Rights Over Laws

Kinship Across Bordersby Kristin E. Heyer

This book begins with the personal testimony of an undergraduate student at a California college who, just a few weeks after learning that she was awarded a coveted scholarship she hoped would change her life and provide security for her Mexican family, received a sudden visit from U.S. immigration officials. They were prepared to arrest her and her father for illegal entry into the United States. When she pleaded to be allowed to stay and study in the country, the agents at her door said they would grant her that request, but only on condition that she reveal the whereabouts of her father.

The young woman was stunned. “I stood there shocked and dumbfounded, completely unable to answer the question. Was this what normal students had to sacrifice for their education? I shot a look over at my hunched and mortified mother, who nodded yes to go ahead and tell them. My heart ripped in two as I revealed the precious information.”

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Kristin Heyer, herself a third-generation immigrant of European origins, goes on to remind us of the casualties of current U.S. immigration policies: the dozens of bodies in the desert each year as would-be migrants from the south attempt to navigate breaches in the fence that was built a decade ago to prevent migration attempts. Newly built detention centers confine those who have managed to cross the border but have been captured afterward; the detainees now number 280,000 a year.

The broken families, the corpses, the shattered hopes of a tolerable life all make a seemingly irrefutable ethical case for moderate migration policies. A Christian ethic of immigration? After reading the introduction, one might think that little was left to be said on the subject. Didn’t the Old Testament have strong words to say about the welcome due the foreigner in view of the fact that the Jewish people were in fact all foreigners? Doesn’t the United States pride itself on being a nation of immigrants (at least in its better moments), and hasn’t it inscribed at the base of the monument that defines the nation itself that poetic invitation to other countries throughout the world to send “their poor and wretched, their huddled masses”?

The reason for her book, Heyer tells us, is that what might seem an obvious ethical imperative can be clouded by layers of self-interest that she identifies as social sin. Our fixation on national security following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, along with the American concern for something resembling ethnic purity—a specter that keeps reappearing over the years—are coupled with the usual fear that relaxing our immigration restrictions would jeopardize the national economy. All this blinds us to our neighbor in need and hinders us from coming to the aid of those who should be recognized as our kin.

The xenophobic mindset that would deny help to the migrant is all too common in developed countries like the United States, and the moral danger it represents is undeniably real. The “large-scale hardness of heart” that this attitude represents might properly be called social sin, the author suggests. Yet here Heyer digresses at length on the very concept of social sin, which she feels compelled to justify in the light of the theological debate waged during the 1980s following John Paul II’s critique of the concept.

The main project of this volume is to challenge the assumptions that shape our group-think view of immigration. Along the way the author wanders here and there, exploring the theology of the family (over against an enforcement system that is all too ready to break up families), dipping into the legitimate claims migrants and refugees have on other neighboring countries and offering pastoral approaches to sensitizing the public on the “civic kinship” that should be extended to those beyond the national borders.

Migration has become a global phenomenon, with 215 million people a year leaving their country for places beyond. The growing number of migrants, the author maintains, is at least partly owing to those charters for globalization like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Agreements were signed to tear down the barriers that guarded national economic boundaries from outside capital and manufactured goods, but they did nothing to facilitate the free passage of labor between countries. In the end, Heyer argues, these treaties only increased disparities between countries, destroying the competitive advantage that less wealthy farmers in underdeveloped nations once enjoyed. As a result, globalization may have ended up fueling the need for migration instead of reducing it.

While Heyer shows us in touching detail the human face of migration, her book is intended to lay out an ethical case for welcoming migrants that is based on justice, not simply charity. Her position, and that of the host of sources she cites, rests on the assumption that the boundaries of nations are not sacrosanct and the national sovereignty that guards these borders can be trumped by the claims of the needy. Indeed, many of those who cross national borders, legally or not, are forced to do so to redress human rights violations. This is so, for instance, when wives and children attempt to rejoin their husbands, or when people are fleeing from rampant violence and crime at home to protect their own lives. In the pastoral letter “Strangers No Longer,” the U.S. and Mexican bishops’ conferences, while recognizing the right of a sovereign nation to control its own borders, also assert the right of threatened humans to find refuge where they can. This document, sadly neglected today, seeks to resolve the tension by making the case for porous borders.

The appeal to open the borders, even a crack, is unlikely to draw an enthusiastic reaction in the United States today. While the economically threatened middle class looks out for its own interests, the government goes about the business of protecting its borders. Whatever the church does to witness to the needs of present and would-be migrants, then, might have to take the form of “subversive hospitality,” to use the author’s own words. This might mean leaving out bottles of water for those recent arrivals who have braved the desert to cross the border. It could also mean providing sanctuary for those who have risked their lives to be reunited with their families. It would certainly mean support for the DREAM Act and other proposals that would allow undocumented migrants to become full participants in our society. Above all, it would mean reminding those who claim to be guided by Christian beliefs that the needs of the poor take priority over the wants of the rich. As we nudge our fellow Americans to a new sense of inclusiveness, we would be proclaiming to them that we are expected to be, in the end, our brothers’ keeper.

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