Human Dignity and Immigration Reform

Human Dignity and Immigration Reform August 21, 2012

Just days ago, on August 15th, immigration policy in the United States experienced a significant change.  For undocumented immigrants under 30 who came to the United States as children, the Department of Homeland Security will now accept applications for two year stays in the country.  It is expected that about 1 million people will apply this year by the deadline six months away, although in a report released August 14th by the Pew Hispanic Center, it is estimated that up to 1.7 million people may qualify.  While such a plan does not create a pathway to citizenship, it does eliminate some of the fear associated with deportation—at least for two years.

This policy change has not been enacted without opposition. As many recall, the DREAM Act, which proposes a path to citizenship for many of the same people targeted by the current policy, has repeatedly failed to be passed by the Congress. Governor Jan Brewer of Arizona, who is infamous for her stances on immigration, signed an executive order the same day that prevents undocumented immigrants (including those granted “deferred stays” through the policy) from receiving public benefits; a move that effects a potential of 80,000 immigrants in Arizona who would be eligible for stays in the United States.

USCIS, 2012

While I recognize that many readers of the blog will have both strong—and different—views on the current immigration change, I think it also worth acknowledging that this is an issue where evangelicals of various political (and theological) stripes have come together to try and move past bipartisan conflict.  In the Evangelical Statement of Principles for Immigration Reform, released in June 2012, leaders such as Jim Wallis (Sojourners), Jim Daly (Focus on the Family), Richard Land (Southern Baptists) and David Beckman (Bread for the World) came together.

Our national immigration laws have created a moral, economic, and political crisis in America…. As evangelical leaders, we call for a bipartisan solution on immigration that: respects the God-given dignity of every person….

This letter, issued days before Obama announced the potential for undocumented immigrants to receive immunity from deportation, also calls for supporting secure borders, protecting the unity of the family, respecting the rule of law, and establishing paths for legal status and citizenship.

Regardless of how one responds to this recent effort at reform, or more comprehensive strategies being proposed, what does it mean for people of faith to respect and affirm the God-given dignity of every person?  As someone who studies discourse in the public realm, I would argue part of the answer entails examining our language (and assumptions) about others.  While this clearly is not the only way—or even the most central way—to affirm the dignity of one another, it is a start.

What language do we use to talk about immigrants?  “Undocumented immigrants” clearly conjures a different image than “illegal aliens.” There need to be an increased recognition that those who are here unofficially rarely see that as a good option. I often hear comments that people should just come legally; that would solve the immigration problem.  There is a lack of recognition of the real obstacles that immigrants face in coming to the United States.  Respecting the dignity of people requires acknowledging their stories and their realities.  For example, for those coming from Mexico and Central America unofficially, they often face the steadily increasing risk of dying in the desert and being separated from their families.  What are we doing to better understand those stories, and respect the dignity and lives of all in America?

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  • PG

    First off I am a Mexican/Irish American. With that said here is my option. I agree with Jan Brewer. We should not have to that nice to take care of people that came here in the wrong manner. They broke OUR LAWS. We should send all illegals back to where they belong. It’s NOT HERE. I use to not feel this way, but I had to go to court for a traffic light violation. As I am sitting there for three hours I hear about 50 cases of illegals driving without a license, no insurance and DUI/DWI. What did our great court system do, took their money and let them GO! My thoughts the whole entire time was why are they here? Why don’t we deport them? I think our immigrations laws or to slack. It should be black and white. If you are here illegally we send you back…

    • Amy Reynolds

      Thanks for your thoughts. I see our system as more flawed than you do, and think our laws need to change. While I understand the frustration in your story, the reality is that most immigrants that are here without documents are not guilty of DUIs. You pose a question in your response: Why are they (undocumented immigrants) here? What I’m arguing in my post is that we need to actually understand why they are here, and the discourse of many towards undocumented immigrants shows a lack of understanding of the real reasons many are here.

    • mohammed

      wow PG if you’re gonna make a complaint about illegals and boast about your actual legality, try and correct your writing. and don’t blame the kids for what their parents did. understand that this is for the kids not the adults who knowingly came here on their own genius.

      • mohammed

        i used to be in that same situation and i have a multi-million dollar company that i own in florida at 24 what have you done to contribute? i know how it feels to be in that situation and i agree with jan brewer about being harsh toward the adults but not the kids.

  • Chris


    It’s hard to talk just about illegal immigrants without talking about legal immigrants too — and justice has to be served.

    What about those who have done the work of jumping through sometimes many hoops to ensure they are validly in status? (I’m certainly not in favor of abolishing concepts of citizenship — there is still some notions of patriotism, nationalism, and allegiance to one’s country, as well as opposition to treason, terrorism, etc.) If you grant a “break” to illegal aliens, you have to also be in some manner be fair to legal immigrants too.

    • Amy Reynolds

      Thanks for your thoughts. The reality is that many undocumented immigrants want to jump through those “many hoops.” The costs of applying for citizenship legally (although increasing) are still much less than the costs paid to smugglers, and the risk of death many undergo to enter the United States. I definitely agree with you that we should recognize the work that legal immigrants have done to be in the United States. Many of us who were born in the United States would not pass the citizenship tests, for example, that many immigrants do. Ideally, we would give those who enter the US unofficially the opportunity (before they came) to enter the country legally. Unfortunately, that’s not the case with our current system.

      • Mila


        You are absolutely right. My sister is ob/gyn in my native country.I and My husband are trying to sponsor her over 7 years.But it alwayse says no visa number.So I completely understand people who desperate for job, illegally cross the border for better life.Even though it doesn’t mean that I think they are right.Simply we need immigration law that makes legal immigration processing faster and illegal immigration hard to survive..About people who are already here:what you gonna do? They are ( specially kids) already Americans,doesn’t matter you like it or no.They are our neighbors,friends of your children and coworkers.It is better to legalize them.At least they will start to pay taxes.Since they are legal,they will start to demand better pay,so they are not going to be target of greedy owners.In that case I don’t think that americans will loose this competition for job.

  • Amy,

    This is a very nice post. I have studied immigration to the US for the last 10 years. The realities behind why we have so many undocumented immigrants are very complex–a mixture of poorly designed laws, uncooperative businesses and unions, and, of course, push factors from poor countries.

    But I wholeheartedly agree with you that no matter one’s stance on immigration (in favor of more immigrants or in favor of fewer) we do better if we use human, personal language to talk about immigrants. We should acknowledge that most immigrants, as you say, don’t want to be undocumented, and that by and large, they are law-abiding, God-fearing, hard-working people. Immigrants who don’t fit that profile can be dealt with through our regular laws, we don’t need to target immigrants.

    I also agree with your point that one thing that religious Americans should do is try to contribute to a civil public discourse about this issue, even if we disagree about the policy solutions.


    • Amy Reynolds

      Margarita –
      Thanks for your input. I thought about your work when writing the post, but failed to mention the strong voice on immigration that the Catholic Church has had over the past (and continues to have). Your article from 2006 did a great job highlighting some different Catholic institutional responses to immigration, and I’ve found in helpful in studying discourse and religious responses to the issue. By the way, I fully agree with you regarding the complexity of why so many immigrants are here, and hope I didn’t imply in my central post (or responses) that it’s simply because of bad laws.

      • Thanks Amy. The Catholic Church has done a lot to work with immigrants since the 1800s. In fact, I think there is much congruence on this issue among religious actors–helping the person is paramount, and moving towards legal, fair migration policies is extremely important. I heard Richard Land speak on immigration at a forum at Princeton a few years ago; he is very smart and eloquent. I’m glad to hear more people talking about this issue that is so widely misunderstood and often mis-represented. Thanks for sharing your knowledge!