As anyone who follows the news already knows, President Obama decreed unilaterally that the United States government will cease deporting illegal immigrants who meet certain criteria:
- You must have come to the United States before your sixteenth birthday.
- You must be younger than 30 presently.
- You must have lived in the United States for five years without a criminal history.
- You must have either graduated from high school or served in the military.
The significance of the President’s decision is primarily psychological and electoral. To take them in reverse order: this was as naked an act of political gamesmanship as you are ever wont to see. Don’t fool yourself; Obama is a politician like all the rest. In my view, he’s among the slickest and most manipulative, but let’s leave that aside. Obama has looked down the list of the groups whose coalition elected him last time, and has moved systematically down the list, giving goodies in exchange for renewed favor. He stated his support for same-sex marriage and received a surge of donations to his campaign fund from upwardly mobile gays. He made this decision and his support from Hispanics has surged.
The effect is psychological or symbolic because few illegal immigrants who met these criteria were being deported in the first place — but now they can have the comfort of knowing that they will still not be deported for…well, at least six months or so, as long as the Obama administration endures. Since it was accomplished by fiat of executive order and not by the legislative process, it can be reversed at any time. Obama has never really thrown his weight behind comprehensive immigration reform, as he had promised, but he will claim (falsely) that this was the most he could accomplish with those darned Republicans getting in the way. It’s easy to imagine that if President Bush had made a decision of similar magnitude by circumventing the legislative process, the screams of “imperial presidency” would have resounded from coast to coast.
As a Christian, I feel torn in two directions by this decision. On the one hand, I cannot condone the process, and I don’t know if the practical benefit is so great that the harm to the process can be overlooked. This feels sloppy and slapdash, not so much fixing the problem as papering it over with something temporary and partial and more about appearances than realities. On the other hand, if it’s really true that 800,000 Americans feel relief at the knowledge that this administration does not intend to deport them, then I am happy for them. They should not have to live in fear that the American government will tear them away from the only home they’ve ever known.
The last time comprehensive immigration reform was seriously debated across both parties, the American public made it clear that it wanted to get the borders under control before we started giving amnesty or immunity or paths to citizenship. This made sense. If you cannot control the flow of illegals across the border, then granting immunity will only entice more to come in ways that break our laws. There’s nothing compassionate in failing to enforce laws and bringing about chaos — and there’s nothing evil in a country that controls its borders and ensures an orderly and fair process.
As other Patheos bloggers have pointed out, the deeper problems here are with the non-enforcement of immigration law and border control that led to this situation in the first place — and the politicians who allowed it to happen for their own personal benefit. We should have an immigration process that is just, compassionate, wise, and enforced. If it cannot be enforced, or if no one is willing to enforce it, then it needs to be changed. In other words, we should not have 800,000 illegal immigrants who meet these criteria in the first place. However, given that we do have them, I certainly don’t want to send them packing.
Immigration law is one of those areas where evangelicals should, I believe, be drivers of change within the Republican party. There’s no space here for a serious debate over the immigration issue. But this is one of those places where I believe evangelicals can show their independence from the GOP, and where the GOP, given its need for evangelical support, will move accordingly. The great news is: it’s already happening. When the head of Focus on the Family — along with SBC luminaries like Russell Moore and Timothy George — sign a statement calling for just this kind of reform, then you know something is afoot.
The truth is, the Republican party is of many minds on the issue, and evangelicals can align themselves with the Marco Rubios and press for a comprehensive solution that controls the borders, installs an enforceable set of laws, encourages the kinds of immigrants we need, treats those who came here illegally humanely, and makes a space for those who came here as children, and who have never committed crimes, to participate fully in our society without fear of deportation. If Romney were to win, especially with Rubio on the ticket, Republicans probably would have accomplished something along these lines in any case. (If I were the Democrats, I would have been terrified by this prospect, since the Democrats cannot win without a huge advantage in the Latino vote.) So what’s needed is not so much changing the direction of the Republican party as emphasizing one wing within it.
When I try to determine where to stand on an issue, my Christian principles are everything. Party platform does not even come into the equation. I determine where I stand, and then I find a party that will help me advance those principles — or, in the real world where no party perfectly represents those principles, I find a party that best reflects my beliefs on the most central matters and I press for change where needed.
We are always independent. Our primary loyalty is never to a party. And on immigration, we should make that clear. The more strident voices deserve our opprobrium. The saner voices deserve our support. And on this issue I’m happy to see that evangelicals are moving the conversation forward.