The Other Side of Sanctuary

By David Simcox on January 3, 1986

Chicago Tribune, January 3, 1986

The trial of the sanctuary activists challenges anew Christians who believe that immigration controls are not incompatible with Christian values.

Christians and others who believe that our immigration laws serve a common good that takes precedence over any presumed right of sanctuary find themselves embattled. Their adversaries are better endowed with supportive Bible verses. "Be kind to the sojourner among you" binds us now as it did in Moses' time. But supporters of our laws recognize the difficulty of converting scriptural passages into complex public policy.

Immigration laws, no less than police, tax collectors and prisons, are regrettable but necessary expressions of our search for a measure of security and order in our flawed human community.

Prudence - the virtue that requires us to "count the cost" - like love, has high standing in the Christian tradition. It reminds us that, while loving our brother, we not lose sight of his and our impulses for conflict and the primacy of self-interest.

Prudence leads people to organize into communities in their common search for peace, order and justice. Civic prudence requires each member of a community to give the first claim on his concern to fellow members. Prudence makes us realize that, while the love we owe other human beings should be without bounds, the means we have to give expression to that love have limits.

The sanctuary activists deserve our respect for the sincerity of their commitment to the pursuit of justice as they see it. But the quest for justice pulls others in a different direction. Concern for the fragile "public weal" makes the prudent Christian reflect before committing himself to a movement that would, on its own, set aside immigration laws.

The most troubling aspects of the sanctuary movement are that it is selective in its concern, sees people as means rather than ends for its cause and makes generous gestures of charity using the goods of others.

Anger over U.S. policy in Central America makes the activist favor the Salvadoran over the Nicaraguan, the Afghan or the Haitian. Among Salvadorans, the political activist is favored over the nonpolitical campesino; and the Salvadoran seeking to enter the country immediately is favored over the Salvadoran waiting his turn for legal immigration.

The United States now accepts half the world's immigrants and refugees. Since 1975, nearly 750,000 bona fide refugees have been resettled in the U.S., aided by remarkable public and private support, along with 3.9 million legal immigrants.

But the sanctuary activist carries out his own program, choosing those to be resettled and shifting the costs of schooling, employment, medical care and social services to the community.

Are the good feelings the activist gains shared by the less privileged school districts where the new migrants are settled? Are they shared by the deprived minorities and legal immigrants that must compete for jobs and housing?

How would the sanctuary activist rewrite the parable of the good Samaritan?

Coming upon the bruised and bleeding victim, would the Samaritan first question him about his attitudes toward the Roman overlords who failed to keep the highways safe? Finding him like-minded, would the Samaritan take him not to immediate rest and healing but to a demonstration, to be paraded through the streets as evidence of Rome's corrupt rule? Would the Samaritan then drop the victim at the home of a stranger, counting on him to meet the victim's needs while the Samaritan goes his way, feeling the glow that comes from striking a blow at an evil institution?

The lesson of the Samaritan is that he gave of himself without regard to the victim's race or culture and with no agenda of his own.

For the Christian, concern for the sojourner would be more selflessly expressed by supporting generous refugee admittance for those most afflicted worldwide, contributing to private and public refugee relief efforts abroad and urging our leaders to deal compassionately with the undocumented sojourner already among us.

David Simcox is the Former Chairman of the Center's Board of Directors.