My response to defenders of anti-illegal immigrant laws

Several commenters here have argued (some of them being lawyers) that the bills I have complained about would never be used to prosecute humanitarians acting on behalf of needy illegal immigrants.  I think that is naive.

However, one attorney in particular (from California) posted a comment here claiming that IF a humanitarian were ever arrested on the basis of the Oklahoma, Alabama or Texas laws he would have no trouble getting the person acquitted based on case law.

I’m not a lawyer or trained in law, so I can’t argue competently with that claim.

However, EVEN THE ASSOCIATED PRESS interprets the Alabama law as criminalizing giving a ride to an illegal immigrant.  The article I cited did not say “if you’re a coyote.”

My point is–lacking the specific exceptions I’m asking for, these laws WILL inevitably cast a chill on individual humanitarian aid (such as giving a ride to work) to illegal immigrants.  If there’s one chance in a million of being arrested and prosecuted, even if there’s virtually no chance of being convicted if you can afford a good attorney, people will naturally shy away from offering humanitarian aid that might conflict with the literal wording of the law.

That a good attorney could get a humanitarian arrested under one of these laws acquitted does nothing to counter my complaints about these laws.  Their lack of clear, unequivocal exceptions for individual humanitarians offering aid to individual needy illegal immigrants speaks volumes about the legislators’ intentions.  They could easily have put that language into the laws to ease the minds of people who want to help a needy illegal immigrant (e.g., with a ride or temporary shelter, etc.).  That they didn’t says they don’t want people giving any help to illegal immigrants.

Anyone who has studied European history knows that seemingly innocuous laws that supposedly would never be enforced against innocent people were eventually used to persecute innocent people.  The first sets of anti-Jewish laws in Germany, for example, did not seem particularly harsh and most people, including Jews, did not panic.  They assumed these laws were political statements never to be enforced and that, if they ever would be enforced, they would only be enforced against true enemies of the state (e.g., communists–the Nazis said the anti-Jewish laws were aimed at communists within the Jewish community).  We all know what happened.  At first the laws were not uniformly or universally enforced.  Then they were.

Am I comparing the people who passed these anti-illegal immigrant laws with Nazis?  No.  I’m comparing seemingly innocuous laws with seemingly innocuous laws–that can have unintended consequences later.

To my mind, many people in the U.S. regard all Hispanics (perhaps other than the ones they personally know) as a threat and they are willing to scapegoat them (e.g., by allowing laws that clearly will be used to harass even legal Hispanics) because this relieves an irrational pressure within themselves.  Too many people simply don’t understand the phenomenon and mechanisms of scapegoating.  We have to be vigilant against this evil tendency in human life and insist that laws that could be misused, anywhere or by anyone, not be passed or be revised once they are passed to avoid their misuse for scapegoating (e.g., racial profiling) purposes.

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  • I’m writing from Australia, but allow me to ask an seemingly practical question. I’m curious to know how otherwise innocent people are to know if the hitch-hikers they’ve picked up are ‘illegal’ or not. Do they need to ask for a passport? Or do they have to make a judgment on the basis of accent?

    (Don’t get me started on the way we Australians deal with apparently illegal immigrants. It ain’t pretty.)

    • rogereolson

      The laws we’re talking about all (to the best of my knowledge) only criminalize “knowingly” giving a ride to an illegal alien.

  • K Gray

    I join with the lawyers who have explained these laws — as I have previously. And note, again, that the proscribed actions were ALREADY illegal under federal law. with exceptions for school, medical and social services, food help and short term shelter.

    These sources are based in law, fact, expertise and experience rather than social theories or movies.

    But it did get me thinking: if my neighbors were illegal immigrants and the dad worked at, say, Chipotle, and needed transportation to work, would I provide it? Consider: Chipotle is under federal investigation across the U.S. for hiring illegal immigrants who use fake SS#’s for employment, then paying them less or “off the books.” Chipotle has become profitable and increased its market share in part by holding down costs. Upon getting the notice of investigation, Chipotle promptly fired over 500 workers, mostly Hispanic. The investigation is ongoing.

    Do I want to support Chipotle in hiring illegals? Probably I wouldn’t know about it: maybe my neighbor wouldn’t, either. But he got that Chipotle job because he can cook — I don’t know what ID he provided, not my business, I’m just helping him support his family. Maybe my other neighbor is a naturalized U.S. citizen — with his own SS# — looking for a job. And my third neighbor is struggling to straighten out unauthorized use of his ID info. Three neighbors.

    The ethics become complicated. What is best for my neighbors?

  • K Gray

    Please note: Chipotle is accused of not checking ID sufficiently, looking the other way. So my hypothetical neighbor may not have shown Chipotle any ID, maybe he is ‘unofficially’ employed there, not knowing day to day if he can keep the job; low wages, long hours, no benefits, no unemployment if he gets fired. Or maybe he bought an ID — he was desperate to support his kids. (I am not implying he stole and ID). His wife gets food from the local food banks, clothes from a ministry and medical care from the county hospital ER. The hospital is in the red (most county hospitals are); there is talk of shutting down the obstetrics unit and letting the larger county next-door provide that service.

    It’s not all ‘theologically crystal clear’ to me.

    But I agree that the feds are after employers and the states/counties are after criminals, and chances are my ride-providing never makes the radar. Should I convince my church to provide a ride-to-work van ministry, no questions asked?

    • rogereolson

      By all means.

      • K Gray

        According to the ISAAC project (Immigration Services and Aid Center) video on church/immigration issues, such “transportation” is unlikely to violate immigration law:

        But it would probably please Chipotle and “off the books” employers.

  • I am currently a missionary abroad in Latin America, but I’ve worked with Hispanic church plants in the US that consisted, nearly to a person, of illegal immigrants. So, based on my experience, my belief is that if Christians really want to get to the marrow of the ethical dilemmas involved in these laws, then they need to get into meaningful relationships with illegal immigrants. As usual, mission both problematizes and clarifies living in Jesus’ way. To churches preaching against illegal immigrants: plant churches first, preach to your own churches second.

    But to the point at hand–the laws themselves and how to live with them–I think civil disobedience is the only option once you get into the kinds of relationships I’m recommending. We can remain relatively detached form the dilemma when it’s about a neighbor on the other side of the picket fence or a stranger with a thumb out. But when it comes down to walking alongside people who both want desperately to escape systems of hopelessness and poverty in their own countries and to follow Jesus, the clearcut answers about what is, according to the US govt., legal become secondary. It is pointless, not to mention a misalignment of priorities, to preach the gospel to illegals and then turn around and tell them that they have to leave because their illegal existence is wrong. No, once in these spiritual relationships, that is not an option, because governments don’t get to define what is sin–this isn’t about repentance. It’s about making our own ethical decisions in light of Jesus’ teachings and living with the consequences when empire would rather dictate terms. My position is that the government is setting its notion of sovereignty over against my generosity and service to human beings in need. If I must choose, then, I will choose generosity and service. Just because the nation as a whole (in terms of policy) doesn’t view it’s resources and strength as something to be sacrificed for the poor and vulnerable doesn’t mean the Christian shouldn’t make personal (albeit civilly disobedient) choices to different effect. In this situation, questions like “Will I give you a ride” become absurd, even if the law clearly says that doing so is a crime. Right and legal are not synonymous.

    • rogereolson

      Thank you for such a powerful, prophetic message on this subject.

  • MC

    I agree that the laws as written are probably bad, but I would have hoped for a more balanced position and more grace for why these laws are written and why conservatives and many Christians seem to support them .

    I think it is an over statement to lay all the blame on scapegoating. This issue has a long history. Conservatives (this generally breaks down along a conservative vs. liberal perspective) believe the previous congress stopped funding of the border fence in 2007. I don’t know if that is true, but that is the perception. Conservatives see illegal immigration as putting huge financial pressure on the social, welfare, health and law enforcement infrastructure of the nation. They wanted a continuous fence to control the flow over the border. Those who tend to be politically liberal tend to see this as a civil rights and racial issue with some supporting sanctuary cities and out of genuine compassion will keep all social services available to those here illegally. These kinds of funding appears to conservatives to be an unlimited social support that encourage others to come, and yet without much recourse to either stopping them from coming or not being allowed to defund them and then on top of that to be branded as racist if they bring up the issue or pass laws others don’t like (I agree, it seems like a flawed law). This, I think, is what pushed the governor in Arizona 1 to 2 years ago to act, particularly in light of what was viewed as an out of control drug cartel violence in Arizona. There is truth on both sides and yet, both sides seem to pass extreme laws or hold extreme positions that encourage the other to react in an extreme response; round and round we go.

    I know you are only addressing the potential impact of the law, but inadvertently you are making the lawmakers and those that support them almost as “monsters”. Many of the comments to this post seem to lack grace for the others opinion and how that opinion was formed. You know understanding? They also seem to assume the worst intentions of the other perspective in saying they are just mean, scared and hateful as some would suggest “land of the mean and home of the scared” and “Christians somehow think that when it comes to politics they have some kind of pass to hate their (supposed) enemies”. Maybe Gov Perry is just using this as a cynical political calculation, but that is always an easy way to slam an opponent. Maybe it’s true and maybe it’s more complicated. I really don’t know. These are just harsh judgments in my opinion. Roger, you have brought me a long way toward embracing a Post conservative perspective, which means in part that I should try even harder to understand the other, even if they are unable or unwilling to reciprocate. I guess what you have helped me to do is to shake the default conservative position that comes often without reflection. Of course that cuts both ways. As far as your comment about the hatred expressed towards the president; I agree the cotton picking quote is repulsive, but George W Bush was hated and and maligned just as much as President Obama. It was unbelievable what was said about him often by the powerful celebs and politician s with little or no public rebuke. Of course I live in Los Angeles which is not the most GW Bush friendly place.

    Sorry for the long post, I just felt this was rather one sided. Other than the way this issue was handled, I appreciate your voice out there and perspective. Thanks.

  • I do lay ministry in a predominantly Hispanic church, probably 70% or more without legal status. Including young people in the youth group who were brought to this country as infants or small children by their parents, with no say of their own in the matter. For all practical purposes (though not legal purposes) they are Americans, because they have lived here longer than in their native country, and are English-dominant (they only use Spanish when speaking to their parents or other elders for whom Spanish is the dominant language).

    The church is very careful about only allowing U.S. citizens or legal resident aliens with a valid license to drive the church vehicles. But if my state passed a law like this, it would put our drivers at risk for taking the kids to a youth camp or to a Christian concert.

    I think these kids are the most impacted by immigration policy — the ones who came here so early (or were even born here to illegal immigrant parents), and the U.S. is the only life they’ve ever known. But if mom and dad get deported, they would also have to leave to go to a country they don’t even remember.

    I’m thinking right now about one girl at church who just graduated from high school with honors, took advanced placement classes, and would qualify for substantial scholarships if she had been born on this side of the Rio Grande. But because she doesn’t have a valid SSN, she can’t receive financial aid for college.

    • K Gray

      Brian, there is already a law like this, it’s federal law (all across the U.S.). But diving kids to youth camp, concerts, VBS, etc. is not the kind of thing federal immigration laws generally reach. If your state has a different law check it out but generally there are 2-3 elements that must be present before a violation occurs, things like knowing their actual immigration status and transporting them “in furtherance of unlawful presence.” Transportation that is only incidentally connected to a person’s presence in the U.S. is generally not enough to violate immigration law.

      Also, I hope the accomplished young woman will apply for private scholarships and financial aid. In 8 or 9 states — Texas is one — she may qualify for in-state tuition rates, as well.

      • rogereolson

        It’s those “in general” qualifications that bother me.

  • We will abuse these laws simply because we are sinners. We tend to abuse evything eventually. It is amazing how history repeats itself, even against our own self delusions.


  • Jerry

    The concern I have, as one of the lawyers who have commented, is not some much the ethics of any law but the “proof texting” done by reporters and advocates in commenting on these laws, not their ethical implications. The frustration I experience when reading comments in blogs and news articles is for the decided lack of care that is given in interpreting the likely out come of a law, there are canons of statutory interpretation that are every bit as necessary as a proper biblical hermeneutic is to interpreting a biblical passage. Failure to do this only reduces the discussion.

    My practice area is highly political and so I may be overly sensitive to this especially since the tendency in political debate is to intentionally misquote a likely out come in order to provide a more egregious story and thereby obtain greater support.

    In this case those commenting on this law without proper research are the “Calvinists.”

    Please get the facts right then make a good argument. Not ignore the facts in order to have a “good” argument.

    • rogereolson

      The facts are yet to be seen. And I think what they turn out to be (the actual implementations of the laws) depend much on cultural factors. In some parts of the country a law would probably never be used to prosecute humanitarians whereas in another part of the country it is likely a law identically worded will be so used. The outcome of the trial may be predictably in the defendants favor given case law, but the lack of explicit exceptions will nevertheless cast a chill on individual humanitarian aid to illegal immigrants. I don’t see how a lawyer knows any more about that than anyone else.

  • (such as giving a ride to work) to illegal immigrants

    When did it become legal for employers to hire illegal aliens?

    • rogereolson

      Nobody has said it is.

      • How is it then appropriate to advocate being an accessory to such lawlessness? Whether one agrees or not with the law against hiring illegal aliens, is it not more appropriate to work within our legislative and judicial process to affect the change you desire? The legislation addressing accessory actions really goes to the heart of the illegality of hiring in the first place.

        • rogereolson

          “Accessory actions?” Like giving a feet-weary woman a ride to her job or giving shelter for the night to a homeless mother and her children who had to flee an abusive husband? That seems like a cold term for such humanitarian actions. Maybe when someone who refused to help a poor migrant worker who happened to be in the U.S. illegally and is confronted by Jesus at the last judgment for not giving him or her a cup of cold water they can defend themselves by saying “That would have been an ‘accessory action’.” I wonder if Jesus will buy it?

          • K Gray

            A.M., you’ve identified an ethical conundrum for Christians who want to help but also to respect laws, giving no cause for offense, and avoiding aid to oppressors; you’ve also stated another way to help by working to change laws we may think are unfair. I’m not a theologian and don’t know off the top of my head whether Jesus disobeyed civil law to help people; He certainly defied tradition and religious authorities. When we come to difficult choices may the Holy Spirit guide us.

          • You are misrepresenting me with this comment. Lets limit the accessory to knowingly providing bus transportation for illegals to get to job sites. The action is intended to defy the law rather than provide compassion as you framed it. Framing your reply with the pitiful rather than addressing the assistance given to the able bodied is really avoiding the gist of the issue, advocating deliberate lawlessness.

          • rogereolson

            No, you’re wrong. All along I have made clear that I am defending the moral right and calling of Christians to offer necessary emergency humanitarian aid to illegal aliens and arguing that it should be explicitly exempted from these laws. So far I have not seen anything in them that does that.

  • Dan Arnold

    Dr Olson,

    While I understand that some people may see Hispanics as scapegoats, I also know some Hispanics who support such laws, so I suspect that the issue is more complex than than just ethnic scapegoating.

  • All I know is that I am an illegal alien in the kingdom of heaven. I swam across the Rio Grande when my pastor William Turner dunked me at South Main Baptist Church in Houston, Texas in 1984. I don’t have a green card but my heart’s been sprinkled by the blood of Jesus so I approach the throne of my Creator with full assurance.

    I’m not just speaking flippantly. I understand the need to regulate the flow of people across our border. But Christians who truly recognize that we have received God’s unmerited mercy have no leg to stand on in morally judging another human for being born south of a river we were born north of and wanting to have the same standard of living that we don’t deserve to have. We blaspheme the mercy we have received every time that we do that.

    P.S. Dr. Olson, you might know Ralph Storm, a former regent at Baylor. He’s my grandpa. Hewlitt Gloer used to be his pastor at FBC Corpus Christi. I was really glad to hear the SBC had one good resolution come out this year related to immigration.