Scapegoating: an old human habit still around in attitudes and actions towards illegal immigrants?

Yet another state, populated largely by people who consider themselves Christians, has apparently criminalized Christian behavior toward illegal immigrants.  At least according to the Associated Press which says in an article published in my local newspaper June 10 that Alabama’s new immigration law makes it “a crime to knowingly give an illegal immigrant a ride.”  That’s the AP saying that, not me.  If you think that’s mistaken, please prove it.

Many Americans have developed very nasty attitudes toward illegal immigrants in recent years.  Supposedly they are hurting the U.S. economy by taking jobs away from American citizens.  Yet, by many accounts (and I have witnessed this first hand) many who despise illegal immigrants and blame them for high unemployment gladly hire them to do their yard work and repair their roofs and fences and pay them in cash.  Many experts continue to argue that most of the jobs done by illegal immigrants are ones very few Americans want to do or will do.

Several states, mostly in the South, have recently passed laws criminalizing humanitarian aid to illegal immigrants.  True, some of these laws (perhaps all of them) contain exceptions for government regulated humanitarian organizations and for emergency responders.  However, where does that leave the average Christian who feels called by God to reach out and help an illegal immigrant in need?  Jesus said that insofar as people offer a cup of cold water to one of the least of these his brethren they have done it to him and insofar as they have refused to do it for the least they have refused it to him (Matthew 24).  Does anyone really think Jesus didn’t mean illegal immigrants by “the least of these my brethren?”  I hope not.

I can see nothing in these attitudes and laws except a contemporary form of scapegoating–one of the oldest forms of sin in humanity.  Theologians and philosophers such as Rene Girard have explored this phenomenon extensively and proved beyond doubt to me, at least, that we humans and especially Christians need to be attentive to its pervasive influence in all human societies.

Human societies seem always to have some group(s) the majority regard as the source and container for evil and they irrationally heap scorn, ridicule and rejection on them because, inexplicably and irrationally, it makes them feel better.  We all know that phenomenon in middle school and many of us experienced it.  It is the phenomenon underlying that of bullying now finally getting so much attention.

But it isn’t limited to adolescents.  Mature, supposedly rational, adults also engage in such behavior.  We all know about how Hitler and the Germans made the Jews scapegoats after WW1 in Germany.  But anti-semitism isn’t limited to that place and time.  Jews have perennially been made scapegoats in societies around the world.  So have African-Americans, American Indians, Muslims and homosexuals. 

We Americans love to point out scapegoating in other countries–especially Christians in Muslim countries and elsewhere where they are in the minority.  We read with justifiable horror about albinos in parts of Africa being singled out for bad treatment and sometimes even murder.  Now we read about certain children in some African countries being identified as witches and ostracized, tormented and sometimes killed for absolutely no reason other than scapegoating.

The mechanism of scapegoating is relatively simple even as it is irrational and therefore finally beyond explanation.  People seem to need someone other than themselves to blame for their problems, so they choose people among them that seem alien, foreign, other, strange, and heap abuse and sometimes ritualistic killing on them.  (There was something horrifyingly ritualistic about lynchings of African Americans by the KKK.)  Such abusive treatment of the strange “others” somehow releases a pressure inside the scapegoaters and makes them feel better for a time.  It does nothing, however, to solve society’s real problems.  It’s a completely false solution to real problems.

Scapegoating seems to be a universal human behavior and is usually linked with tribalism–the irrational identification of a particular affinity group as superior to all others and yet threatened by all others so that it needs aggressive protection from others.  This combination is a combustible compound that helps explain the otherwise inexplicable such as WW1 and many other wars.

Postmodern thinkers such as Girard and Levinas are helping Christians (and others) discover this evil within themselves and their societies.  We Christians could and should have discovered it through Jesus, but sometimes it takes an outsider to point out something we should have known all along.

According to these men and their Christian interpreters, a major task of Christians in our postmodern world is to identify and root out of ourselves the horror of the “other” and dedicate ourselves to the welfare of the “other” (the stranger, the alien, the weird ones among us).  Sometimes it takes something visual and dramatic to bring the lesson home.  When I saw the movie “The Visitor” I was gripped by a new understanding of how we in America are making illegal immigrants our scapegoats and how just knowing an illegal immigrant can change one’s perspective entirely.  I urge you to watch it.

Interestingly, the hero of the story (not a particularly noble one, but one that gradually discovers his inner nobility) would be a criminal in some states because of his humanitarian behavior towards illegal immigrants.  He is a college professor who finds an illegal immigrant couple living in his New York City apartment.  (The movie never explains how a college professor can afford a NYC apartment as a second home!)  He kicks them out, but then realizes they are homeless and invites them to stay with him temporarily.  Eventually he comes to love them and works tirelessly to help them gain legal status.  When the government agents very coldly return the young man to his home country in the middle of the appeals process, without even notifying his family, the college professor has a breakdown.  He knows that this young man will be tortured if not killed in his home country which he fled because his father was a leading dissident.  Because of a technicality he was denied legal immigrant status.  The “Visitor” is the college professor, not the illegal immigrant and his girlfriend.  He visits “the others” and gets to know the beauty of their culture and music and their humanity and eventually resigns his faculty status (or takes a leave of absence) and spends his days playing his deported friend’s drums in a park.

What is especially tragic in the current flood of anti-illegal immigrant behavior and legislation in America is its complete lack of humanity toward illegal immigrants.  States have now taken to fighting against them by making people, Christians and others, who would extend basic human help to them in their need criminals.  I can see nothing in these laws other than sheer scapegoating; these laws are expressions of hatred for the “others” among us and toward those who would dare to help them.

When we discover that it is no longer socially acceptable to scapegoat one group, we turn our scapegoating behavior toward a group it is acceptable to hate, demean, ridicule, marginalize and harm.  It seems necessary for us to have such “others” and to act towards some of them so.  It makes us feel better.  We feel like we are solving problems we don’t know how to solve.  But, of course, scapegoating doesn’t really solve anything.

Now, I am not opposed to laws regulating immigration or even to deporting illegal immigrants.  What I am opposed to is criminalizing humanitarian aid to them while they are among us.  That is simply unchristian.  What would Jesus do?  Without any doubt at all he would give a ride to a tired, hot, foot weary illegal immigrant walking many miles to work in order to feed his family.  Without any doubt at all he would give shelter to an illegal immigrant mother and her children.  Without any doubt at all he would give food to a hungry illegal immigrant family.  Yet, these supposedly “Christian” legislators and governors sign laws that criminalize Jesus’ behavior.

I don’t want to hear that these laws won’t be enforced against Christians or others who help illegal immigrants in these ways.  Unless the laws contain explicit exemptions for such behavior (and to date I have not seen that they do), we can assume that they MAY SOMEDAY be enforced against people who do them.  Whether they are enforced or not, they make felons out of people who simply do what Jesus would do.

I cannot think of any clearer case for Christian civil disobedience.  Jails should be full of Christians in those states!  Or at least legislators should be flooded with phone calls and letters and e-mails angrily demanded that they amend these laws to de-criminalize individual humanitarian aid to illegal immigrants.

Because these things I am saying are so crystal clear theologically to any thinking Christian, I can only attribute the passing of these laws by people who call themselves Christians to scapegoating.  What possible harm can be done to society by giving a ride to an illegal immigrant?  And even if such could be shown to do some little harm to society, the good it does to Jesus (remember what Jesus said) overrides that IF we consider ourselves in any sense a Christian culture and society (as do the states that have so far passed these laws).

Now, flame away as ye will.  But all I want to know is DO YOU KNOW OF EXEMPTIONS IN THESE LAWS that would not criminalize individual acts of humanitarian aid to illegal immigrants?  The Associated Press apparently does not.  I have not seen explicit such exemptions in the versions of the laws I have read on line.  AND HOW DO YOU WHO SUPPORT SUCH LAWS justify their de facto criminalization of behavior Jesus commanded of his followers?

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  • steve rogers

    Roger, I applaud your courage and righteousness for speaking so forthrightly on this issue. My wife and I have been volunteer teachers of an English as a Second Language class at local Methodist church. We have found the immigrants, some documented and some not, to be loveable in every repect. They are humble, hard working and longing for a better life than they could ever hope to have in their own countries of origin. They risk humiliation, deportation, persecution, separation from family, the hardship of functioning in an English speaking culture and much more because they are desperate. Truly they are “the least of these” and need every kindness we can afford them.

  • Jerry


    I chose to read the law as signed than as described there is a section dealing with the transportation of illegal aliens.

    It reads specifically: Section 13. (a) It shall be unlawful for a person to do any of the following:
    (3) Transport, or attempt to transport, or conspire to transport in this state an alien in furtherance of the unlawful presence of the alien in the United States, knowingly, or in reckless disregard of the fact, that the alien has come to, entered, or remained in the United States in violation of federal law. Conspiracy to be so transported shall be a violation of this subdivision.

    I chose to omit subsections (1) and (2) as they do not directly address transportation.
    This section is aimed at “coyotes” I am sure some might try to construe it in the manner you have described but frankly I doubt it.

    • rogereolson

      Well, we have to judge a law by how it MIGHT be applied. We can’t read the minds of those who wrote it. IF they intended it never to be used to prosecute humanitarians, they woefully failed to guarantee that. And it should be guaranteed. History is full of examples of the “law of unintended consequences.” Imagine a sheriff who hates illegal immigrants and cares nothing about humanitarian acts toward them (I have met people like this) and decides to arrest and have prosecuted a Christian who gave a ride to an illegal immigrant. It isn’t unimaginable. On what grounds would the prosecutor decline to prosecute? The intentions of the law’s authors? Who knows what that is? I stand by my claim that this law, insofar as it contains no better exceptions than you have quoted, is either stupid or evil and ought to be repealed or amended.

      • Paul DeBaufer

        Thank you!

        I am reminded of the letters between Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in which Jefferson was not happy with the constitution as written and encouraged a Bill of Rights because to not enumerate the rights is to open the door to tyrannical abrogation of the assumed rights by some. So I agree that absent an explicit exemption for humanitarian aid these laws will be used against such at some point and in so9me place. It is not a might happen, but a will happen.

      • Daniel W

        I agree with you here, Roger. The law as stated above makes it illegal to transport an illegal immigrant “in furtherance of the unlawful presence of the alien in the United States.” This statement is quite broad. What do they mean by it? Giving an immigrant a ride anywhere could be interpreted as aiding the immigrant’s stay in the US. In order to stay in the US, the immigrant needs to get to work and make money. Therefore, giving an immigrant a ride to work violates the law, as does driving an immigrant to the hospital in the case of a medical emergency.

      • Jerry

        Roger, this law is loaded with legal terms of art, with specific meanings; a prosecutor would be hard pressed to find an kind of intent to conspire in the actions you describe. The problems that arise when reading a single enactment and attempting to apply it are many. This law is not enacted in isolation and each of term of art, such as the intent language, is further defined in both court cases and state statues. The clear meaning of the statute is a willful attempt to avoid state and federal immigration laws not to prosecute good Samaritans.

        Ironically this type of legislation began to crop up in many states because the community supporting illegal immigrants rightfully pointed out that the law failed to punish those in the business community who ignored immigration laws and who willfully hired illegal aliens or chose not to confirm employability thereby showing “reckless disregard” for the employees current legal status in order reduce the amount they paid to their employees.

        As a lawyer, I am confident that I could successfully defend any person who was arrested for acting in the manner you describe.

        In choosing to read the law they way you are with out verifying the true legal interpretation, you are acting in the same reckless disregard for meaning that you accuse Calvinist of treating Arminianism.

        I believe you could fine far better and more obvious examples of scapegoating to complain about than this particular law.

        By the way I am very easygoing about immigration, I live in CA and have always fond most illegal’s here are truly tiring to gain a better life denied to them in their own country, many years ago we had program that worked well along the Mexican boarder for guest workers called the “bracero program” instituted during WWII that should have been extended and should be renewed.

        • rogereolson

          I simply disagree. Nobody can know the intent of a law; that’s always a matter of interpretation. Perhaps for now no law enforcement agency or prosecutor or judge would use it to prosecute humanitarians, but without specific exceptions written into the law the chances are it could be used that way in the future. And, as one living in a social environment where it is not unusual to hear overt hatred toward illegal immigrants (and sometimes Hispanics in general) expressed I can certainly imagine it being misused that way.

  • Paul DeBaufer

    I think that all politicians are practical atheists. They may be theoretical Christians, but in their role as elected official they will have to do things that are counter to their faith, therefore are practical atheists. However, voting for or against these antihumanitarian laws is one place that they could be practical Christians within their public office.

    Now the people of these political jurisdictions who claim to be Christian have no excuse for exercising practical atheism. The practical atheists within these communities pay lip service to Christ, yet their hearts are far from Him (they may think and feel close but their actions belie the real state of their hearts). You are right Christians should be shouting out against such laws. To not oppose these laws in practice, e.g., write letters, make phone calls, etc., is to practically support these laws. I am reminded of Maurice Ogden’s poem “The Hangman”.

    • Daniel W


      Unfortunately, I think the situation is even more twisted than how you have explained it. American Christianity is becoming tied more and more closely with certain conservative political beliefs. Some Christians genuinely believe the US Constitution is a divinely inspired document. In this sort of religious/political climate, Christian politicians and their constituents can easily convince themselves that any conservative political stance is a Christian stance. Therefore, this sort of legislation is considered Christian.

      • rogereolson

        Yes. And I now conservative Christians who call President Obama the “Antichrist” so that they can hate him with impunity.

      • Paul DeBaufer


        You are, of course, right. I’ve heard “Christians” say that they do not know how anyone who is not Republican can be a Christian. There is a definite idolatry going on. And worse their political view becomes their hermeneutic through which they interpret the Bible. It is not God that they worship but some political fiction and economic theory which then they decide that that’s what the Bible is talking about.

  • gary foster

    As someone who works in construction, I can tell you that you do not understand the harm they caused in that business. They set wages back 20 years and have caused us citizens to become unemployed. Maybe you should stick to your knitting…

    • Daniel W


      You certainly did not deserve to suffer like that. You were harmed due to no fault of your own. However, why is it the fault of the immigrants? And do the immigrants deserve to be forced into a lifestyle even worse than the worst condition you have ever suffered? For one, it is the employers that willingly exploit illegal immigrants’ desperation. They will let the immigrants work under horrible conditions in order to make more money. Also, the immigrants are people just fighting to provide for their families, as you yourself probably are. They did not risk the dangerous journey across the border out of greed. They and their children were living in deplorable conditions, and they came to the US where they could be exploited and live under slightly less deplorable conditions. To sum up, of course you do not deserve to be harmed, but neither do these immigrants. As a follower of Christ, you should not make the judgement that they are more deserving of harm than you are. Also, you should not blame the exploited for their condition in life.

      • Gary Foster

        Your clueless. I’m a citizen, they are not. They are here illegally. I am here legally. They are breaking the law. I am not. They are taking my job. Scapegoat my ***

        • rogereolson

          I have not advocated removing all penalties for illegal immigration. What I have advocated is including in laws against illegal immigration and aiding illegal immigrants exceptions for humanitarian aid to individuals in need. You’re objections are way out of proportion to the discussion and what is being argued for here.

    • phil_style

      “us citizens”… hilarious, most of whom come from economic migrants anyways, just before they made laws about its legitimacy.

      • Gary Foster

        I hope you pro illegal alien advocates lose your jobs to them and soon. See how you like it.

    • Brian

      I don’t want to sound insensitive to your economic problems, but I find it ironic how people who one moment are staunch supporters of a free-market economy start to complain once they have to actually compete in a truly free market.

      • Gary Foster

        Free market does not mean anarchy. Your out of touch with your definitions

        • John

          Gary, as I read your comments, I’m struck by your rudeness. Disappointing. I don’t fully agree with Roger, but your insults empty your arguments of validity.

  • Dn4sty

    Paul’s churches dealt with Jew/Gentile racial issues.

    Our church deals with Hispanic/White racial issues. I think that much could be learned from what Paul says in Ephesians and Galatians. Sadly many Christians see themselves first as a citizen of the United States and an American and then if we are lucky a citizen of another Kingdom. (hopefully this doesn’t come off as an arrogant post, but I see it all the time).

  • Jason Lee

    gary foster, that’s an enormous claim that wages were set back 20 years … you’d have to use real data and do the math to actually demonstrate that. Or you could point us to a peer-reviewed study by economists or sociologists. Care to point us to one?

    Let’s say your “20 years” claim has some validity to it … why then place all of the blame on immigrants trying to make a living doing hard work? Shouldn’t a good bit of blame be placed on greedy construction companies trying to pad their pocket by evading taxes paying people sub-par wages? And of course the real blame could be placed on the American politicians their supporters who militarized the border with Mexico. What this did was turn a seasonal migratory population of workers interacting with the economy of a few states into a permanent population of workers interacting with the economy of 50 states. It became too dangerous to go back and forth, so migrants stayed put and became more integrated with the economy in more places. And they brought more family members because it was too dangerous to go visit back and forth. See:

    Also, it seems strange to pick on immigrants as the reason wages have flattened. Isn’t it painfully obvious that the cruel tactics of companies like Walmart have shown the world how you can make a killing by neglecting workers’ welfare and sidestepping local manufacturers and services in favor of cheap sweatshop crap? It’s strange to me that the people who blame immigrants for lower wages conveniently ignore the fat cats who’ve been lower wages and the quality of work in this country for decades. I suppose it somehow doesn’t fit with the political ideology they’ve absorbed from rush or something. And we haven’t even turned to how agri-business has destroyed decent agricultural jobs…

    • Paul DeBaufer

      Thank you

  • Tim Reisdorf


    Leaders of our country are charged with keeping the integrity of the borders. While I can compare this law with, say, no enforcement of borders, I prefer this law. Do you have a solution that might be workable and in keeping with the values that you have laid out?

    • rogereolson

      Sure. Laws (enforced) against illegal presence in the U.S. that do not criminalize humanitarian aid to illegal immigrants. Simple.

  • Jordan

    Above, in the comments, it was stated that the law was aimed at Coyotes. Be that as it may, it does appear to be open to being applied as you say Roger. Which makes it, I think, potentially, a clear case of difference. The gap between the law and justice seems very noticeable.

    I think that in the realm of postmodern philosophy; especially of Levinas, Derrida, Girard, etc. there is much for us (I mean “the church” or “Christianity” and such) to learn. And we would do well to learn fast (especially when laws like this are becoming real).

    • K Gray

      I found a video for churches/humanitarians explaining the terms “transportation” “harboring” etc. in federal immigration law statutes. Link:

      ISAAC is Immigration Services and Aid Center, a Texas ministry collaboration of Baptist General Convention of Texas and Buckner International. They say:

      “ISAAC will help your organization ‘separate the wheat from the chaff’ on a broad range of immigration issues and topics.” The video is 50 minutes but you can jump to the segment you want.

      • rogereolson

        How can anyone “explain” what the words in a law “mean” to everyone when they are open to various interpretations? What they mean in one county in Texas may not be what they mean in another county in Texas. Much will depend on the district attorneys and judges–unless the Attorney General has already issued an official interpretation that is binding on all local law enforcement officials. I’ll certainly watch this video and see how it handles this. But, of course, as much as I respect my own denomination and Buckner, I’m curious to see how they know how these will and will not be interpreted by law enforcement throughout the state.

        • K Gray

          Because as Jerry explained they are terms of art which have been litigated and defined by the courts, which sets precedent. Precendent is binding, although not set in stone; a state law may contain a new phrase, for example. Lawyers inform clients about the meanings so businesses, churches, nonprofits, etc. can comply with the law. Sometimes it’s free, as in the case of this video. I have spoken with Richard Munoz today. I am learning a great deal.

          • rogereolson

            It seems to me that if the explanations you and another lawyer here are offering, these laws (and perhaps many others) are esoteric in terms of interpretation. That is, the ordinary, law-abiding citizen without a law degree cannot read them and know what they mean. I stand by my claim that these laws, regardless of how they have been interpreted or are interpreted by legal experts, will cast a chill on humanitarian aid to illegal immigrants. People would rather err on the side of caution that count on legal precedents rescuing them should they be arrested.

  • Dustin Kunz

    Dr. Olson,

    While I completely agree that any such law, or even any such discouragement toward extending Samaritan-like aid to the “soujourner or the resident alien in your midst,” is completely contrary to not only the New Testament Christ, but also the Old Testament God, I fail to see the connection between immigrants and scapegoating.

    What I mean is this: scapegoating is wrong (and ironically it comes from the Torah), but it is an afterthought. The more basic sins here (pride, avarice, undue rage) are manifested in racism, nationalism, and the greedy need to hang on to all that we feel we are entitled to. Only a -minority- of those who complain about immigrants are even versed well enough in the rhetoric to bring up the economy. They are more likely to bring up local crime, though without reference to a correlation to poverty.

    Could you expound upon your connection between scapegoating and the laws in question, and specifically why you believe it to be more than just an after-the-fact justification of simple racism?

    -Dustin Kunz

    • rogereolson

      My experience is that many people in the states in question do not specifically hate people of Hispanic descent. Some of them actually are Hispanic. The animosity driving these laws seems to be aimed at a specific group of people–not all Hispanic people in general. Thus my suspicion of scapegoating.

  • Stephen Fox


    I hope you will take a look at the links and discussion at SBC Trends of
    I have been following the Alabama bill closely and may attend a Forum on tuesday in Birmingham.
    Having lived in the most ethnically diverse town in the state–have lunch with Baylor’s Rebecca Kennedy of the music department, a native–for the last 20 years I know well and have bussed to church many children who will live in suspense and fear of this new law.
    The Dream Act is the Way to go. Folks who have been here ten years or more and have become good citizens should be more in line for amnesty than letter of the law deportation; given the curious nature of their “invitation” to America the last two decades.
    I think influential Baptist businessman Truett Cathy of Chic Fil A was sponsoring something similar to the Dream act as recently as Four years ago.
    Cathy was named for George Truett and I was baptized in Truett’s birtplace church in Hayesville, North Carolina.
    I appreciate your sentiments. Further than strong devotional on scapegoating I hope you will go further, maybe into a Bonhoefferian realpolitik advocacy on this matter; maybe being part of a Texas Progressive Baptist policy making statement that rewards Hispanics who have proved themselves to be grand American citizens regardless of the technicality of their arrival.
    See my quote of Abraham Lincoln in SBC Trends at That is where things are in Bama now, A Know Nothing period analogous to 1850’s Lincoln found himself in.

  • Charles Garvey

    I read the blog about Calvinism’s misreading of Arminianism and am appalled at the constant misreprestation of Calvinism by Arminians. I was a longstanding member of a Arminian Baptist Church (a deacon on a number of times, and a Calvinist by conviction for about 5 years) when I started to have to answer to the standard charges of characteristic beliefs of Reformed Theology. The average believer is so uninformed about what I see as true Biblical Theology…like a five point Calvinist is not the same as a “hyper-Calvinist”. That was only one false misrepresentation I had to address. Others such as an obsession where the ” 5 points” is the only thing that is preached in their churches (like an obsession in Baptist churches with Eschatology).
    I also read Dr. Olsen praising Open Theism…a damnable heresy. My son lost his faith when he allowed that philosophy to destroy his faith.

    • rogereolson

      Really. Where did you real me “praising open theism?” Cite the source, please, or else don’t say it. I am not aware of having “praised” open theism (without qualifications). Be specific. As for Arminians misrepresenting Calvinism–again, cite your source (other than anecdotes of your personal experience in a church). Which Arminian scholars have done this and where and how?