Like many of you I’m sure, I find myself very interested in the debate swirling around the legislation recently adopted in Arizona officially known as Arizona Immigration Law SB1070. You can find the full text of the law at http://www.azleg.gov/legtext/49leg/2r/bills/sb1070p.htm, but the specific part of the law that has become a source of instant controversy is the section that reads as follows: For any lawful contact made by a law enforcement official or agency of this state or a county, city, town or other political subdivision of this state where reasonable suspicion exists that the person is an alien who is unlawfully present in the United States, a reasonable attempt shall be made, when practicable, to determine the immigration status of the person. In effect, that appears to legislate that police officers require anyone with whom they have any contact of any sort at all and whom they suspect might be here illegally to produce adequate documentation to demonstrate that that is not the case. At first blush, that sounds fair enough. If a police officer thinks someone may be committing a crime, why shouldn’t he or she be permitted to follow up on that suspicion at least to the point of ascertaining whether that hunch was right or wrong? Isn’t that what police officers are supposed to do?
Our country has a complicated immigration policy that admits more than a million foreign-born individuals to American every year. (In 2006, for example, the Department of Homeland Security issued 1.3 million so-called green cards to persons wishing to become American citizens.) Millions of people obey the rules, but there are also vast numbers of people who attempt to circumvent the system by sneaking into the country and then remaining here illegally, and their numbers are too high to consider them merely as individual lawbreakers. Indeed, the Center for Immigration Studies, a non-partisan think tank devoted to immigration issues, estimates that there are about eleven million illegal immigrants in the United States at the current time, down from 12.5 million a few years ago. (You can read more at the institute’s website: www.cis.org.) Of these illegals, the Pew Hispanic Center (also visitable at http://pewhispanic.org/) estimates that about 57% are from Mexico, 24% are from other countries in Latin America (most of them in Central America), 9% are from countries in Asia, 6% are from European countries, and the remaining 4% are from the rest of the worlds’ countries.
And so we come back to the Arizona law and ask whether, in light of the statistics just cited, merely being a Hispanic person constitutes enough of a reason for a police officer to suspect illegality. Does the fact that over eighty percent of the illegals are of Hispanic origin mean that the Arizona law requires police officers to demand proof of citizenship or legal residence from people they come across who merely look Hispanic? Given that there are about 1.8 million Hispanic American citizens in Arizona and that they constitute about 29.2% of the population of the state, that seems like an awful lot of people to suspect of illegality merely because of their physical demeanor or the language they speak! And that, added to the details that we Americans are specifically not required to carry our passports or our birth certificates with us—and that we do not even have national identity cards here similar to the ones in use in France or Israel—makes the whole situation even more strange. If I myself, born in New York City and the child and grandchild of six American citizens, was stopped on the street by a police officer who thought I looked illegal and ordered to demonstrate my citizenship, I’m not sure what I would do. A driver’s license is not proof of citizenship! And I only carry my passport when I am intending to leave the country, a practice I think I must share with almost every other citizen.
Another feature of the Arizona law that has garnered a lot of attention is its so-called “sanctuary” provision, which formally forbids municipalities in Arizona from adopting local laws that promote under- or non-compliance with state or federal immigration policy. This too sounds at first like a no-brainer, but it too speaks to a real phenomenon: at the current time, a serious number of major American cities (including New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Miami, Baltimore and about two dozen others) have adopted laws forbidding their police officers from inquiring about anyone’s immigration status, thus in effect making themselves into sanctuaries in which illegal immigrants can at least not worry about their status being uncovered by local law enforcement officials. Reactively, a number of state legislatures, including those in Georgia and Tennessee, have enacted laws forbidding localities in their states from declaring themselves to be sanctuary cities. And now Arizona has joined their ranks.
Both proponents and opponents of the Arizona law have made ample reference to biblical precedent and it is that specific aspect of the debate I would like to address. (Where else should Jewish citizens begin in their evaluation of this or any matter of public policy if not by asking what our Torah has to say on the matter?) And, as it happens, it has plenty to say. Our Torah, for example, actually does promote the concept of sanctuary cities to which individuals guilty of inadvertent manslaughter can escape and there be safe from the vengeful relations of their unintended victims. Yet, the notion of establishing such cities can only be considered a reasonable parallel to the modern phenomenon if we suppose that the federal agents in charge of immigration are being motivated by the unjustifiable desire for vengeance or, at the very least, if we suppose that the illegals themselves are somehow accidentally responsible for their illegal status in a way parallel to how the person guilty of manslaughter has accidentally taken another person’s life. To me, that seems almost ridiculously exaggerated. Regardless of how anyone feels about the direction American immigration policy should take, it’s hard to find a compelling parallel in the biblical passages relating to the cities of refuge. Even the use of the term “sanctuary cities,” suggestive from a biblical point of view that those seeking refuge there are victims of unfortunate happenstance, strikes me as misleading.
Far more interesting, however, is the verse from Deuteronomy that forbids the faithful from returning an escaped slave to his or her master. The verse, found at Deuteronomy 23:16, reads as follows: You shall not return a slave to his master after he has sought asylum from his master with you. Instead he shall live with you in the midst of your community or wherever he wishes or in which ever one of your cities’ gates he finds appealing. But you may not oppress him. It’s an interesting verse. In context, it seems to be suggesting that because you have no way to know how the slave was treated in his master’s house (and presumably also because you can neither verify the slave’s account nor guarantee how he will be treated upon being returned), you have no choice but to step back and let him settle into your city to live his life as a free person. Left unspecified is whether the runaway slave actually becomes a free person or merely may live as though that were the case. But what does it matter? The bottom line is that when people run away from some situation they find intolerable, Scripture tells us not to judge or condemn but simply to act kindly to strangers in need.
Does this have anything to do with illegal immigrants today? On the one hand, it seems exaggerated to describe living in Mexico or Guatemala as suffering the latter-day equivalent of the ancient agony of being a slave-owning master’s living property. Indeed, when the citizen of a foreign country really does have a claim of having been truly oppressed or in danger of being oppressed in that country—in other words, when the parallel is far more apt and demonstrable—then we have an entirely different process for admitting people to our countries as bona fide refugees. Can we suppose, therefore, that the millions of illegal immigrants in our country are specifically people who do not qualify to apply for legal status under the Refugee Act of 1980 that specifically makes room in our country for individuals unwilling to return to their countries because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion? I suppose we probably can assume that anyone who could live here legally as a refugee would surely do so. And it is also worth noting that over 100,000 refugees were admitted to the United States between 1980 and the end of the twentieth century, a number of which all compassionate Americans should be proud.
So on the one side of the ledger we have the oft-cited but not truly applicable biblical precedents of the cities of refuge and the law forbidding returning runaway slaves. But on the other side of the ledger is the single most often repeated commandment of the Torah, the one commanding the faithful to be kind to strangers because they themselves were once strangers in Egypt and know all too well what it means to be alone and defenseless in a strange, new place. And layered over all of this is the reality, unpalatable to the strict constructionists among us but still impossible to ignore, that this debate is not about statistics or legal theories but about actual living people. Deporting a woman here illegally does not mean entering some revised number into a government computer somewhere, after all, but arresting someone’s wife or someone’s mother, then taking her forcefully from her family and then banishing her from what may well have been her home not for months but for years or even decades. As Jewish people who have so often been exiled from places in which we delusionally imagined ourselves to be fully welcome, it does not behoove us to forget that the human dimension to this story is the only one that exists in the real world, that the theoretical part of the discussion is just so much political blather, that the individual deported for the crime of having come here illegally is far more likely to be a father seeking a better life for his children than the kind of person anyone of us would normally think of as a criminal. And yet…does not our security as a nation of individuals rest in the rule of law?
If there were an obvious solution to the question of illegal immigration, our nation would have embraced it long ago. And yet the status quo is intolerable—a world in which not thousands but millions of people in our country cannot phone 911 if they are in danger of being robbed or raped for fear of a police officer inquiring about their status, in which unimaginable amounts of tax revenue are lost because the workers who should be paying their taxes do not dare to step forward lest they draw attention to their illegal status here, in which there exists a subculture of workers to whom labor laws simply do not apply because they cannot complain if they are abused or subjected to unsafe work conditions—this simply cannot be considered a rational way to leave things merely because doing nothing will probably antagonize the least number of people! Proponents of the Arizona law SB1070 claim that the real solution to illegal immigration is to get rid of the illegal immigrants in our midst and to make it impossible for more to come. Furthermore, they argue that the new law will not have any deleterious effect on legal residents of our country, only on criminals posing as legal residents. In the long run, both assertions may well be true. But the new Arizona law is merely a draconian measure enacted out of frustration with federal inaction on the matter, not a real solution to the problem. As such, it deserves to be vetted by legal experts as to its constitutionality but will serve a much finer and much more important purpose as a wake-up call issued by the citizens of one of the fifty states to the federal government, as a demand on the part of some citizens that Congress set its propensity for interminable in-house bickering aside and act in concert and forcefully to find a reasonable solution to a very serious problem facing our nation, one that affects not only the illegals among us but the very fabric of our society and our right to refer to that society as just, charitable, and fair.