“Christians who do not recognize Jesus in the illegal do not know Jesus.”

Edgardo  Colón-Emeric 

There’s a scene in the film Food, Inc. that reveals the hypocrisy at the heart of U.S. immigration policy: In Tar Heel, North Carolina, Hispanic workers at a Smithfield Foods packing plant are rounded up by ICE agents (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) in a pre-dawn raid. A politician running for office would narrate such a scene by saying that these men and women, while perhaps hard workers, are in the U.S. illegally and if the rule of law is going to mean anything in this country, they must be picked up and sent to a detention center where the legal process can run its course.

But the film tells the true story: After NAFTA caused cheap American corn to flood Mexican markets, putting even prosperous Mexican corn farmers out of business, many fled to the U.S. desperate for work to support their families. Many others were actively recruited by corporations like Smithfield to work dangerous jobs in American factories. Government raids, like the one depicted in the movie, are carried out in collusion with the senior management of companies like Smithfield to “send a message” (to Americans, to the undocumented) while never really interfering with the company’s production line or, more importantly, its bottom line.

The dominant narrative–the one about illegality, rule of law, etc., etc.–is persuasive because it provokes and exploits the one emotion that has driven American politics since 9/11: fear. We’re told by critics and commentators that Americans have never been so angry, that our public discourse has never been this strident and dangerously uncivil–all the red-faced name-calling, the ugly race-baiting, the shrill, snarky meanness. 

But much of the anger–at least the real anger, not the feigned rage of opportunistic politicians–is symptomatic of Americans’ deep-seated xenophobia. This fear has been carefully cultivated since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It was crucial in rallying the country to support two insupportable wars. As a political strategy it was brilliant; it worked so well that now many Americans fear their own duly-elected President. They hate him, too, of course and they’re mad as hell at him, but all that hate and rage starts with an irrational anger that continues to be stoked shamelessly by that most misnamed of all political groups in a purportedly civil society: the Tea Party.

The anti-immigration bill signed into law last week in Arizona is an unsurprising outcome of this ongoing collective fear of outsiders. When I heard the news on Friday, I was reminded of a book published last year, Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion, and Truth in the Immigration Debate. Authors Matthew Soerens and Jenny Hwang deftly link legislation, work visas, border patrols, ICE raids, and green cards to the Hebrew Scriptures’ insistence that “Israel’s very identity was tied to how they treated the foreign born” and to the truth that the New Testament’s “most notable refugee was Jesus himself.”

In a review of the book I noted that Soerens and Hwang challenge any reader who claims to follow Jesus to consider immigration through Scripture’s insistence that we see ourselves as a people in exile: sojourners in a foreign land who live not by claiming “our rights” over and against so-called outsiders, but solely by the mercy and grace of a generous, hospitable God.

We are exiles who follow an alien, undocumented, migrant Messiah. As Edgardo Colón-Emeric notes (in the sermon linked above), “Jesus did not have a valid birth certificate.  Mother’s name: Mary; Father’s name: unknown.  In fact, Jesus had no papers in his name, no title deed, no rental contract.  Nothing.  ‘Foxes have dens, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.'”

A phrase formerly associated with interrogators of the Third Reich–“let me see your papers”–will now enter the lexicon of law enforcement in Arizona. Jesus–in the guise of the brown-skinned “other”–will be asked for documentation he doesn’t have. And unless his followers practice the kind of perfect love that casts out all phobos (1 John 4:18), fear, on both sides of these encounters, will continue to win the day.