Be Careful What You Wish For
Be careful what you wish for: that was the upshot of a talk on immigration issues during the quadrennial United Methodist Women’s Assembly.
Immigration attorney Danny Upton, commenting on harsh immigration legislation aimed at undocumented workers and signed into law last week in Arizona, warned, “In our zeal to stick it to the wrongdoer, we may actually stick it to ourselves.”
Consider the economic and social impact of sending 11 million people packing, he said, referring to the estimated number of undocumented people in the United States. “That’s 11 million workers, producers, taxpayers, homeowners, and parents of US citizen children,” he added.
Upton, an attorney for Justice for Our Neighbors (JFON), a program of the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), warned that the Arizona immigration law, formerly Senate Bill 1070, includes significant ambiguity that could lead to misuse and abuse.
Already the law has raised concerns about racial profiling, and its provision that allows any citizen to sue a local government for failing to be vigorous enough in its execution is a “lawsuit magnet,” Upton said.
Proponents of the legislation insist it enforces federal laws, but Upton said the contrary is true: it sets a precedent by criminalizing unlawful presence in the US, something the federal government considers a civil offense.
Camilla McKinney, who attended Friday night’s talk, is the Refugee and Immigration Coordinator for the Illinois Great Rivers Conference of the United Methodist Church. Through her earlier work in congregational development, she came into contact with immigrant members from different countries and cultures—some with documents, some without.
“Once you get into it, once you hear their stories, if you’re a Christian, you have to get busy,” she said. Her fear about anti-immigrant legislation like that passed in Arizona is that “it will only be so many steps till they take away our rights, too,” meaning those of US-born citizens.
“If you want change,” Upton said, “call your legislators and tell them, ‘I want to see just, comprehensive immigration reform.”
The emphasis since the early 1990s on enforcement—the Border Patrol budget has increased 714 percent and its personnel 390 percent since then—has translated into an increase in the average stay of an undocumented person from about three years to, currently, more than 10.
“The undocumented population has exploded not because people are coming to this country in higher numbers but because they’re not going home,” Upton said. “We have become so effective in regulating the border that we’ve created serious disincentives for people to go home.”
In addition, immigration quotas haven’t been updated in nearly 30 years and the wait times to receive an immigrant visa have increased; depending on the situation, it can take up to 18 years. “The process has become an end in itself,” Upton added.
The JFON attorney offered the United Methodist Women another consideration for the immigration debate: Scripture. “The Bible is not wishy-washy on this score,” he said. “It gives explicit mandates,” as when in the book of Leviticus (19:33-34) it says, “The foreigners residing among you must be treated as your native born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt.”
JFON represents the response of the United Methodist Church and its local congregations to the needs of immigrants seeking to reunify their families, secure immigration status, and enjoy the right to work.
Linda Unger works with the United Methodist Committee on Relief.