As the U.S. Congress decides whether to protect Dreamers—immigrants who were brought to the United States as undocumented children—policymakers are once again embroiled in a debate about the relative merits of different categories of immigrants.
In September, the Trump administration announced the end of a program that protected Dreamers from deportation. Various bills have been introduced in Congress to restore these protections, including the Dream Act which would provide an eventual path to citizenship.
The White House and some in Congress would like to pair the Dream Act (or similar legislation) with additional border walls, thousands of additional immigration enforcement officers and other anti-immigrant policies. Immigrant advocates are calling for a “clean Dream Act” without such measures attached, unwilling to trade the protection of Dreamers for policies that would put Dreamers’ parents and many other immigrants at greater risk for detention and deportation.
During the Obama administration, Dreamers were often lifted up as model immigrants—young people who were brought to the United States “through no fault of their own.” Such assertions, however unwittingly, demonized the parents who brought them to the U.S. hoping to give them a better life, as well as other immigrants who have come into the country due to a variety of circumstances.
In a similar vein, Obama’s “felons not families” policy promised to focus on immigrants who were a threat to public safety rather than on families with children. But, in reality, his administration deported thousands of moms and dads with old and nonviolent criminal convictions.
This tendency to celebrate “good” immigrants and reject “bad” immigrants is tempting for politicians seeking compromise and middle ground—and sometimes for advocates as well. But in doing so we miss valuable opportunities to challenge false narratives about immigrants.
Instead of promoting polices to go after “dangerous” immigrants and let “safe” ones stay, the Obama administration could have worked to dispel the notion that immigrants are a threat to public safety, touting numerous statistics that prove immigrants commit fewer crimes than U.S.-born individuals. Instead of opening new family detention centers and labeling parents as reckless for sending a child to the U.S., they could have talked honestly about gang and domestic violence in Central America and explained the real threats families and children were facing at home.
These lessons are important today as the Trump administration builds on the existing narrative, further criminalizing immigrants, labeling teenagers from Central America as dangerous gang members and prosecuting parents for having their children “trafficked” to the U.S.
Jesus was not afraid to confront the false narratives of his time, challenging conventional notions of who is the enemy and who is the neighbor, of who should be lifted up and who should be made low. His admonitions to care for the poor, the prisoners, and the strangers (Matthew 25:31-46) serve as enduring reminders to challenge government policies that reject those who migrate, those who have been convicted of crimes, and those who struggle to have enough.
How we treat the people whom society considers the “least of these” reflects how we value Jesus himself.
We can all be part of challenging false narratives, by encouraging our policymakers and our communities to see immigrants—all types of immigrants—as blessings not burdens, as people who have much to offer, and as sisters and brothers in God’s kingdom.