At the Institute for Biblical Research (IBR) meeting this year, I acquired the book mentioned above (for free). Its title testifies to its relevance for the Conn blog, so we’ll do a multipart review, one post for each chapter. For my part, my parents-in-law work with Chinese immigrants, my younger brother works with Latinos/Latinas in IV in southwest Texas, and I live in NYC–just south of Washington Heights no less–and am constantly confronted with the causes and impact of immigration. So how Christians should think through this topic, particularly as citizens of a functioning republic, is something that’s frequently on my mind.
Immigration tends to be a polarizing issue both inside and outside the church no matter what your ethnic or citizen status and in my opinion, like politics, it is one for which we by-and-large lack the theological tools and ecclesiological framework to really address the subtleties of the problems involved, how to solve them, what the Church’s role should be, and how that should differ from the State’s (or really, States’). Therefore in my opinion serious books by Christians with expertise in Biblical studies, Theology, though especially Sociology, Politics, and Law are very much needed: people who not only understand the difficulties attendant in applying the ancient texts to modern circumstances which don’t overlap well, but also people who understand the modern circumstances well enough to know what kind of answers we should be looking for in the first place.
Prof. Carroll’s book is not really one of these, though it is no less important. We need more books like this. In his introduction, he explains that his goal is to present a conversation piece for the church–particularly in the USA. He intends to offer a simplified, concise presentation of the history of Hispanic immigration in the US, as well as all (yes, all) the NT and OT evidence bearing on the question of how the Church should think about immigration. He says his goal is not to sustain a particular argument on immigration. Rather his goal is to offer ideas, perspectives, and information to educate Christians and get them thinking–to force Christians to see the multifaceted complexity of the issues involved and encourage much-needed dialog. It is probably worth emphasizing that he focuses only on Hispanic immigration to the US–I think this was a wise book that will probably make his book more useful than if he treated immigration more generally.
One quibble I have already of the book concerns Carroll’s section on defining terminology in the introduction. He explains that he prefers the term “undocumented immigrant/worker” to “illegal alien” for several reasons: the former is pejorative, prejudicial, imputes a moral/ethical judgment, suggests the antecedent has few scruples, and that they have actually broken the law. Carroll says that it’s not that the illegal/undocumented have actually done something unlawful; rather it’s that they simply lack the documentation and the US lacks the appropriate venues for regularizing them. This is surprising claim and he is quite explicit about it (see p. 22). In my judgment there is an important lesson here that needs heavy underscoring, though part of it is certainly incorrect. Carroll is right in that the US lacks a sufficient legal procedure for regularizing undocumented workers that are already here. But the reason this problem obtains in the first place is that it is illegal to work in the US unless either you’re a citizen or have the proper documentation, hence the term. Thus using “undocumented” don’t really help since it’s illegal to be undocumented anyway. I’d grant that acquiring these credentials could be prohibitively long and complex and that the process could be streamlined, but I think it should be stressed that it’s still the law. Moreover, of concern to me is that crossing a border, even with the long-term goal of return, only circumvents underlying problems (and I would argue probably exacerbates them). Thus the term “illegal” is, strictly speaking, quite justified. There is a reality here that needs to be faced directly. The US is picky about who it wants in and wants to set the terms. It’s a sovereign country and has that right.
That said, Carroll is right that there needs appropriate nuancing and Christians and non-Christians alike have allowed “illegal” to carry certain moral/ethical freight that needs to be checked. One thing that Carroll hasn’t said yet, which I suspect he will, is that the moral situational issues that bring illegal immigrants to consider crossing in the first place are much more complicated than simply whether they break our laws or not. What is often not recognized is the extent to which these people are victims of a broken and unjust society, often which the US has indirectly (or directly) contributed to (via NATO, etc.) and which the US government could have helped to renovate or prevent, and that a major driving factor is the concern for the well-being and future their financially troubled families. They’re caught between a rock and a hard place and the personal/familial needs are often too pressing to wait and sift through the bureaucracy, especially if there is a reasonable chance for failure. Consequently, I completely agree with Carroll that focusing on the legality of immigration–that is, focusing on the matter from the perspective of US citizenship–greatly oversimplifies the ethical and moral dimensions of the problem. American Christians are often aware that doing God’s Will may imply breaking man’s law; for some reason we have a hard time imagining why that might be a fitting explanation for our illegal immigrants. Most of us would probably not make different decisions–at least, I don’t think I would.