January 19, 2007

Christ On The Border

By Roberto Lovato

Depending on which side of the stained glass of Christian politics you look at it from, the creation this week of the evangelical-based Families First in Immigration coalition brings either clarity or further fuzziness to the already complex politics of immigration reform.

Its leaders, like arch-conservative strategist Paul M. Weyrich of Coalitions for America and Gary Bauer of American Values, joined with Latino leaders like Manuel Miranda, the aide to former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. Together they are in a pitched battle against mostly white mainstream evangelicals —the majority of whom are opposed to any form of legalization for the 12 million undocumented workers according to polls and statements of leaders. The evangelical right seems to be splintering on immigration, like the very divided Republican party.

For progressives, the evangelical rift that appears to be reflected in the creation of the FFI provides an object lesson in immigration politics that is urgently needed at a time when too many who call themselves “progressive” adopt anti-immigrant positions and attitudes. Progressives should study the ongoing feud among evangelicals around immigration if only to avoid similar divisions in their own movement.

Last year, immigrant rights organizations created the largest mobilizations in U.S. history despite a profound lack of support—and even some hostility—from progressives. Similarly, FFI grew out of the frustration of Latino evangelical leaders like Miranda who started marching, lobbying and building coalitions on their own after several years of trying to persuade mainstream evan-gelicals and Republican Party operatives of the need for immigration policies other than the punitive, national security-infused and racially-coded cant that currently passes for an immigration debate. And their efforts have born fruit as some right-wing godfathers like White House deputy chief of staff Karl Rove, Weyrich and Bauer have embraced the opportunity and power of the immigrant moment as it grows more intrepid and influential in a fast-browning U.S.

The creation of FFI mirrors the class, race and, now, legal-status divisions between suburban, white, stone-and-glass churches and the poorer, browner storefront churches rapidly blossoming in the less-developed parts of cities everywhere. It would appear that Miranda and some evangel-icals are working against the “law-and-order” interpretation of the Gospel among mainstream evangelical leaders that would have us believe that rather than feed, bathe and generally “welcome the stranger” in the desert of undocumented status, Jesus would instead put on his flak jacket, grab a gun and join the Minutemen and the National Guard in fighting the “immigrant invaders.”

Yet, a deeper look at what FFI calls “immigration reform” reveals that they are more pro-Bush and pro-Republican than pro-immigrant. In their letter to Bush, FFI leaders gave the basic outline of what they call reform: border enforcement, a hazy legalization proposal for undocumented relatives of citizens and, most importantly, fundamentally altering the 14th Amendment to deny citizenship to the U.S.-born children of the undocumented. How shredding the Constitution and denying U.S.-born children basic medical care as you cast them into statelessness means putting “Families First” baffles the spirit as much as the mind.

Rather than fall for and follow the simplistic “law-and-order” approach of those authors Chris Hedges calls “Christian fascists,” progressives must better educate themselves about the complexities of immigration politics and come up with realistic positions on this issue that defines our global times. Progressives need to start thinking more deeply about foreign aid policies, de-militarizing immigration policy and some form of legalization for the 12 million undocumented workers living and working in this country.

Leading the way alongside immigrants themselves are those Christian progressives whose beliefs and interpretation of the Bible lead them to practice the long-held tradition of providing sanctuary to the poorest among us, those who Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount says will be the first. These religious progressives recognize both the ethical imperative and political potential that immigrants represent; they also recognize how immigration politics like those of the FFI often mask moves that continue the penchant for changing and reinterpreting the foundational texts of this country, a penchant that affects us all.

Failure to follow the lead of progressive Christians and others will result in a progressive movement that falls victim to the class and racial traps propped up against global change like the porous walls of the border. Just as the right is divided in multiple ways along the axis of immigration policy, so is the progressive community divided along class, race and immigration status. If we can imagine beyond the walls and stained glass of the confused and confusing immigration policies of the increasingly extreme right, the upcoming immigration debate offers an opportunity for building a grand alliance that extends and strengthens the still largely white tent of 21st century progressivism.

Roberto Lovato is a New York-based writer with New America Media .

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