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The Parable of the Illegal Immigrant

The Parable of the Illegal Immigrant

When someone asked Jesus what the most important commandments were, He told him to love God with all his heart, soul and mind, and to love his neighbor as himself.

But who exactly are our neighbors? After all, it’s easy enough for us to love our co-workers, our classmates, our friends from church and our two next-door neighbors. But when you start thinking about it, Jesus’ second most important commandment could be pretty tough to follow if He cast a wider net.

That’s why a lawyer in the book of Luke—a guy who knew his stuff well enough to look for loopholes—asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

Here’s what Jesus says: 

There’s a man walking from Selma to Birmingham when he’s attacked by robbers. They take his wallet and his shoes, beat him within an inch of his life, and run away. 

A woman happens to be driving down the same road when she sees the man. But she’s late for a meeting, so she drives right on by. 

Soon another guy is driving down the same road. But he’s not comfortable in this part of town, so he keeps going. 

Then an undocumented Mexican—driving in state where, on vaguely defined grounds of suspicion, he could be arrested, locked up for profit and deported without a hearing—sees this man lying bloody on the ground. He takes pity on him. He pulls over. And he helps the man.

Of course, Jesus says “Samaritan” instead of “Mexican,” but the Samaritans lived across the border from Jesus and were despised in Galilee. Most upright citizens avoided contact with them. And that’s exactly what Alabama and too many other states would like you to do with “illegal immigrants”—our modern-day Samaritans.

“It’s not good enough to love only the people who are with us; it’s not good enough to love only the people who think like us or look like us.”

Over the last year, several states have passed immigration enforcement laws that can only be described as draconian. Alabama’s is already one of the worst, though much of it is still tied up in litigation. Here are a few examples of what it does:

  • Intimidates students into dropping out by requiring schools to check the immigration status of both the students and their parents. Furthermore, the law requires those schools to determine whether the students are enrolled in English as a Second Language programs, thus belying the law’s claim not to discriminate on the basis of race, ethnicity or national origin.
  • Requires police who’ve legally stopped someone for any reason (speeding, switching lanes without signaling, driving with a broken tail light, etc.) to check the person’s immigration status upon “reasonable suspicion” that the person is unlawfully in the country. Again, the law gives lip service to not discriminating on the basis of race, ethnicity, or national origin, but you have to wonder what else could seriously arouse such suspicion.
  • Gives no protection to the victims and witnesses of crimes (and their children) from deportation if they’re outed in the process of the investigation or legal proceedings, just as long as the state keeps them around long enough to help conclude the proceedings. In other words, the state will let victims and witnesses stay around long enough to testify. Beyond that, it won’t try in any way to prevent their deportation.
  • Makes it a crime to give a ride or rent a room to undocumented immigrants. You can’t even give them shelter for fear of “concealing” or “harboring” an “illegal.”

In short, if you pass an undocumented immigrant lying bloody on the ground, Alabama would like to you drive right on by and then report the “illegal” person to the authorities.

Already, the Alabama law has caused perhaps thousands of families to keep their children out of school and others to flee under cover of darkness. Farms have gone unplanted and unharvested. Entire towns have been depopulated. 

While some Christians might honestly believe these enforcement laws are OK because they’re targeting “illegals,” Jesus addressed that, too. He said it’s not good enough for us to love our friends—that’s easy.  Even “sinners” do that. It’s not good enough to love only the people who are with us; it’s not good enough to love only the people who think like us or look like us; it’s not good enough only to love the people who are citizens. Jesus calls us to go beyond easy love. We have to love people even when it’s hard or uncomfortable or taboo. Or illegal.

We are not doing to immigrants what we’d have them do to us.  I don’t see any U.S. citizens volunteering themselves for the same kinds of punitive laws we’re applying to undocumented immigrants, and in criminalizing them simply for conducting the ordinary business of daily life, what these harsh enforcement laws do is quite simply ugly and un-Christian.

But there is still hope that we might live out of our love rather than our fears, and Jesus said something about that, too. “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” Jesus asked the lawyer (emphasis mine)

“The one who had mercy,” the lawyer told him, meaning the “illegal,” the Samaritan.

“Go and do likewise,” Jesus said.

Eric Burnette is a lawyer and deputy director of Witness for Peace Southeast, a politically independent, faith-based non-profit that advocates for peace, justice, and sustainable economies in the Americas.

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