A Christian Response to Alabama HB56

First, I want to thank my good friend Trent Wilkes for publishing a wonderful, powerful Facebook note on Alabama’s new immigration law. His words inspired me to post a short essay I wrote last week on the same topic. How should Christians respond to AL HB56?

On June 9, 2011, Alabama Governor Robert Bentley signed the Beason-Hammon Alabama Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act into law. This act, referred to as HB56, authorizes the toughest crackdown on illegal immigration in the nation. While parts of the bill have been blocked by judges, the majority of its strict measures have now taken effect in the state. Recently, Alabama senator Scott Beason, the bill’s Senate sponsor, explained that the purpose of the law was to drive illegal immigrants out of the state – to ensure they cannot make a home in Alabama.[1] The House sponsor of the bill said it was designed to “attack every area of an illegal alien’s life.”[2]  Followers of Jesus Christ cannot remain silent in the face of HB56. The Christian response must reveal the truth behind the law’s claims, reshape the conversation about illegal immigrants, and reconcile the body of Christ.

According to AL HB56 supporters, illegal immigrants constitute a serious economic hardship and increase lawlessness. They blame illegal immigrants for a quarter-billion dollars of costs based on a 2010 report by the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) which uses proprietary immigrant population estimates.[3] However, according to the Pew Hispanic Research Center, the illegal immigrant population is one of the hardest to count at the state level. Pew estimates the population anywhere from 75,000 to 160,000 at a 90% confidence level. Another population-based factor to consider is the state and local tax contribution of illegal immigrants. The Immigration Policy estimates this value at $130 million. Additionally, the Perryman Group has reports that illegal immigrant workers produce $2.6 billion in economic activity and $1.1 billion in gross state product.[4] Since both cost and benefit are tied directly to highly variable immigrant population estimates, economic hardship is at best an unstable argument for HB56. The claim of lawlessness is even less founded. According to the Alabama Criminal Justice Information Center’s annual “Crime in Alabama” reports, both the total and violent crime rates have dropped since 1990 – even though the state’s illegal immigrant population experienced significant increases in the same time period.[5] The claim of lawlessness is a lie at best and coded, racist language at worst. Christians must not accept these claims as if they were unequivocally true. As followers of Christ, they must stand for the truth instead of placing their trust in unfounded or overly-simplistic claims that lead to the destruction of thousands of lives.

Christians must also work to reshape the conversation about illegal immigration. The current conversation is being dominated by talk of competition, especially over jobs, and hostility towards the stranger. Instead of competition, Christians must shift the conversation to collaboration. If God does indeed own the cattle upon a thousand hills[6], why would a Christian debate over the scarcity of resources? The story in Exodus 16 of the manna from heaven to feed the grumbling Israelites in the wilderness reveals that there is enough for all when God provides and everyone takes only what they need. With a firm faith in God as Provider, Christians can lead the conversation away from the zero-sum ideas of competition toward a life giving discussion about how all people can work together for the common good. Before the conversation can shift towards collaboration, a more fundamental and radical change must occur: hostility must give way to hospitality. Beneath the talk of competition lies an insidious fear of those who are different – the strangers. This fear promotes an atmosphere of hostility and characterizes the illegal immigrant as a threat. Christians must reject this deadly characterization of strangers at all costs. The stranger takes on a much different identity for the follower of Christ; the stranger is Christ himself. The only Christian response to the stranger is hospitality – not hostility. Through their commitment to hospitality, Christians can build the foundation of the illegal immigrant conversation on the perfect love of God, which casts out all fear.[7]

Finally, Christians must join wholeheartedly in the work of reconciling the body of Christ. As previously stated, the current environment is permeated with fear that is fueling hostility and division, even amongst fellow brothers and sisters in the Body. The Church must take up its call to the ministry of reconciliation that the Apostle Paul lays out in the fifth chapter of his second letter to the church at Corinth.[8] The first step of reconciliation is towards God, but the second step is towards the other. Reconciled relationships among the body of Christ in Alabama must begin with welcoming the stranger in love regardless of immigration status. In Christ there is no illegal immigrant and citizen, for all are one in Christ! The dividing walls of hostility will not stand against the practice of radical welcome amongst followers of Christ.[9] As hostility is overcome, Christians can join together in compassionate care for one another in ways that reveal the love of Christ to the world. The Body must care for its hurting members because the entire body suffers when one of its members is in pain. The church of Christ in Alabama must rise above the environment of fear and show God’s way forward in the illegal immigration debate by their love for one another.

The choice for how followers of Christ will respond to Alabama HB56 is clear: love as God loves or do not love at all. Loving as God loves will require humility, which means that Christians must be willing to give up their desire to be right according to US law. The greatest commandment for Christians is not to be good citizens – it is to love God and love your neighbor as yourself.[10]

[1] “State Sen. Scott Beason responds to DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano on immigration policy | al.com“, accessed November 2, 2011, http://blog.al.com/sweethome/2011/10/update_state_sen_scott_beason.html

[2] “Federal judge refuses to block most of Alabama immigration law | al.com,” accessed November 2, 2011, http://blog.al.com/breaking/2011/09/federal_judge_throws_out_xxxx.html.

[3] Jack Martin and Eric Ruark, “The Fiscal Burden of Illegal Immigration on United States Taxpayers” (Federation for American Immigration Reform, June 2010), 78.

[4] “New Americans in Alabama | Immigration Policy Center,” accessed November 2, 2011, http://www.immigrationpolicy.org/just-facts/new-americans-alabama.

[5] “Alabama Criminal Justice Information Center – Crime Statistics,” accessed November 2, 2011, http://acjic.alabama.gov/crime.cfm.

[6]  Ps  5o:10

[7] 1 Jn 4:18.

[8] 2 Cor 5:19.

[9] Eph 2:14

[10] Mt 22:36-39.