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'Illegal Aliens' in Our Midst: What Would Jesus Do?

With unauthorized immigration a central issue in the presidential campaign and the leading candidates defining themselves as strong adherents to some form of Christianity, the Christmas season is an appropriate time to ask as one person did during the November 28 Republican CNN/YouTube debate in St. Petersburg, Florida, "What would Jesus do?"

On the heels of that question, which happened to be about capital punishment, someone asked the candidates if they believed every word of the Bible. The three who responded--Rudy Giuliani, Mike Huckabee, and Mitt Romney--indicated in essence that, while one cannot always take the Bible literally, it provides a set of guidelines for how life should be lived. Undoubtedly, the other major candidates--Democrat and Republican alike--would have answered similarly.

It would seem to follow that these guidelines help explain why these self-avowed believers and many of their fellow Republican candidates cast stones at opponents whom they judge to have erred in the ever-intensifying war against unsanctioned immigration. As for the Democrats, there is no such internal finger-pointing-at least on this matter. Yet what is most striking about discussion of immigration and boundary enforcement is how much agreement there is among all the major candidates of both parties.

Although some people might try to argue that this pro-enforcement consensus flows from a shared commitment to the rule of law, it would be a real stretch to contend that exclusion of people born on one side of the territorial boundaries that divide our world is consistent with biblical teachings.

Unlike President Bush and many others, I cannot claim to be in direct conversation with God. Nonetheless, I find it unimaginable that Jesus would attack anyone for supporting in-state tuition for "illegals" (as Romney has recently done to Huckabee), or castigate someone for employing workers who crossed a national territorial divide without government sanction (as Giuliani has recently done to Romney). Nor would Jesus pat any candidate's back for trying to repel "aliens" with walls and fences along the U.S-Mexico boundary and ever-more border and immigration agents (which all major candidates support to varying degrees)--practices that have resulted in thousands of migrant deaths over the last decade, and a huge increase in deportations--and with it, divided families. Indeed, I can't even envision Jesus accepting "illegal" or "alien" as terms for classifying human beings.

The parable of Christmas--as it recounts Mary's and Joseph's search for shelter--concerns itself with, among other matters, how we treat uninvited guests who arrive on our proverbial doorsteps. And the parable's message is clear as to what to do. As ordained Baptist minister Mike Huckabee--whose new campaign commercial says "no" to sanctuary cities and amnesty, and calls for building a border fence--said in St. Petersburg, the Bible teaches us (as do the best traditions of all major religions and humanist ethical codes) to "Love your neighbor as yourself."

So for those who profess to love God and embrace Jesus and the Bible as their ethical sources, the choice seems obvious: either stop invoking them or, better yet, live up to the principles you claim. This would entail seeing and treating so-called illegals as our brothers, sisters, neighbors, and members of our various communities --as people who are part of us--rather than a "them" to be excluded.

Imagine how different the presidential debates and the candidates' individual platforms surrounding immigration would be if all of us were to take Reverend Huckabee's words to heart.

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Joseph Nevins

Joseph Nevins is an associate professor of geography at Vassar College. His latest book is Dying to Live: A Story of U.S. Immigration in an Age of Global Apartheid (City Lights Books).

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