Three Ways Distance Threatens U.S. Immigration Reform (And It’s Not What You Might Think)

Three Ways Distance Threatens U.S. Immigration Reform (And It’s Not What You Might Think) June 23, 2018

Photo Credit: Dimitris Vetsikas

In case you did not get the memo, you can no longer assume that we, the people, share common values in the United States of America.

If you,  like me, thought there was a general consensus that actions like child abuse or neglect were heartless and wrong,

well, we were wrong.

The recent stir over children separated from their parents attempting to migrate at the U.S. border has revealed much proof that the line for cruelty has been erased. Something about a human life coming from Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, or Nicaragua changes things for some of us.

It seems like the decent thing to do is to keep migrant children with their parents while detained for illegal immigration. Also, it seems like we do not agree on what is even decent anymore. Admittedly, the solution of imprisoning children with their parents sounds like something worth revisiting, too. Our United States of America is in desperate need of immigration reform, and I want us to have a heart in our approach.

At risk of sounding like a vegan stirring up emotions to convince you to make a lifestyle change,  I question whether all of us can agree that kicking puppies is wrong. Would some of us make exceptions to Chihuahuas? Really, where do we draw the line on  discrimination? My hotmessness even has lines.

After observing religious people defend separating children from their parents as patriotic due diligence, I am convinced that the lines are nonexistent for an alarming number of us.

A Not-So-New Immigration Crisis

Contrary to the wonders of media spin, the immigration challenges we are experiencing did not start with the Trump administration, but they dropped to levels of unimaginable depths of cra-cra (crazy) at an alarming rate of going from zero to sixty miles per hour in 2 seconds flat with their use of family separations.

The concept of family detention caught flack during the Obama administration, especially from fellow Democrats, as he tried to figure out what to do with the influx of unaccompanied minors and adult illegal immigrants. The big business of the illegal immigration problem has been a foot note buried within pages of emotional text. During the Obama Administration, for example the government awarded Corrections Corporation of America a $290 million contract to run a new family detention facility.  With these insights in mind, I appreciate that the dynamic bureaurocratic and legal challenges to immigration reform deserve careful attention.

Distance: Getting In The Way of Reform

This growing conundrum of  who, how, and when to detain suggests that keeping children with their parents is the tip of a larger immigration iceberg in need of addressing. In this post, I focus on our contribution to the immigration reform. Some of us stay locked by ignorance, fear, bitterness, and outright bigotry when it comes to immigration issues because we use what I consider to be distancing.  That is, we employ different reasons to remain detached from weight of personal involvement and responsibility.

Distancing allows us to be willfully ignorant, self-righteous, and callous not only in matters of immigration, but also in a rainbow coalition of life and sociopolitical affairs. Most, if not all of us, are guilty of using distancing in some way in our world. The following  are three of the ways distancing prevents resolving the nation’s immigration woes.

  1. Personal Distancing

Because different people within the United States have little to no substantial relationships cross-racial relationships,  the personal distance can foster a lack empathy for People of Color who are illegal immigrants. When we distance ourselves, then we do not have relationship or other ways from drawing on experiences to change our perspectives.

When we distance ourselves from people in our social imagination and in our lives, it makes it easier to justify practices we would not want used against our friends and family. If we saw people from Central America as our very own blood, we would think twice about calling them “aliens” or passionately agreeing that separating children from parents is a lawful “determent.”

We call pest control to deal with filthy creatures plaguing our homes. We do not try to make friends with pests. Evidently, for far too long, by being disconnected from humanity, we have turned fellow humans into rodents, cockroaches, termites determined  to destroy the structure of our home-our nation. In this case, the brown bodies seeking refuge.

Without relationship and by framing groups of people as nuisances and garbage to be thrown out, we can justify our callous perspectives. If we sought the way of mercy and compassion  and closed the gap in personally connecting to People of Color, our hearts would be invited to turn from stone to flesh.

  1. Historical Distancing

Our distance from history, often in the forms of time and ignorance, prevents us from seeing the use of  greed, racism, and xenophobic fears as long-standing mechanisms driving immigration laws.

There are plenty of examples to examine that are often sanitized, minimized, or ignored in the dominant re-telling of U.S. history.

For example, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was born out of concern of low wage Chinese immigrant workers taking work away from White folks and other racist beliefs about Chinese and other Asian groups.

It required Chinese immigrants to carry certificates of residence, placed ten year restrictions and prohibitions on Chinese immigration. It was expanded in 1892 by Democratic Congressman, Thomas J. Geary who extended current laws prohibiting and regulating the coming into the United States Chinese and Chinese descendent people for another ten years. All Chinese immigrants, including those already residing in the United States, had to apply for a certificate of residence. These applications required a White witness.

You read correctly.  A Chinese or Chinese descendant person had to find a White person to lend credibility to their worthiness to work and reside in the United States.

A year later, Fong Yue Ting and Wong Quan  were arrested for refusing to apply for these certificates (can’t blame ‘em either) both having lived in the United States for well over a decade. Lee Joe had his application denied because of his use of Chinese witnesses. These events culminated in the supreme court case of Fong Yue Ting v. United States, where the court upheld the Geary Act. To top it off, almost ten years later, the Geary Act was extended indefinitely. Whelp, Girls and Boys, that’s how our three branches of government work together to preserve Whiteness as being the most important aspect of the USA.

The restrictions from the Geary Act were not removed until 1943 when Democrat representative Warren G. Magnuson proposed lifting the ban and putting into place an immigration quota system. The Magnuson Act was in place until the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act. This legislation did not emerge from national regret. Primarily it arose in response to the mounting pressures of Japanese propaganda using these laws in attempts to weaken the China-U.S. ally relationship.

Politics and power, Folks.

By the way, throughout this time, because of the prevailing scientific views that northern Europeans were biologically superior, the Immigration Act of 1924, served to restrict immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe. Over time, they were included into the White racial category, leaving only People of Color subject to racist policies.

Furthermore, just like today, immigration issues did not mean Black folks were walking on easy street.  In 1896, the Supreme Court upheld constitutional racial segregation in Plessy v. Ferguson. Blacks, and other People of Color, were considered separate, but equal.

Let us not forget about Jim Crow laws and lynchings of mostly Black people coinciding with the racist immigration policies during these years.

According to the NAACP, from 1882-1968, 4,743 lynchings occurred in the United States, where 72.7% of the people lynched were Black. Many of the 27.3% whites lynched were for helping Blacks, being anti lynching and domestic crimes.

Preserving  White interests in America proved dangerous for anyone who was perceived as a threat to the way of life. Innocently existing as a Person of Color was enough to be considered a threat.

This snapshot of history helps demonstrate why the current immigration issue can be considered as the continuance of a deep- seated racist (and classist) pattern within the nation. Just like we cannot undo our familial blood coursing through our veins, we cannot ignore the lasting impact of centuries and decades of laws and policies, carefully engineered to serve the interests of White people with limited progress for People of Color.

Our country has a tumor of fear-an irrational fear-that requires what seems to be spiritual surgery to remove it after amassing generations of prideful bandages in willful ignorance of history.  The fear of Brown and Black immigrants with poor cultural values tainting our nation and stealing American (read: White) jobs remains to this day, especially when nooses emerge, from time to time,  to remind Black people who the “real” Americans are.

When we historically distance ourselves from disturbing legacy of immigration laws, we can feel more confident in making arguments for unquestioningly and blindly upholding contemporary immigration laws. Considering history,  however, I argue that before avidly targeting and criminalizing specific groups over immigration and pointing to the rule of law to justify it, it would be wiser for our country to assess the justness of our current immigration policies.

  1. Moral Distancing

Being a constitutional republic creates a sense of passivity and moral distancing among the populace in affecting societal change.  A paternal government makes it easy for us to delegate the heavy moral lifting. We do not have to do the direct work ourselves because it is the job of the government. We vote as a way of absolving ourselves from too much involvement. We pay Congress to do something about the issues. By depending on a paternal government to take care of us and our problems, we stifle our use of thinking and imagination to directly resolve issues. Through moral distancing, we can argue about what we support without it requiring much of us besides a deduction from our paycheck and/or an invisible fund that miraculously pays for our ethical high grounds.

I think it is problematic when a person is automatically written off as evil, cold, and even racist for raising a critique to reforming immigration. Granted, as we have seen throughout history, there are multitudes who fit these roles. However, to give thoughtful consideration about the impact of immigration policies and spending does not equate to being dark lords against People of Color. The paternalistic government turns us into that college student who gets his first credit card without understanding how it works.  He charges, charges, and charges, without thinking about whether or not he can afford the purchases she makes.

Similarly, as a citizenry, numerous people romanticize funding grand sweeping ideas, while ignoring the almost boundless debt our nation amasses at an alarming rate.  We seem to ignore it. It is as if our national credit card has no limits, and we have no foreseeable consequences for irresponsible choices.

Without the weight of personally funding our idealized solutions, we can easily do things like focus primarily on funding welfare to immigrants who reside illegally, while disregarding the hungry homeless, veterans, and citizens who remain in poverty in this nation. From a Christ-centered perspective, I am pro-helping the stranger in a strange land, and  I am inviting us to draw closer to realize the moral distance still present in our morality.

If the government was uninvolved in immigration reform, and the responsibility fell directly on the each of us, I think more of us would be think more critically about the direction of the country.

Besides the minority who already take in families and children for free, most of us are not taking in five families into our home and personally committing to pay for the health care, education costs, etc. of everyone for the rest of their lives. The thought of letting our families go hungry in order to support another would be out of the question for most of us. On the other hand, through moral distancing we do not realize how some of us suggest the same train of logic in fiscally dealing with a plethora of national challenges.

Furthermore, the issue about parental responsibility of illegal immigrants is not a trivial matter. If we can use morality to demonize people who favor of closed borders, then we can certainly apply the same moral lens to parents who give their unaccompanied daughters birth control shots, because of the routine raping of girls who are smuggled into the country.  Are those who knowingly put their children in physical and psychological risk with smugglers responsible?  Are illegal immigrants responsible for child endangerment, or does the paternal U.S. government subsume responsibility?  These are pressing questions that demand both heart-centered and rational processes. I do not think empathy and compassion discard of critical thinking and wisdom. The role of government and the rights and responsibilities of individuals are matters worthy of defining with grave intention. By approaching U.S. immigration from a moral distance filled by government paternalism, we more than likely oversimplify a multilayered issue with widespread ramifications. Instead of vilifying proponents of tighter border control or the decisions of parents who send their children with smugglers, we can draw closer with more openness and willingness to hear. Wrestling with these questions without judgment helps to better situate responsibilities and pushes us creatively to work through resolving complex problems.


Life is political. Our choices are political, not in a political party sense, but political in that no matter what we choose, there are power-laden impact on the world around us.  Our silence or speaking is still a political choice without any official attachment to an organization. Our responses to government and societal politics give insights about ourselves.

And the U.S. immigration issue is a way to understand the politics of our soul.

While some people shy away from politics, I think it is an area to lean into because we can get an accurate reading of the thermostats of our hearts.

Distancing keeps us entrenched in unresolved pains and fears. These fears and pains can drive our lives at the expense of who we truly are.

Our very being is much bigger and expansive than the ways we allow the influences from world to shape us, including our perspectives on immigration.

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