Kristin E. Heyer, professor of theological ethics at Boston College, spoke in the Hemmingson Ballroom on Feb. 26 for the 2018 Spring Flannery Lecture, discussing the dehumanization of immigrants in the U.S. and how Christian ethics can apply to how people should treat immigrants.
“I have to say I’m heartened that Gonzaga has taken up what I believe today to be one of our most urgent signs of the time,” Heyer said, “which is challenges facing those on the move.”
She said that the time is right in the U.S. for the “resources of the Christian tradition to shape discourse about immigration.” Throughout her presentation, she explained how Christian ethics offers a counternarrative to myths about immigrants.
At the beginning of the lecture, Heyer explained how the Trump administration has casted immigrants and refugees as “threats to the United States,” including executive orders such as constructing a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border, travel bans and expanding “the nation’s detention capacity and its expeditated removal practices.”
Along with other measures taken by the Trump administration and “accompanying rhetoric,” she said these have fanned the flames of nationalism, sowing fear in the communities and “eroding civic life.”
“The U.S. government already spends more on federal immigration enforcement than all other principle federal criminal law enforcement agencies combined,” Heyer said.
During the lecture, she provided anecdotes of immigrants she met, painting a picture of what immigrants who have been deported and currently live in the U.S. are experiencing.
One story Heyer shared was about a college student who, a month after graduating high school, was surrounded by armed U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at her house and was threatened with arrest.
“I fell to my knees in front of the agent and began pleading with him to let me stay, telling him I was starting college in a month on a special scholarship,” Heyer said, quoting the student. “He said, ‘Fine, I’ll let you go, but only if you tell me where your dad is.’”
When the student’s mortified mother nodded yes to tell them, Heyer said, the girl gave them the information and her father was soon arrested in front of his coworkers and deported.
Despite the Statue of Liberty saying, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” Heyer said that legislative debates on immigration have centered around issues of national security, economic instrumentalism and social costs rather than human rights.
According to Heyer, the dominant frameworks are that immigrants are perceived as security, economic and cultural threats despite recent studies indicating that immigrants are less likely to commit serious crimes than U.S. citizens and that higher rates of immigration correlate with lower rates of violent and property crime.
She added that studies consistently show that immigrant laborers provide a benefit to the U.S. economy.
“Frameworks raising security and economic questions raise legitimate concerns,” Heyers said, “yet I think employed on their own, they tend to distort and eclipse fundamental features of the whole picture.”
In terms of Christian ethics, she discussed that after the commandment to worship one God, “no moral imperative is repeated more frequently in Hebrew scriptures than the commandment to care for the stranger.”
Heyer provided examples from the Bible for the Christian counternarrative regarding “biblical justice.” These passages included Exodus 23:9, Leviticus 19:33-35, Numbers 15:15-16 and others from scripture.
“One of the most persistently recurrent themes in scripture is justice and compassion for the vulnerable,” Heyer said. “The prophets repeatedly connect bringing justice for the poor to experiencing God, and concern for the economically vulnerable echoes throughout the New Testament as well.”
She explained how the poor in the Bible are often mobile and rootless, which includes the crowds seeking to hear Jesus who roamed lost and hungry.
Even though scriptures cannot answer questions about contemporary policies, Heyer said they provide people guidance to show deep concern for marginalized people.
Using the parable of the good Samaritan, Heyer explained that the Samaritan saw a fellow human being in distress and surpassed the care that would have been appropriate for fellow countrymen to aid the stranger.
She explained that the perception of immigrants as threats alone have influenced how people assess immigrants.
According to Heyer, people assess immigrants as freeloaders who take advantage of American generosity while taking jobs from U.S. citizens.
Seeing immigrants’ humanity, Heyer said, does not resolve conflicting claims, overstretched resources or absolve cases of immigrant crime, but it does invite people to move away from simplistic scapegoating and other practices.
“Just as the good Samaritan offered additional compensation to the innkeeper,” Heyer said, “Christians are called to enter the world of the neighbor and live in a way that gives the neighbor their given freedom along with the very help that is offered.”
Heyer explained that a Christian immigration ethic is grounded in its vision of the person as “inherently sacred and made for community.”
“All persons are created in the image of God, loved into being by God and are therefore worthy of inherent dignity and respect,” she said.
Obstructing paths to legalization, Heyer said, for people who are welcomed in the American marketplace, but are not in the voting booth, stable workplace or most college campuses undermines Christian values and civic interests.
“Ultimately, an approach rooted in human rights and championed by Catholic commitments must reduce the need to migrate and protect those compelled to do so as a last resort,” she said.
According to Heyer, Pope Francis has highlighted the impact of social sins through participation in harmful structures. Elements of social sin, she explained, include dehumanizing trends, harmful ideologies and unjust structures, and they “shape the conflict’s dynamics that perpetuate these inequalities.”
She added these elements could be seen in the immigration conflict through cultural superiority, and they indicate how the perception of immigrants as threats are connected to collective actions and inactions by Congress.
“U.S. migration policy should consider its economic and political complicity in generating migrant flows rather than perpetuate scapegoating,” she said.
At the end of the lecture, Heyer explained that pursing civic kinship entails challenging structures that harm and “ideologies that conceal.”
“Amid the misinformation that clouds the exploitation of immigrants,” she said, “I cannot forget the ethic of kinship across borders that offers us guideposts on the journey from exclusion to solidarity.”
After the lecture, Preston Froula, a senior attendee, said he plans to call his representatives and try to make the discussion on immigration more open and “have an open dialogue about the next steps to the future.”
Matthew Kincanon is a staff writer. Follow him on Twitter: @MatthewKincanon