This is an address I delivered to Latham Methodist Church in Huntsville, AL some years ago. I was asked to speak as part of its series on contemporary moral problems and the Church.

“Thank you for inviting me to speak with you tonight about a subject that is dear to my heart. I have to confess that this is the first time I’ve ever been inside Latham. But my family and I have Latham firmly established on our private map of Huntsville. You are, after all, the place where we always come to buy a pumpkin at Halloween. More importantly, because we are members of Weatherly Heights Baptist Church, it has always been the church that we have known as “Jane Smith’s other church.”

So I am delighted to be here. I appreciate Doug thinking of me as someone who might have something useful to say on this subject.

Maybe the place to begin is by saying that what we are really interested in is the moral problem of illegal immigration. I have heard from very few people who will admit to having a fundamental problem with legal immigration. And so one of the implied questions we have the opportunity to think about tonight is this: “Is the moral problem of illegal immigration the equivalent of the legal problem of illegal immigration?”

We know what the basic legal issue is. It’s that some people, mostly but not exclusively Latin Americans, are in the United States illegally. Some crossed the border without legal documents. Some entered legally with guest worker or other visas and overstayed the legal time limit. In and of itself, the legal question is fairly straightforward. People with permission to be here, in other words people with papers, are here legally. Those without permission are here illegally.

But is the legal problem the same thing as the moral problem of illegal immigration? To address that question, we have to give some thought to what a moral problem is. According to my Webster’s dictionary, the word “moral” has to do with “conforming to a standard of right behavior.” Morality is about conformity, says Webster. It’s about behavior. I understand this. In my world one standard of behavior to which I expect my children to conform is to say “Yes, ma’am” and “No, sir” to their elders. That is a standard of behavior to which I expect them to conform.

But, I also recall quite vividly that when I was a child, a standard of right behavior meant not saying “Yes, ma’am” and “No, sir” if those elders were black. And if, like my mother, you taught your children not to conform to that standard of behavior, and if, like her, you refused to conform to your culture’s standards of racial behavior you could expect sooner or later, as she did, to receive a threat against the life of your child. Now that I am a mother, I have a better understanding of the moral problem my mother faced: to teach her children not to conform to accepted standards of right behavior and thereby put them in physical danger or to teach her children to conform to accepted standards of right behavior and remove them from one source of potential danger. She had a moral problem.

Was my mother an immoral person because she taught her children not to conform to the South’s standard of right behavior? Was she an immoral person because she encouraged her children to cross that invisible but very real moral line in the sand? Was she an immoral person because she chose to challenge her culture’s standard of right behavior even when it meant accepting the reality that by doing so she put her children in some amount of danger?

Webster’s dictionary again provides direction. Morality, it says, it also about standards of behavior that are right and good. And it is about operating on “one’s conscience or ethical judgment.” So morality is about conformity. But it also is about conscience. And sometimes conscience cancels out conformity especially if we are being asked to conform to standards of behavior that are not right and good.

But, some of you may want to object, it was never illegal for a white child to say “Yes, ma’am” or “No, sir” to a black elder. And you would be right. That was never illegal. We all know, however, that segregation was completely legal. We know that segregation was an intricate system of legal and near legal prohibitions. And I think we all have conceded that it was immoral through and through. And we all know that slavery was legal, but it was immoral through and through. And the World War II deportation of Japanese-Americans to internment camps was legal, but it was immoral through and through. And the dispossessing of Native Americans from their lands was legal, but it was immoral through and through.

So my conclusion is that what is legal is not the equivalent of what is moral. And, by the same token, what is illegal is not the equivalent of what is immoral. When Rosa Parks made the decision not to give up her seat on that bus in Montgomery, she acted illegally. And she acted morally. And when Harriet Tubman guided slaves into freedom in the North through the Underground Railroad, she acted illegally and she acted morally. And the family who protected Anne Franks in Holland acted illegally and they acted morally.

I respect people’s concern about migrants coming illegally. But part of the reason I advocate for illegal immigrants is that I have a deep conviction that what is illegal is not the equivalent of what is immoral.
Back in November, 2006, I went to the U. S. / Mexico border. I went there to get a better sense of whether there are issues besides the legal issue that we need to be aware of. In other words, I went to the border to try to discover whether there are other moral issues we need to grapple with.

And wouldn’t you know it? In Nogales, when I went to a portion of the wall that has been constructed to keep Mexicans and other Latin Americans from crossing into the U. S. illegally, the wall that younger Latin Americans without papers scramble over to get into the U. S. illegally, I saw on the Mexican side a large piece of graffiti that said in Spanish, “If it is a sin to cross, I hope God forgives me.” Now, I can’t pretend to know what the young man who scrawled that message on the wall meant. But my guess is that in the hours before he crossed, he experienced a moral crisis surrounding his decision to cross illegally.

Things are complicated, aren’t they? Its one thing for me to sit at my laptop and work out my conviction that what is illegal is not the equivalent of what is immoral. In my world, conscience gets to override circumstance.

But what must it be like for illegal immigrants when circumstance has to override conscience? When circumstance compels them to override their sense that what is illegal is the equivalent of what is immoral? What about the moral problem a young Mexican mother faces when she has to choose between the moral necessity of staying with her children in order to protect them and teach them the difference between right and wrong or the moral problem of not leaving them if by leaving them and leaving illegally she can find work to get the money it takes to put them through school so that they can have some kind of future? What about the moral problem of a peasant farmer in Chiapas who has to choose between being a hands-on grandfather or facing the moral urgency of leaving to find work so that he can put food on his grandchildren’s table? I suspect that we here at Latham tonight are having our roofs repaired and our tables waited on by people who could lend us some real insights into the moral problem of illegal immigration.

And, from the perspective of migrants in Huntsville and the rest of Alabama, the moral problem of illegal immigration could, if our state legislators have their way, get worse. There are now before the Alabama legislature at least five bills that would make it a crime to transport an illegal immigrant.

I have not had the opportunity to talk with many illegal immigrants in Huntsville. But I have talked with some. And I know that right here in Huntsville are nice people, good families in which the father is here legally but his wife and children are here illegally. There are good families, nice families where a mother and son are here legally but the daughter and grandchildren are here illegally. If even one of these bills passes, it would make it a crime for a daughter to drive her mother to the emergency room. If even one of these bills passes, it would make it a crime for a man to drive his wife to their children’s school function. What moral dilemmas these families will face. And for them, the moral problem of illegal immigration comes right back to the legal problems of illegal immigration.

What about the moral problem these bills pose for us? Do we have a moral problem when our speech and our attitudes create a climate in which politicians know they can advance their political careers by proposing bills that would criminalize one of us if we take an injured child to the hospital? Is this a standard of conduct to which we are willing to conform? Do we have a moral problem when people not two generations removed from segregation encourage their politicians to erect another legal system which would serve primarily to harass and humiliate the most vulnerable people among us? Where is our moral conscience? Where is our moral judgment?

But the biggest moral problem those of us who are citizens of the United States may face is this. It may be the willingness to examine our history and recognize that we are not innocent by-standers to the problem of migrants crossing or overstaying visa limits illegally. It may be the willingness to bring to the forefront of our thinking and our discussions the hard reality that we have been instrumental in creating the limited access to power and the poverty of the people in Latin America. But then moral dilemmas by their nature are not easy to face or to resolve.

We cannot undo the Monroe Doctrine. We cannot undo the role our fruit companies have had in dispossessing Central American peasants of their lands and livelihoods. But we can try to reverse the impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement on Mexico. We can be willing to understand that NAFTA has created one billionaire in Mexico but it also has bankrupted 1 ½ million peasant farmers in the corn and bean sectors of the Mexican agricultural economy forcing them off their lands and into migration. We can begin to question the moral judgment of exchanging 1 ½ million peasants for one billionaire. We can be willing to conclude that NAFTA has made it perfectly legal to push farmers off their land but it cannot make it moral.
We cannot undo having installed and supported numerous Latin American military dictators and their national guards. We can try to reverse the current militarization of our border with Mexico, a border we began to militarize in conjunction with the passage of NAFTA.

I am the daughter of one lawyer and the wife of another one. I have a deep regard for the law. I can concede, at least in principle, that we have a legal right to militarize our own border. I can concede, at least in principle, that we have a right to expect others to conform to the standards of behavior we establish concerning our border.

But that militarized border has already caused a minimum of 5,000 migrants to lose their lives. Among them have been babies, twelve year old girls, young mothers and grandfathers. About 1/3 of their bodies are impossible to identify which means that their families will never know what happened to them. It means that there are children looking every day for mothers who are never coming home. It means that there are grandparents looking every day for grandchildren who are never coming home. So we can pass laws that militarize our border and legalize pushing more migrants to their deaths in the desert. But we cannot make it right and good. We can legally exchange 5,000 migrant lives for a legal principle. But we cannot make that exchange a moral one.

The issue of illegal immigration is filled with moral problems. It is filled with moral problems for us. It is filled with moral problems for illegal immigrants. As I said earlier, it is in the nature of moral problems that they are not easy to face or to resolve. I think that one thing we can do is to balance the moral imperative to conform to legal standards of behavior with the moral imperative to insist that those standards be right and good.
Thank you.

© Ellin Jimmerson, 2014

 

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