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On Immigration, Law, and the Pursuit of Justice

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President Obama's announcement this week that his administration will suspend deportation hearings against thousands of undocumented immigrants marked a significant milestone in the country's ongoing immigration debate. After weeks of having all the oxygen in the national discourse sucked up by the struggling economy, a narrowly averted default crisis and credit downgrade, the President's actions redirect our attention to an issue that continues to impact millions of lives in this country. And as he does so, he reminds us of one very simple fact, immigration is a complex issue. Take as an example the story of Nazry Mustakim.

Naz (as he is known to his loved ones) legally moved to the U.S. from Singapore in 1992 when he was 13. In his 20's, Naz, like millions in this country, became addicted to drugs and was arrested as a result. He pled guilty to a drug charge and was sentenced to rehabilitation and 10 years probation. It was during his rehab that Naz came to know Jesus and converted to Christianity. In the more than five years that he has been clean, Naz has become a Narcotics Anonymous sponsor, graduated from college, completed his probation early, and has begun working at the faith-based non-profit where he did his rehab -- and where he met Hope, with whom he just celebrated his one year wedding anniversary. During this time, Naz was also reissued a green card.

Naz's friends and family speak movingly about the power of his Christian witness and story of redemption. After marrying, Naz and Hope bought a house in one of the most impoverished areas in Waco, Texas. The couple says they feel called to invest their lives in their community and to work alongside the vulnerable and marginalized there. Then, in March of this year, Naz was picked up by I.C.E. (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and informed that because of his drug plea the government is initiating deportation proceedings against him. Since then he has been held at a detention center in southern Texas, over 250 miles from his wife.

Nazry's story is not the typical one you hear when immigration is discussed, that of dangerous border crossing and life without documentation. But like many stories of immigration and deportation, it exists in shades of grey and eschews simplistic morality. Naz came to the U.S. legally. He made mistakes and broke the law. His attorney failed to advise him that pleading guilty would automatically void his permanent resident status (courts are now required to inform defendants of how their plea impacts their residency). He faithfully fulfilled all court mandates and became an integral part of his community. For four years the U.S. government not only did not deport Naz, but re-issued him a green card. Naz's conversion to Christianity has resulted in him being ostracized by his Muslim family and community in Singapore. If he is forced to return, Singapore, which is especially harsh on drug charges, could choose to retry him with the possibility of particularly draconian sentencing.

It can be tempting to reduce Nazry's story to simple black and white terms; he broke the law and therefore he should be deported. Likewise, it's tempting to view all immigration stories through a similar lens. But such unequivocal legalism isn't American, and it isn't Christian.

Let me be clear, the United States has every right to set laws for who can enter the country and the conditions under which they can stay here. Progressives do ourselves a disservice when we do not explicitly acknowledge this fact (though most of us believe it to be true). As the Apostle Paul writes, "The state does not bear the sword in vain" (Rom. 13:4). But in our zeal to uphold the law, we must never confuse it with being identical to justice instead of a tool for achieving justice. Paul is clear on that as well.

America's jurisprudence is revolutionary in the world because it favors the individual over the state. We are innocent until proven guilty; we are protected from unlawful search and seizure and must be advised of our rights. To use religious language, the legal ideals of this country favor grace over judgment. Why then, when it comes to immigration, are we so quick to establish laws that pass unilateral judgment against whole groups of people? Shouldn't we rather determine who we welcome by the standard of who we want to be as a country? Isn't the U.S. strengthened by having people who are invested in their communities and families, those who are dedicated to service and improving society?

This is where the Christian narrative can be especially instructive because it has a framework for holding the tension between law and grace, guilt and forgiveness. The story of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:3-11) is perhaps the best illustration of this. Progressives are fond of this story for Jesus' pronouncement, "Let anyone among you who is without sin cast the first stone" (v.7). But the story doesn't end there. After the condemning crowd disperses, Jesus turns to the woman and says, "Go, and sin no more" (v.11). Much is held in those two pronouncements. There is such a thing as individual responsibility. But time and again in the Gospels-without contradicting the law-Jesus reminds us of the perils of twisting the ideal of justice until it becomes an idol of condemnation rather than a means of redemption.

The obvious counter-argument to this piece is that while individual Christians may be called to show grace and forgiveness, the American judicial system shouldn't and isn't equipped to tackle immigration on a case by case basis. But, if Christian conservatives are correct (as I believe they are) in saying that they cannot separate their personal faith from their political views, then Christians should be advocating for immigration laws that align with our understanding of biblical justice that fosters reconciliation and shalom (as the Southern Baptist Convention recently has done). Secondly, having common legal standards for how immigration cases are handled doesn't have to preclude measures that can take in to account an individual's specific circumstances. Judges can and should be given greater discretion in the factors they are allowed to consider in deportation hearings. This was the case up until 1996, when legislation was enacted (in contradiction to international human rights standards) that severely limited a judge's ability to consider the circumstances of an individual's case and determine whether deportation is warranted or would be detrimental to the community. If the goal of our immigration laws is justice and not wholesale judgment on a class of people, then giving the judicial system the flexibility to balance the law and grace, justice and mercy, just makes sense.

I'll say it again, immigration is a complex issue. Because of their faith, Nazry and Hope believe that God is working even in the midst of their difficult situation and will be glorified whatever the outcome. You can learn more about their story here. But theirs is far from the only story in our country's ongoing immigration struggles. And unless we grapple with the hard questions of upholding the law while welcoming people who make vital contributions to our communities and nation, it is not only individual lives that will be impacted, but the country as a whole that will suffer.