Immigration Law Is An Inhumane Overreach

[I wrote the following op ed for the Hartford Courant on July 25th, 2010]

After praying long and hard, I have decided to go to Phoenix to add my voice to the growing chorus of protest against Arizona’s tough new immigration law. Barring an injunction from the U.S. District Court, the law goes into effect next Thursday.

Dubbing this Arizona’s “freedom summer,” civil rights organizations and faith groups have vowed to resist the law’s implementation and are calling on all those concerned about the humane treatment of immigrants to lend their voices and bodies to the struggle. The law’s most controversial provision is known as Article 8 B. It requires police to make a “reasonable attempt” to determine the immigration status of a person if they have a “reasonable suspicion” that “the person is an alien who is unlawfully present in the United States.”

Unfortunately, Article 8.B does not define “reasonable.” It is so vague that even my untrained legal eye can see that police officers, on a whim, will be able to stop, question and detain anyone they choose. This opens the floodgates for racial profiling, which has been cause for dismay among civil rights activists across the nation.

With Article 8. B at its core, Arizona’s law has the strong potential to result in separation of families, unnecessary incarcerations, erroneous deportations of legal citizens and lost productivity. It has struck fear and terror into the heart of Arizona’s Hispanic communities. This law is an affront to the moral sensibilities of our nation.

I am not in favor of open borders. Given the reality of drug smuggling, human trafficking and the potential movement of international terrorists, I recognize the need for tough, consistent and well-resourced border control. I also recognize that the Arizona legislature and Gov. Jan Brewer were frustrated by the lack of federal progress on immigration reform and felt compelled to act. But, in the end, the new law doesn’t “get tough” on immigration.

It gets tough on people already living in the United States. That is its moral failing. Some estimates put the number of undocumented people in the United States at 20 million. The vast majority of them have come here out of economic desperation.

There is considerable evidence that in most cases, they take jobs most citizens don’t want. There is clearly a robust market for their labor, otherwise they wouldn’t come. We cannot intimidate, arrest and deport our way out of this situation as if such activities can somehow contain the larger economic forces at work. Undocumented immigrants work extremely hard, for long hours, with very little recognition and few rights. Like so many previous generations of immigrants, they provide the unseen backbone of our economy. The Arizona law completely ignores this reality.

I am moved by the words of Moses who said “when an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be as a citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself.” I don’t turn to this scripture for legal advice, but I do seek moral inspiration from it.

Our nation needs immigration reform desperately, but let us achieve it in a manner that respects the integrity of undocumented people and honors their contributions to our society. Let us achieve it in a way that doesn’t tear parents from their children in the dead of night. Let us achieve it in a way that doesn’t criminalize whole communities based on skin color, language and accent. Let us achieve it in a way that doesn’t return us to our white supremacist past. Let us achieve it in a way that is grounded in the same love toward the alien of which Moses spoke.

Arizona is better than its new immigration law. So is our nation. That is why, when the call went out for clergy and others to come to Phoenix, I could not refuse.

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