Sunday, August 14, 2011

"And who is my neighbor?"

In difficult economic times, immigrants often provide convenient scapegoats. Today's New York Times carries a European example of the phenomenon in an article about the rise of anti-Muslim politicians in the traditionally tolerant Netherlands. But blaming immigrants is also an American tradition. The Know-Nothing movement in the 1850s grew out of a fear that the large number of German and Irish Catholic immigrants were changing the nature of the country for the worse. During the Great Depression, at least tens of thousands of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans were forced out of the United States. In the last five years, several states have passed mean-spirited anti-immigrant laws, but one of the the worst is in Alabama, which
  • makes it a crime for undocumented immigrants to work,
  • requires all businesses to determine the immigration status of their employees,
  • bars undocumented immigrants from attending public colleges or receiving public benefits,
  • forces all public schools to demand proof of their students' legal residency,
  • gives police the power to demand that people pulled over for traffic violations prove their immigration status, and allows them to arrest or detain anyone they believe is here illegally
  • makes contracts with undocumented people void,
  • and, makes it a crime to transport, harbor, or rent property to the undocumented.

According to many Alabama religious leaders, the last part denies them their First Amendment right to practice their religion, because, as Christians, they have a moral obligation to help the poor. Three bishops -- one Episcopal, one Methodist, one Roman Catholic -- are suing Alabama over the issue.

It's an interesting twist. Usually it is conservatives complaining about their religious rights being abridged, often based on the idea that their religion obligates them to discriminate against gays or women.

But while I agree with the bishops' attitude toward the Alabama immigration law, I don't like the idea of carving out a religious exception. Religious leaders -- in fact, all religious and ethical people -- have a moral obligation to speak out against what they see as an unjust law. I think they also have a duty to practice civil disobedience in refusing to obey the law.

But the law does not become one iota less unjust if everyone except religious leaders has to live with it. The issue is injustice, not religious scruples.


Domenico Maceri said...

BTW, the governor of Alabama, Robert Bentley who signed the law, is a deacon. Some religious leaders see the new law as depriving people of their civil rights. I has been suggested that heir position on the law is an opportunity to seek "redemption" for not having participated in the struggle for civil rights alongside of Martin Luther King.

Linda said...

Yes, IIRC the NYT article mentioned that the religious leaders were basically trying not to be the people MLK condemned in "Letter From A Birmingham Jail" -- white "moderates" who sympathize with civil rights, but always want to go slow, and not offend or disturb anybody. It is a civil rights issue, of course, but somehow I don't think Dr. King would have approved of addressing it as a religious rights question. I would love to see some good old-fashioned MLK-style civil disobedience here, though. BREAK the law, and use the publicity to attack the law itself, not your personal immunity to it.