By Frank Wessling
Fear is a terrible master. It can paralyze us so that inaction leads to ruin. Or, in different circumstances, we might suspend any thought of consequences and simply react with violence.
Our problems with immigration across the southern U.S. border demonstrate both behaviors.
First, lawmakers in Congress fear political death from such a variety of voter reactions that nothing is done. The 10 million or so who crossed that border and stayed without the permission of U.S. law continue a furtive existence outside the law but with the cooperation of businesses that welcome their usually cheap labor.
Then, lawmakers in a border state like Arizona react in frustration as they feel overwhelmed on the frontier of the problem. Like most such reactions, what was done in Arizona late last month is rational only in a context of blind fear.
Police in that state are required to question anyone they suspect may be in this country illegally. It is expected that virtually all of those who arouse suspicion will have Latino rather than Anglo-Saxon features.
And Arizona citizens can sue law enforcement officials if they suspect that the anti-illegal immigration law is not being carried out. The vigilante spirit remains alive and well among us.
While it is possible to understand the fear and frustration in Arizona even as we regret the police-state reaction there, why do nearly two-thirds of all Americans say they like the idea of such a law? In the truly desperate time of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln still saw a future based on “the better angels of our nature.” Has the combination of recent economic uncertainty along with wildly irresponsible rhetoric on talk shows and in some political circuits made us forget those “better angels?”
To the millions of poor people in Mexico and Central America, the United States is a beacon of opportunity for a better life. This will not change soon. To manage that reality we need some combination of better border traffic enforcement, seasonal or temporary immigrant labor law, and a system of orderly assimilation for undocumented workers who have put down roots in this country.
Those three elements of immigration law reform are well known in Congress. The challenge lies in doing something about them together and while accepting that whatever is done will not satisfy everyone and will not be a permanent “solution.” As long as we are the free and open society that we wish to be, there will be challenges to our openness. If fear does not blind us, we can continue to find reasonable ways to balance the integrity of our community with an embrace of new people knocking on our doors.
And among American Christians, we should remind ourselves that “Fear not” is a greeting Jesus often uses with his friends. In that presence we will do the right thing. It won’t be enmity toward the stranger.