On Immigration and Holiness

What might it mean to be holy? One interesting definition is found in the thirteenth century commentary by the Spanish Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, often referred to as Nachmanides. In commenting on the verse from Leviticus 19: “You shall be holy, for I, God your God am holy,” Nachmanides says that this is a demand not to be a “scoundrel within the domain of the Torah.” That is, one should not abuse sacred law by justifying immoral acts which are technically legal. (One of his examples is that one should not be a glutton even if one eats only kosher foods.)

This commentary came to mind while listening to a debate on immigration recently. The advocate for a hard line on undocumented immigrants repeated over and over that “these people” had broken the law and therefore, despite their having been in the country for many years, and despite their having been productive members of society—holding jobs, raising a family, participating in their communities—they should not be allowed to acquire a driver’s license, they should not be allowed to get health insurance, they should not be allowed to work. Their lives should be made sufficiently intolerable that they leave the country. Eleven million people.

This seems to me to be the exact secular definition of a scoundrel within the domain of the Torah. Yes, undocumented workers broke the law in crossing the border into the country (as, for example, my grandfather did), and then, necessarily, broke the many laws which were created to reinforce that one law. At the same time, the fact that there are eleven million undocumented immigrants in this country points to the fact that they are doing productive work which we all depend upon. In fact, in many cases employers depend on their immigration status in order to exploit the workers and pay them less than minimum wage so that American citizens can buy cheaper products.

This scenario should force us to reflect on what it means to be a citizen and what it means to be a decent society. The latter term, a “decent society” is the Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit’s term for a society that does not structurally discriminate against a sector of its members. In other words, a society in which some people are racist is not necessarily not a decent society unless that racism is institutionalized and codified in the society’s laws. In the United States, discrimination against undocumented immigrants in employment, health care and many other areas is written into law. This discrimination is so ingrained that there are those who argue that it is not discrimination but merely upholding the law. This is classically being a scoundrel within the domain of the law.

This also should cause us to reflect on what it means to be a citizen. The legal definition of citizenship is obvious. However, Princeton political philosopher Jeffrey Stout has suggested that the formal legal definition of citizenship is too narrow for the lived reality of many people’s lives. He suggests that “citizens are individuals who treat one another as bearers of the relevant kind of responsibility. To be a citizen, in this sense, is to be recognized by others as such, or more strongly, to be worthy of being recognized.” (10)

The eleven million undocumented immigrants are, on the whole, integrated into the United States to the extent that many economists predict dire economic consequences if the new draconian immigration laws continue to be enforced. The State of California and the City of Los Angeles have apologized—sixty years after the fact—for the last time that a wholesale deportation was undertaken. That attempt was exposed as blatantly racist as an estimated sixty percent of those deported were American citizens of Mexican heritage. This is the abyss that we are looking into. The draconian immigration laws are not solving a problem, they are creating new problems—for law enforcement, for children of immigrants who grew up here, and for the undocumented immigrants themselves, most of whom work and contribute to the country.

Perhaps, above all, we are contributing to an image of ourselves which is not pretty. Institutionalizing discrimination against one group of citizens (in Jeffrey Stout’s usage) allows discrimination against other groups. Our bonds as citizens should be built on decency, justice and, yes, the possibility of holiness.

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