The Daily Progress ran a photo of a six-year-old girl holding up a sign that declared “Stop deportation now!” in their coverage of an immigration reform rally held here in Charlottesville, Virginia on April 8. Along with these signs calling for an end to deportations, it is not uncommon to scriptural passages used by those rallying for immigration reform. “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not oppress him (Isaiah 19:33),” read one of thousands of signs at the immigration reform rally held in Washington, DC on April 10.
The compelling image of this young girl calling for an end to deportation serves as a reminder of the smallest among us who are hurt by a broken federal immigration system: the estimated 4.5 million children in the United States who have at least one parent who is an unauthorized immigrant. Countless families have been torn apart through deportation: in the first six months of 2011 alone, over 46,000 fathers and mothers of US citizen children were deported. The passage from Isaiah cited above expresses the Judeo-Christian ethic of showing particular concern for society’s poorest and most vulnerable members. The juxtaposition of these two messages – one ancient and religious, one contemporary and political – challenges us to look more deeply into our religious traditions as we seek to build a more just society.
Not just in Isaiah but throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, the faithful are again and again exhorted to care not only for the foreigner, but the widow and orphan, as well. The Hebrew word used for these people is anawim – those whose social situation makes them uniquely vulnerable. Every society has social safety nets of one kind or another to ensure the common good. And in every society there are individuals who slip through the cracks of these social safety nets, whose situation is particularly precarious.
The Hebrews, like other peoples of the Ancient Near East, developed a patriarchal kinship system of organizing society. Those outside the systems of societal support and protection—widows, orphans and strangers—are the ones who are most vulnerable in such a society, defenseless and easily exploited. Unconnected through birth, marriage, or another alliance to a land-owning male who could provide resources and protection, the anawim were completely outside of society’s mechanisms of support. Fred Kammer, SJ writes of the anawim that because of their “powerlessness, poverty, and systematic exclusion from full membership in the community and the protection it afforded,” they were forced to depend on Yahweh alone as their protector.
Thus, those seeking to follow Yahweh were told again and again to have particular concern for these individuals, as caring for them was a sign of religious faithfulness. The prophets stressed that caring for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger was a non-negotiable religious obligation. Offering hospitality to the outsider is demanded over and over again by Yahweh; Bill O’Neill, SJ claims that hospitality is “the Golden Rule of the Book of Leviticus.”
While our society is vastly different from that of the ancient Hebrews who received the Mosaic Law and the words of the prophets, it is not difficult to see the parallels between the circumstances of the anawim of the Hebrew Scriptures and the unauthorized immigrants of the United States today. I am not arguing that we should seek to model current U.S. social and political systems on Old Testament teachings, but that we must take a hard look at how we collectively respond to those on the margins, and the Scriptural concept of anawim provides a point of departure for this reflection.
There are certain safeguards in place in our society provided by the U.S. welfare system, for those who are poor, disabled and victimized. Funded by the government to assist those who can prove need, these programs of economic and social support include food stamps, Head Start preschool classes, subsidized rent, and tax discounts such as the Earned Income Tax Credit. As the patriarchal system in the Ancient Near East was designed to protect individuals through their relationship to a land-owning male, so our welfare system attempts to provide support and assistance to the weak and vulnerable to keep them from falling into destitution.
Unauthorized immigrants have access to virtually no support and fall completely outside of our social safety net. They stand in the shadows, vulnerable to unscrupulous employers who seek to profit from their labor without providing safe working conditions or fair pay. Lacking valid social security numbers and the ability to attain a government-issued identification card such as a driver’s license (typically), undocumented immigrants are unable to access social support, and they experience greater difficulty and insecurity in a variety of ways. A routine traffic stop for a minor infraction such as a burned-out taillight can lead to detention and deportation.
The argument is made that immigrants aren’t truly a part of our society and should simply return to their home countries where they belong. However, this doesn’t recognize the reality that many of these immigrants have been here for years, if not decades, and that many have contributed to the economy as workers. While anti-immigrant voices often present these immigrants as freeloaders and criminals, the reality is that many are hardworking and simply focused on improving their family’s situation. Many that I know work more than one job. Whether or not we want to recognize this, the estimated eleven million unauthorized immigrants among us are indeed a part of our society.
The fact that we as a nation benefit from their work – the exhausting work of harvesting our crops, the dangerous work of processing our meat in slaughterhouses, the crucial work of caring for our children and our elders – without recognizing their fundamental human dignity and ensuring their basic security and fair treatment is nothing short of a disgrace. We can and must do better than this. Our history as a nation of immigrants and the basic values of fairness and equality demand it.
The America we want is not a nation that allows the exploitation of a permanent, vulnerable underclass of workers. The America we want is not a nation in which every time a father gets into the car to drive to work he takes the risk of never coming home to see his children. The America we want is not a nation which keeps millions of people living in the shadows. This is why it now is the time for comprehensive immigration reform – an end to deportations, greater oversight of abusive employers, and a path to citizenship for the modern-day anawim, to recognize their contributions and respect their human dignity.
Rhonda Miska has an MA in Pastoral Ministry (Hispanic Ministry emphasis) from the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry, is a former Jesuit Volunteer (Nicaragua, 2002-2004), and is currently living in Charlottesville, Virginia where she is active with the Casa Alma Catholic Worker community.