During this election season one of the most divisive topics on the agenda has been illegal immigration. Several Republican candidates struck a chord with a significant portion of the electorate by raising the issue. Their critics, including many voices in churches, have reminded us of the biblical injunction to take care of the alien and sojourner in the land, and have implied that supporters of Republican candidates may well be racists and xenophobes.
I am conflicted about this issue. It poses a genuine moral dilemma for me. I understand that the command to care for the alien and sojourner is at the bedrock of biblical ethics. But I do not automatically assume that those who are genuinely concerned by the scale of illegal immigration are operating out of racial animus. I am worried by the sheer number of illegal immigrants in the United States (now over 11 million) and by the impact of those numbers on the poor and marginalized among us.
I have this concern for a very personal reason. My only brother died before his time, in his early 40s, and his death was, in my view, due in large measure to the social consequences of illegal immigration for the American working class.
This is his story in brief. My brother was a big, athletic, and handsome man. He was very smart but always had trouble in school. He ultimately was diagnosed with dyslexia. He was afflicted with this challenge before learning disabilities were commonly diagnosed and before there were good strategies for treatment.
He found his niche in high school, not thanks to the school but thanks to a master cabinet-maker in the community who took my brother under his wing and taught him to be a superb craftsman. My brother went on to apprentice in the carpenters’ union. By the time he was in his 20s he was earning very good money, much better than his brother, the clergyman. My brother had retirement funds, vacation time, and medical insurance.
That all changed.
At the end of his life he was making less per hour than he did as an apprentice — when he could find work. Typically he was paid under the table and in cash. This had become the norm in the local construction trades. Only the very largest and most visible construction firms used union labor.
Everybody else went to the underpass.
In the small city where we lived, within about an hour of New York City, an underpass went below the superhighway that ran through the city. Starting at about 5 a.m., hundreds of men would assemble, knowing that the local landscapers and builders would soon cruise through in their pickups looking to find enough men for the day’s work.
Mostly these men were from Mexico and Latin America, though there were Haitians and men from Eastern Europe as well. What most of them had in common was a lack of legal status in the country.
Fewer than half would get work in any one day. They were extremely hardworking, and they were in no position to negotiate over wages. The work they did (and do) was mostly unskilled, though some had been well trained in their native countries. While these men were looking for construction work, their wives were often finding work as maids in hotels or as nannies in the homes of leafy suburbs. The sheer number of people involved affected the local economy. Once an employer becomes accustomed to hiring illegal immigrants off the books, it becomes easier to carry other employees off the books. Good jobs up the ladder disappear.
This is what happened to my brother. Contractors hired skilled men only for the most demanding work, then only on a temporary basis, and they paid them off the books without benefits. Toward the end of his life, my brother had no medical insurance, and so he didn’t go to the doctor unless it was desperate. He died of untreated hypertension, which he didn’t know that he had. If he had the kind of salary and benefits in his 40s that he had in his 20s, he might still be alive.
If you are college educated, work in a professional or managerial capacity, and live in suburban America you are not likely to see up close and personal the social consequences of illegal immigration. If you work with your hands, or send your children to urban schools, or wait in line in an emergency room for your health care, you will see them every day.
I have compassion for those who have come to this country seeking a better life. I have had undocumented people in my congregation. I do not want them deported. I know them to be incredibly decent and hardworking people, often very faithful members of our congregations.
But it is easy for those who are unaffected by (or who benefit from) cheap labor to welcome more of it in the form of undocumented workers. It is not so easy to welcome cheap labor when it’s cutting you out of the economy. We have to learn to have solidarity with our working-class fellow citizens, who are most negatively affected by illegal immigration: one lesson to take from the success of Trump and Sanders this election season.
A story is told in 2 Samuel 12, in which the prophet Nathaniel goes to King David and describes a man who wants to give a party for his guest. Instead of taking a lamb from his own numerous flock, he steals the only ewe lamb of his poor neighbor.
The king is outraged. He swears to execute judgment on this greedy oppressor.
“Thou art the man,” says the prophet.
Here is my dilemma. How do I welcome the alien and sojourner without stealing from my working-class brother?
The featured image comes via the AP.