“The influx from our poorer neighbor is overwhelming. They steal jobs. They are dangerous. They take advantage of our laws . . . They are seeking better lives. They do the labor-intensive jobs locals won’t. They contribute to the economy.”
It’s a familiar debate, but from an unfamiliar source. As Mariano Castillo writes in a fascinating and troubling article for CNN (Rachel Nolan writes an even more detailed account for Harper’s Magazine), such rhetoric comes not from America but from Haiti and the Dominican Republic—two neighboring nations with a common but troubled past that are still trying to find their way to a better future. In so doing, they offer a glimpse into what we in the United States might expect should the debate over immigration yield laws that are ill-equipped to address the larger concerns behind them.
On the island of Hispaniola, roughly seven hundred miles south of Miami, the Dominican Republic and its impoverished neighbor, Haiti, continue the struggle to find a proper balance on the issue of immigration, even after new laws were passed in recent years. There was a time when the Dominican Republic guaranteed the citizenship of all children born in the country with the exception of those whose parents were “in transit” – a stipulation intended to apply solely to diplomats, tourists, and others who were in the country for fewer than ten days. However, that all changed when the country’s highest court ruled in 2013 that all children born to undocumented parents, retroactive to 1929, would be considered “in transit” and thus illegal. “The Sentence,” as it would be known, immediately made roughly 210,000 people stateless, many of whom had grown up in the DR and had few, if any, connections to Haiti.
In response, and under increasing international pressure, Dominican President Danilo Medina decreed a few months later that those who had been in the country before October 2011 could apply for regular migratory status and, eventually, citizenship. Further steps were taken in May 2014 to allow those with birth certificates who were born in the Dominican before the court’s ruling to become “accredited” Dominican citizens. Those born before 2007 without a birth certificate, by far the majority, could apply for naturalization. However the process they must navigate is incredibly complicated and notoriously corrupt.
Ultimately, it has proven difficult for even those with birth certificates to gain their citizenship papers as the government body with whom they have to work is the same one that has routinely thwarted such efforts in the past. For many, all the process accomplished was wasting their time and giving the government records of where they live to make deportation all that much easier.
As Castillo describes, however, many of the immigrants “aren’t opposed to the idea of registering the undocumented. It’s only fair, they said, that a nation should know who is living within its borders. But this isn’t the way to do it. The laws, they say, need to be carried out fairly.” As he concluded, “How can a nation tackle the issue of illegal immigration—by asking migrants to trust the government’s proposals—when the same government has not addressed its own legacy of racism?” It’s a fair question, and one that is at the heart of the continually devolving situation in Hispaniola.
If the United States wants to come out of our current immigration debate in a better situation than the Dominican Republic, it’s a question we should keep in mind as well. While the two situations are not equivalent, the comparisons are closer than many would like to believe. Moreover, the fundamental questions that must first be answered are much the same: what is motivating the immigration debate, and can a truly just solution be offered if that motivation is, on some level, unjust?
Most would agree with the Haitian immigrants that the government has a right to know who is living within its borders. For reasons of national security as well as economics, it just makes sense to enforce laws that regulate who can live in the country. Regardless of which side of the debate they may fall on, most agree with that principle.
The problems arise when other motivations, such as racism or fear, begin to factor in as well. The primary issue the Dominican government and its people have faced in instituting their new immigration laws is that their history is replete with examples of bigotry and racially charged tensions that have not been addressed. The climate that fostered such injustice persists, making it difficult to trust that any laws they pass are truly fair—even if such laws were more lenient towards those seeking citizenship.
While it is possible, and even probable, for people to have honest disagreements over the best way of addressing the issues surrounding immigration, the situation in the Dominican offers an example of what will happen if race and fear ever become more important than justice in crafting our solution. When we forget that God shows no partiality based on race, nationality, or any other factor (Romans 10:12) and that he calls his people to care for and about the strangers in our midst (Leviticus 19:34), it becomes far easier to give in to such unjust motivations.
There is a solution to the question of immigration, even if the debate is unlikely to end any time soon. There is a way to secure borders without alienating immigrants on either side. There is a way to do justice to a country’s citizens as well as those who want to join them. And there is a way to reach a solution that honors all parties involved, even if it involves some measure of compromise (which it inevitably will).
None of that is possible, however, if our motivations are tainted by the kind of injustice and fear that corrupts our thinking, often without us even realizing it. So take some time to ask God to help you understand not only what his will is for this highly charged issue, but also what factors might be motivating your thinking on the subject today. This issue will affect all of us in one form or another. Let’s make sure God has a chance to give his opinion before we decide on ours.