Today the question of Dreamers is on everyone’s minds, after Donald Trump canceled an executive order of the previous administration. I think this illustrates one of the major problems in our nations ongoing discussion of social justice, which is a misunderstanding of justice, itself. As I have noted in the past, the question of social justice isn’t whether we are for or against it, nearly everyone ultimately is in favor of social justice, however, there are vastly different views and ways to define it. Because this is such a hot potato politically I ask that all quotations of this article be verbatim, with the entire article in copy; I also would suggest if you do not read this argument to the end, you will not understand the point I am making, and will therefore misunderstand the point I am making. I consider both the Democratic and the Republican takes on this issue to be exercises in extremism and I don’t want to be quoted as wholly favoring either a blanket amnesty nor articulating a position that goes wholly in the other direction, and while I will note a few generalities, I am not making an argument for a complete answer to the question of those who are in the United States Illegally.
Now of course, many will immediately object to discussing this in terms of illegal immigration or illegal immigrants, they will tell me I should use the word “undocumented,” but if we are discussing justice, we must begin by dispensing with politically inspired euphemisms. If someone is present in this country and they either do not have a visa, or have overstayed a visa, then their presence in this country constitutes an ongoing criminal action. This means, whatever else we might say, dreamers and others cannot claim they have a civil right to remain in the United States. This is true by definition, a civil right is a right granted by government, such as, for example, the right to vote. The very fact that someone does not have a valid visa means they do not have a civil right to live, work or study within the borders of the United States, since the country has not granted them that right; they are at heart trespassers. One might, depending on their predilection note that there are civil rights, and then there are natural rights, and yet, I have not found a persuasive case that immigration can be treated as a natural right, since there seems to be a natural right to both self-defense and to the proceeds of one’s own labor, unfettered immigration would then be in fact to diminish the natural rights of American citizens and to behave unjustly. When it comes to dreamers many will claim this is harsh, but that is the entire point I am making. Justice is harsh to malefactors; after all, dreamers did not come to the US of their own accord, and yet, if they are over the age of majority, they have chosen to remain and are therefore, in terms of justice, culpable. Some will argue that they grew up in the American culture, and therefore it is too hard to return to the nation in which they were born, but the question isn’t whether we feel for their plight, at least if we are considering justice, the question is solely one of whether they have a right to be present in the United States. As to no fault in originally coming here, well, the pain and suffering they face is the fault of their parents, not the US government; crime often has innocent victims; this does not negate the rule of law.
Some will try to argue from a jaundiced view of history that the US in particular has no right to control it’s border, or must somehow allow excessive immigration in terms of reparations, but this is both questionable issues of fact (based largely on a cherry-picked version of history with a few very distorted facts; unfortunately, both sides of the political aisle regularly traffic in historical distortions), and quite frankly not germane. While the history of the Mexican War and the purchases of Southwestern land are complicated, they also don’t actually solve the issue. That is, whatever might be the case of the US possession of say, Arizona, the Mexican government stole the land previously from Spain, who stole it from certain native tribes, who stole it from other native tribes, who likely themselves obtained it by shedding blood. If we begin pushing for reparations, then the problem is every piece of property in the world has been taken from someone previously, whether legitimately or illegitimately, and we will never be able to untie the knot. In the United States, as is true in many countries, there is a greater fundamental problem, much of the American Indian population intermarried with the European population, and as a result, many of the so-called WASPs are actually the descendants of both oppressor and oppressed in earlier eras; similarly, those Mexican settlers in places such as New Mexico, Arizona, Texas and other places have long since assimilated and intermarried within the conquering population. Not only can we never untie the knot of stolen land, many persons that would be paying the costs of a conquest would justly be receiving an equal share of the reparations as those claiming to be victims, as well. More to the point, the question of justice and individuals is not built on the past, but on their own conduct. Whatever happened one hundred and fifty years ago, illegally entering another country is still a crime, and therefore the individual is culpable from the standpoint of justice.
A few will appeal to Christians on the basis of Old Testament passages appealing to the way we treat the stranger and alien, but it is no good in a question of justice, since the assumption seems to be that these persons were in the land with the legal permission of the nation. The ancient world had immigration laws as well, and in fact, deportation of the modern American state is kind in comparison.
The nature of justice
Justice, in short demands deportation, and yet the above is not necessarily the end of the story, but before moving on, the central issue is how do we define justice. The above illustrates the problem of the modern understanding of justice, because justice is, before all else, the punisher of the malefactor and the criminal, even if those crimes are those that our humanity shrinks from punishing. As the Old Testament reminds us, no one hates the thief that steals his daily bread, but he will still repay four-fold (the penalty for theft under the Old Testament law). Justice cannot be partial to the circumstances of the parties involved, doing so is fundamentally unjust. Therefore, one cannot use justice as a means to absolve criminals of guilt. We cannot take in discussions of justice someone’s circumstances into account, it is the individuals actions and their culpability that is the fundamental issue. Moderns are so eager to speak of their rights, they try to use justice to eliminate their own guilt. And yet, just because a police officer might have bigger crimes to deal with than writing a speeing ticket to me, it does not follow that I can claim the ticket is an injustice.
The Desire for Mercy
And yet, if the above seems harsh, it is not the final answer, unless our appeal is to justice and social justice alone; it should not be. Social justice demands deportation; but the law, of course, allows for unjust outcomes. For example, the president is given, in the Constitution, the authority to pardon or commute the sentences of criminals, to show mercy ather than justice. Immigration is a big issue, and another blanket amnesty seems unwise. And yet, we live in a country that has refused for decades to enforce its immigration rules. One might suggest, then, if we have ignored the justice of law, and let people settle into lives for decades, mercy should be substituted for justice, at least in some cases and to some degree. I am not in a position to discuss a fully developed immigration policy, but for dreamers who have assimilated to American society, learned English, are employed and not living off of the American social safety net, it is reasonable (and I believe Christian) to consider issuing visas and allowing them to pursue American citizenship; at least for those asking for mercy rather than making arrogant demands (since mercy is often predicated on confession and repentance). Further discussion of course is needed (for example recompense for using a stolen social security number, whether there are necessary “works meet for repentance,” or fines required), but these are questions that frankly should be taken up by congress, not an apologist or theologian. Yet, in a nutshell this makes my point, sometimes it’s not justice we want, but mercy and forgiveness for crimes committed in the past.
After all, as a Christian, I myself acknowledge that I am a fugitive from justice, the righteous justice of God, in fact, demands my punishment. I cannot use my circumstances to justify myself, I have still engaged in the violation of God’s law. I should be less concerned about the sins of others not because they are not heinous, but because if God is just, I will answer for my sins, and not theirs. Nor can I proclaim innocence, no him an who has any introspective sense of himself or herself can do so. And yet, I turned to Christ, because He offers me mercy, instead. This in fact is the very essence of the faith, God provided Himself a sacrifice to give mercy to the unjust.