Robert Heimburger’s God and the Illegal Alien is a careful, theologically-informed treatment of American immigration law. He provides detailed overviews of the development of immigration law, including the origins of the concept of a legal “alien,” sketches a theology of politics with the help of “Barth’s biblical theology of the peoples,” examines the biblical evidence regarding borders and immigrants with help from Oliver O’Donovan, Luther, and others, and examines specific cases in discriminating detail.
He concludes that American immigration law developed in a despotic direction, in which “practically no norms of justice constrained the executive powers to deny entry, detain, and deport aliens. Particularly against the claimed power to expel aliens lawfully residing in the country [e.g., Chinese laborers], judges protested that the federal government was turning despotic and lawless, but those who advocated such extensive authority over immigration prevailed (210).
He claims that US restrictions on Mexican immigration is part of a “game,” in which visas were required but illegal entry was permitted, so that contract laborers and undocumented workers could take median jobs: “In effect, Congress and business collaborated to enable continued migration while classing it as illegal, using and exploiting Mexican workers” (210).
From his various theological resources, he concludes that Christian tradition views peoples and nations as “fluid.” Nations both “bless human beings as they fill the earth and judge human beings for their self-worship.” Rather than sealed-off entities, “these far-flung conglomerations of language, land, and history are best understood as opportunities to draw near to one another, a process that is complete in the people of God, in Israel and the church.” The people of God “are sent out across national distinctions so that those of every tribe can share in the fulness of life that comes through Christ’s death and resurrection.” Most fundamentally, then, nations are not “alien” to one another: “A Christian narrative of the healing of nations stands at odds with treating those from other nations like aliens” (210-1).
Peoples and governments are assigned placed, and have the authority to guard those places. But guarding “takes place only under God’s guarding, and it is subject to God’s direction that guards judge fairly and shield those under their care, including migrants.” Christianity affirms immigration authority but sees it “not as a strong expression of sovereignty by which a nations protects its life in the way it chooses, but as a ministry of the sovereign God who uses it to preserve human life” (211).
One of the strengths of Heimburger’s book is the attention he gives to particular cases. He argues plausibly that the immigration restrictions often have to do with harm rather than wrong, and often have to do with heading off the threat of harm rather than dealing with actual harm. The harms are often difficult to calculate or predict: They are harms to a sense of common good or national identity.
A couple of his examples are worth some reflection. In one, a woman attempts to cross from Mexico to Texas using fake documents: “She has traveled to visit her ailing mother in the town where she was born in Sinaloa, Mexico, and she is attempting to return to her partner and her two young U.S. citizen children along with her job as a housekeeper in Kansas, where she has lived for eight years without proper documents.” She has no criminal record. She is convicted for a misdemeanor, imprisoned for 30 days, and then returned to Mexico, where she is ineligible for a visa for a decade (137).
Heimburger acknowledges the arguments in favor of deportation: She may be taking a job from an American, and it’s not clear how well she can integrate into American culture. On the other hand, “the woman’s regular work over eight years creates a bond between the woman and the Kansas residents who employ her.” Further, “to remove her would require that the state and the nation matter more than the woman’s family.” He concludes that “when children are left without a mother, federal intervention on a malum prohibitum matter appears unjustified” (143).
Another case: A man is stopped by police in Birmingham for a broken taillight and they discover he can’t prove his immigration status. He goes to federal ages, and he tells them “his parents brought him to the United States from Guatemala at age two, he grew up in Alabama, and now at age eighteen he has just graduated from high school.” He is not fluent in Spanish He is not charged with a criminal offense, but he is flowed to Guatemala City. He could apply for a visa to return to the US, but that’s unlikely to succeed since “he lacks a U.S. citizen spouse, he has reached the age of majority, and he has no offer of a highly skilled job” (138).
Heimburger argues that it’s difficult to make the case that “removal fits the wrong done” since it “punishes the man for his parents’ illegal act when he is not responsible for that act.” True, letting him stay risks encouraging others to bring their children to the States, but Heimburger argues that “the direct harms done to this man by deporting him outweigh the value of preventing possible future harm to what U.S. citizens share” (144).
Of course, it’s easy to cherry pick cases like this. For every case where deportation seems draconian, we can find a case where illegal immigrants have done actual harm to U.S. citizens; we can find cases where American authorities have failed to protect borders.
But Heimburger’s examples have the effect of cutting through stereotyped understandings of illegal immigrants (e.g., that all are drug dealers or live on welfare), balances sensational and sensationalized wrongs perpetuated by non-citizens, and raises questions about the justice of deportation as a one-size-fits-all penalty.