“For the LORD, your God, is the God of gods, the LORD of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who has no favorites, accepts no bribes; who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and befriends the alien, feeding and clothing him. So you too must befriend the alien, for you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt. The LORD, your God, shall you fear, and him shall you serve; hold fast to him and swear by his name” (Deuteronomy 10:18-20)
This passage comes from today’s First Reading, which speaks to me of a timely concern that is being overshadowed in the US political world by the economic crises that continue to pervade our public discourse, namely, the pressing need for immigration reform. The section of the First Reading that speaks of God as the one who “executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and befriends the alien, feeding and clothing him,” with the further mandate that we ” too must befriend the alien, for you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt,” speaks directly to our current state of affairs.
For God the arbitrary borders that distinguish geographic boundaries between ideas we call “The United States of America” and “Canada” or “Mexico” make no difference. God does not look at us as being good “Canadians” or “Belgians” or “Americans,” but good humans. How we treat those whom we encounter and with whom we are asked to share this life. So-called aliens, those who are foreigners in a strange land, are particularly vulnerable and, as Sacred Scripture makes clear in today’s passage from Deuteronomy, deserve our care, concern and protection.
Unfortunately, as made clear in a recent piece in the New York Times passed along to me by a fellow Franciscan Friar who happens to be a moral theologian, this has not been the case in our own day and within our own geographic borders. In the piece titled, “Isolated, Vulnerable and Broke,” Douglas Massey, a professor at Princeton University, wrote:
According to a new study by the Pew Research Center, Hispanic families saw the largest decline in wealth of any racial or ethnic group in the country during the latter half of the last decade: from 2005 to 2009, their median wealth fell by an astounding 66 percent. The reason? The implosion of the housing market, where Hispanic families had invested much of their wealth.
But that’s only the latest chapter in a much longer story. Over the past two decades Hispanics have moved from the middle of the socioeconomic hierarchy, between blacks and whites, to a position below both. On virtually every indicator of socioeconomic welfare, Hispanics fell relative to blacks.
This has nothing to do with nativist tropes like work ethic or resistance to assimilation and everything to do with misguided government policy: our immigration and border-control system has created a class of people cut off from traditional legal and economic structures and thus vulnerable to the worst depredations of the market system.
During the housing bubble, those depredations came in the form of predatory lenders, driven by the boom in mortgage-backed securities. Before that, minorities had generally been shunned by lenders, which tended to be risk averse and discriminatory.
The New York Times piece continues to highlight the fact that hispanics were the most harmed by the economic downturns in recent years, but why?
The answer is simple: over time more and more Hispanics had become economically vulnerable and eminently exploitable, a fact attributable in large part to American immigration policy.
The truth is that the way in which focus on the US borders became a centerpiece of popular political and public discourse shaped policies that made legal entry into the US more difficult, but so-called illegal entry was largely unaffected. What was significantly affected was what Massey calls “out-migration,” that is the population that wished to leave the US but might not have entered (due to the increased militarization of the borders) legally. They were and are trapped.
Thus the sudden creation of a new class of people, working low-wage jobs outside the legal labor markets. Not only was it difficult for them to safely accumulate wealth, but they were left uniquely vulnerable to economic exploitation — such as the promise of a mortgage with little documentation required at signing.
When the Great Recession arrived, many Hispanics got hit with a double whammy: not only were many Hispanic homeowners left with negative equity, but the collapse of construction jobs, which had been a primary draw for immigrants beforehand, eliminated the very means by which they could continue making mortgage payments.
And because many were working and living in legal gray areas, they had little recourse when they learned their mortgages came with ballooning fee structures and onerous penalties for late payments. What little wealth they had managed to accumulate simply vanished.
Even worse, there is little chance that things will improve when the economy finally begins to expand. Until the country fundamentally changes its immigration policy to remove millions from the legal shadows, the entire economy will continue to suffer as its most vulnerable participants watch their fortunes disappear at the slightest downturn.
As Scripture reminds us today, we must never lose sight of the ones who are must vulnerable in our society, the alien and stranger, the one without family or forgotten, the voiceless among us. They are the ones we are called to protect (not our own self-interests or those of the wealthy in society).
God is not going to look over your life and ask you how your investment in one of the Koch brothers’ subsidaries did or what your return on your purchase of Apple stock was. Instead, if Scripture is any indication (and it is God’s Revelation after all), then God will be much more interested in how you treated those discussed in this piece by Massey — the immigrants.