As providence would have it, I was visiting the old courthouse in St. Louis on the day President Obama announced that his administration would no longer deport undocumented immigrants under the age of 30. I was on a reconnaissance mission in preparation for an upcoming family reunion. The old courthouse in St. Louis is dedicated to the story of Harriet and Dred Scott, two enslaved African Americans who sued for their freedom in the Missouri court. A jury from that state set Scott and his family free, but the decision was overturned by the United States Supreme Court in one of its most inhumane, racist and badly reasoned decisions.
The biblical moral imperative is to welcome the stranger, to love the alien, because God’s people are to remember their own history of slavery. If any of us look deep enough into our own family heritage, we will find the historical moment when our ancestors were enslaved or strangers in the land or both. Biblical wisdom says:
“Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt.” (Exodus 22:21)
“The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.” (Leviticus 19:34)
“And you are to love those who are aliens, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:19)
“’In whatever tribe the aliens settle, there you are to give him his inheritance,’ declares the sovereign LORD.” (Ezekiel 47:23)
The president’s announcement was welcome news to young undocumented immigrants who call themselves “dreamers.” They are the young people who were brought to the United States as children by their parents, who do not have criminal records, who are working and going to school or who want to serve in the military. They would be allowed to stay in the country and begin the process of becoming citizens had the Dream Act passed during the lame duck session of the 111th Congress. Republicans blocked the measure.
During the Republican presidential primary, candidate Mitt Romney said that he would veto the Dream Act. Now he will not say whether or not he would uphold President Obama’s decision.
However, the main thing to keep in mind is that these young people ought not to be considered mere pawns on a political chess board. They are living breathing human beings with hopes, dreams, gifts, graces, and growing edges. They are no different from any one of us. We want a better life for ourselves and for our children.
When I was visiting the old courthouse, I bought a book by Ruth Ann (Abels) Hager-“Dred &Harriet Scott: Their Family Story.” This book describes the lives of the families --enslaved and free--involved in this story. It reminds us of the meaning of slavery, that one does not decide for oneself where to live or for whom one will work. And, most important, it reminds me that slavery was a matter of the economic advantage of one population over the other.
According to Hager, the Scotts wanted their freedom not only for themselves but for the sake of their two daughters, Eliza and Lizzie. Since the Scotts where urban slaves, they were hired out to work for wages that went to their owners. The condition of servitude of children followed that of the mother. Further, enslaved families lived under the constant fear that family members would be sold away, never to be seen again.
During the decade that it took for this case to wind its way through the legal system, the Scotts kept their daughters in hiding. History has not yet revealed who hid them. But Hager thinks the effects of living in hiding had a lifelong impact on Lizzie. She writes: “Behavior patterns Lizzie may have learned in hiding-telling no one who she really was, drawing no attention to herself, fading into the background as much as possible, making no friends who might want to know something about her-defined how she would live the rest of her life.”
When I think of the life of undocumented immigrants, that they live within the ambiguity of a nation that wants their cheap labor but that also does not want them as competition for college educations or for better jobs, when I think of their lives lived in the shadows, I remember the history of African American people. The national birth defect of slavery labeled people a lesser humanity because it wanted to only profit from them. We should not show the same inhumanity to undocumented immigrants.
When I remember the history of African American people I can only applaud President Obama’s decision and pray for a Congress that has the moral courage to expand his vision into law.