O, Stranger, where art thou?

As reported in the New York Times the other day, a provision in the border-security bill just passed by the House makes it a federal offense for anyone to offer assistance or services to illegal immigrants, punishable by as much as five years in prison and confiscation of property and/or assets. Churches, social service agencies and advocacy groups are raising an outcry.

Add my voice to that list.

While I strongly agree with providing the manpower and other resources to enforce our immigration laws and protect our borders (and agree that this is one of the powers of a federal government), this particular provision is both immoral and overreaching and my objections are not just philosophical but personal.

Here’s part of the story: In March of 1995, a man named Vladimir entered the U.S. illegally, using a fake passport — and then turned himself into the Immigration office in Bloomington, across from the Mall of America, and applied for asylum. He was processed, told to keep the office informed of his whereabouts, and shown the door. Within a couple of weeks through a series of bizarre, even miraculous, circumstances I met Vlad at my church and took an active interest in his situation. His story had begun several years before with him fleeing in fear for his life from what was then the Soviet Union. Still ahead, at the time we met, were another 20 months where the two of us would navigate the Immigration Service bureaucracy until a judge would ultimately rule in Vlad’s favor. I won’t go into all the circumstances and twists and turns of this ordeal here, but I do want to focus on one part of what happened and how it applies to this misguided law.

Once I and others from my church got involved and understood Vlad’s situation, we stressed how important it was for him, although in the country illegally, to obey the laws while he was there and his case was working its way through the system. Sounds simple enough, but in practice a significant challenge quickly arose. Vlad had some money with him, but certainly not enough to live on for however long it might take to get his status resolved. Fiercely proud and independent as well as handy and industrious, he wanted to work to earn money to live on and – once it was determined there were no legal aid groups available to assist him – pay for his legal counsel. Being undocumented, of course, meant that it was illegal for him to do that. Technically, the government was allowing him to stay while his case was pursued, but not allowing him to support himself while he did so. Hard as it was for Vlad to accept it, we were able to find homes where he could stay and the people in our church opened their hearts to him, blessing him with a bicycle and other gifts to help him get by more comfortably. When his hearing neared our small congregation also, in a single service, collected some $3,000 to pay for his attorney. Many of us wept in joy with Vlad when asylum was finally granted.

As I’ve stated here many times, my belief is that the government gets into far too many areas that ought to be left to individuals and to the church or communities of faith and that its intervention is usually disastrous when it comes to actually achieving what it hoped to accomplish by getting involved in the first place. God requires us to show mercy and compassion to others, including those “strangers who dwell among you” (see Leviticus 19:34 and 24:22 for starters) and to apply the same laws as those that citizens live under (implicit in this is that “stranger” receives the benefits and the requirements of those laws, hence our insistence that Vlad not work illegally). In Vlad’s case a small group of people – not the government – got involved to support him physically, emotionally and spiritually — and every bit of it would have been illegal if the proposed law had been in effect then.

The debate over what immigration laws are necessary and constitutional is multi-faceted and there are good arguments to be made from various perspectives in reaching a result that is just and merciful as well as practical. This particular provision in its current form, however, is simply wrong.

3 thoughts on “O, Stranger, where art thou?

  1. Vlad did the right thing: Even though he got here ‘by crook’, he immediately sought to rectify the situation. You where a friend helping a friend. If he had come in illegally, and was hiding out, and you where helping him hide out, that would be an entirely different situation.

  2. Hah, if that border-security language becomes law half the people in Miami will be subject to prosecution! Everyone upstate thinks we go overboard sheltering Cubans in South Florida, but we actually have expats from just about everywhere. All the Latin American turmoil, and the long, continuing tragedy of Haiti, are especially reflected here. And I don’t see how the feds could possibly make our people stop doing the decent and honorable thing in trying to help these desperate newcomers.

  3. Dave – thanks for the comment. I’ll say, however, that the difference you point out is not one recognized by the proposed law. And in general I have a problem with a law that tries to turn sheep into goats (re Mat. 25), or says you or I, as individuals, can’t give a hungry person meat, a thirsty person a drink, or take a stranger in if we choose to do so, regardless of that person’s legal status.

    I’m not saying we excuse anyone here illegally from breaking that law or from obeying the laws of our land while they are here, and I don’t consider a driver’s license a necessity of life. Nor am I saying it is the government’s responsibility to address these needs. I am saying it is wrong for the government to block me from “loving mercy, acting justly and walking humbly with my God.” I think this is consistent with scripture and with conservative principles.

    Is there a potential for abuse? Of course – just as there is with anything. People – citizens and “strangers” both – will always find a way to manipulate things to their advantage (just as they’ll do even if a law is in place). But if you or I are in charge of deciding for ourselves who is in need, who we’ll help, and for how long it adds a level of accountability to the relationship the government can’t replicate. And if you or I were to “help” people as a way of running an illegal work ring or for less wholesome purposes, I think there are already laws on the books to prevent or punish that.

    Thanks again for the comment.

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