treated separately from the flow of labor. Those claims made, however, the issue missed by those who make them is fear. Dismissing fear as foolish is rarely persuasive. It only stops the argument.

So where are we? Seven topoi, each presenting a basic conflict of vision and view on this multi-dimensional issue of immigration. We will not move forward until we are able—one on one, in small groups, in community forums like this one—to peel back the complexity one layer at a time. We must resist the temptation to move form one “place” to another in this argument without taking time to explore our differing views on each. We must acknowledge ours and others’ starting points, without humiliation or dismissiveness, resist the temptation to stop listening by using one assumption against another as if we’re swinging baseball bats around. We must explore our assumptions, keep going back to the grounds from which we make our claims, keep seeking facts and perspectives that will hold each other (and ourselves) accountable, and be open to being persuaded. Our solutions will also need to address each of these topoi, and others not identified, if we are to get unstuck.