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SPERO: Compassion for the ‘stranger’ can’t outweigh the nation’s best interests

Is there a moral approach to immigration reform?

- - Sunday, November 24, 2013

Some in religious circles are invoking the Biblical verse "Thou shalt not afflict the stranger" as justification for awarding illegal immigrants a full basket of ongoing social services, as well as a "fast track to citizenship," which others think is but a euphemism for amnesty.

In all matters, the Bible teaches discernment, and there is a distinct difference between not afflicting another and requiring that we subsidize an entire life, especially when the burden of that support falls on the shoulders of already overtaxed families, themselves not beneficiaries of such "entitlements." Basic respect and kindness is one thing — it is a sign of our humanity; onerous sacrifice and national bankruptcy is a quite another.

The Bible's primary interest in this matter is a moral one: We all start out as children of God and should thus be treated with civility. In contrast to the biblical community, many ancient societies viewed strangers as fair game to be robbed, incarcerated or as fodder for harsh sport and brutality. This, the Bible points out, was the way of Sodom. Even today there are cultures and nations where "infidels" and strangers are oppressed and treated as subhuman.

The Bible is adamant: "One law shall prevail for all." Basic justice regarding one's property, personhood and right to trial is universal and transcends tribe. However, what serious American citizen would claim "affliction" if not provided complete subsidy? Neither, then, should such a claim be made by political activists on behalf of illegal immigrants.

In ancient Israel, some immigrants entered as workers and opted to remain resident aliens. Others embarked on the long road toward full citizenship, which meant learning the mores and attitudes of the country, culminating in absolute commitment to the nation and its people. In those days, full citizenship meant religious conversion, whereas in modern societies, it is obtained by pledging allegiance to the laws of the land.

Both the resident alien and new citizen were entitled to courteous and dignified treatment and could participate in many aspects of civic life. One's background was not an impediment. However, the full array of benefits was provided only to those who had made a total commitment to the society providing those benefits. New citizens were not "fast-tracked" or hurried and herded into citizenship; each candidate's sincerity was of utmost importance. Requiring that normative and historic standards for citizenship be applied is not a form of affliction.

The Bible is a compassionate document, but also a cautious one, asking that we eschew hyperbole and employ discernment and balance. No value, not even compassion, is set in a vacuum or regarded as so open-ended as to be blind to reality. No gesture can ignore the impact of how what may be good for one is harmful and unfair to thousands of others.

The requirement of charity, for example, was capped at 10 percent, and while field owners were asked to leave the corners of their field to be gleaned by the poor and strangers, they were never asked to plow, seed and harvest additional fields as a "second job" so as to satisfy the needs of an expanding receivership class. Charity, as taxation, should not devolve into servitude or serfdom. Nor were citizens asked to forfeit portions of their fields or deliver the leftover grain to the mailbox of those classified as poor or strangers. Undoubtedly, God has equal compassion for those who work hard and play by the rules. Compassion is a two-way street, something demanded even from the stranger for the citizen-provider. The double emphasis on justice — as in "Justice, justice shall ye pursue" — implies that both parties receive that which is just and fair.

What the Bible, and Jesus, had in mind was maintaining a person's dignity on a subsistence level, not a full array of 2013 cradle-to-grave amenities.

Nor did the Bible request that the decency we extend to strangers result in national suicide. It never encouraged a virtual open-border situation, where the host country is overrun and loses its indigenous culture, its laws, or its ability to flourish as a unique and sovereign entity. Indeed, so paramount was the ideal of protected borders, and what it means to a country's economic and cultural viability, that God said, "And I shall protect your borders so that strangers and enemies will not fill your camp and become a thorn in your side." There are even reports that jihadists are among those who are entering the United States illegally.

None of this should be construed as anti-immigration per se. What separates our current circumstance of immigration from previous ones is precisely the welfare state America has become and massive immigration's hefty burden on taxpayers and basic services. Furthermore, the anti-assimilationist fervor among today's multicultural ideologues raises the question of whether America's historical cultural ethos can survive this huge foreign influx.

Nor is this an issue of race; indeed, many of us admire the industrious qualities of those coming from south of the border.

Over the years, many in the social-justice crowd have boasted that they "comfort the uncomfortable and discomfit the comfortable." How ironic that those who urge us not to afflict the stranger exhibit a knee-jerk instinct to afflict the comfortable, including most middle-class Americans who work hard daily just to remain afloat. It sounds more like vengeance than it does social justice.

During the past 50 years, every social issue has been framed as a referendum or "test" of whether the American people are "good." We don't need to prove our goodness, though. This transformative immigration issue should be decided on common sense and what is good for taxpaying citizens, our cultural future, and what constitutes compassion and justice for middle-class America.

Rabbi Aryeh Spero is author of "Push Back: Reclaiming our Judeo-Christian Spirit" (Evergreen Press, 2012) and president of Caucus for America.