After the premier screening of the documentary “Gospel Without Borders” on Sept. 13 in Little Rock, Ark., panelists passionately stretched the boundaries of perceptions about immigration – from myths and stereotypical thinking to moral issues, legal nuances and the biblical mandate to care for the stranger in our midst.
Three of the people interviewed in the documentary, produced by EthicsDaily.com and primarily funded by the United Methodist Foundation of Arkansas, served on a post-screening panel for about 75 people in attendance at New Millennium Church.
Panelists were Paul Charton, an immigration attorney in Little Rock; Charles Crutchfield, bishop of the Arkansas Conference of the United Methodist Church; and Anthony Taylor, bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Little Rock.
Robert Parham, co-producer and director of the documentary and executive editor of EthicsDaily.com, moderated the discussion.
Taylor, an expert on the church’s approach to immigration, alluded to the documentary and said a higher principle may be involved in the immigration issue.
“Do people have an intrinsic, God-given right to emigrate to provide for their children if circumstances require?” he asked. “If they cannot do so or if their country orders it, do they have an obligation before God to seek other options? There comes a point that people emigrate, without proper papers, to exercise a fundamental right that they have. That’s part of the debate that has been lost in the national conversation. Do people have a right to come in? Do we have a right to facilitate this for the common good and not to impede peoples’ exercise of their human rights?”
“And is there a higher law involved?” Taylor continued. “Does there come a point that it’s a sin to obey an unjust law? Some of our laws, if we obeyed them, we are committing a sin because we are oppressing people.”
Crutchfield added a twist to a common political buzzword.
“As Christians, we are concerned about family values,” he said. “It is distressing to hear from people who say they respect family values and then speak from such a narrow perspective on immigration, which can separate parents from their children. We as Christians have not done enough to promote the idea that family values and immigration can coexist.”
Charton talked about two of the myths addressed in the documentary: That it is easy for immigrants to get “in line” and obtain legal status in the United States, and that the problem is primarily with the individual rather than the legal system.
He said a person who requested legal entry in March 1993 might be approved in September 2011. “And that’s with your mom being a citizen,” he added.
Charton said the law is such that an immigrant can be employed in this country only if no U.S. citizen is willing to take the job sought by the immigrant at the same salary.
“Sometimes, employers take risks to hire an undocumented worker because there is no American available to take those cruddy jobs,” he said.
The bottom line?
“The ‘line,’ so to speak, is 12 to 18 years long,” Charton said. “You just can’t raise your hand and someone votes you into this country. These are people hoping to find anything to benefit their families. There are jobs to be filled in the U.S. that our legal system doesn’t accommodate.”
“The real tragedy is our government and our society have taken it upon themselves to make a class of hard-working, industrious people into a criminal class that is ostracized,” said Charton.
The panelists and some in the audience noted that the current perception and treatment of immigrants, legally and by society, is similar to the “Jim Crow” laws in the United States during segregation.
“Sometimes the focus is on paying fines and asking forgiveness,” Taylor said. “In fact, the persons who should be asking for forgiveness is us, for the people who are being oppressed.”
The screening occurred one day after a Republican presidential debate that had an anti-immigration tone. That prompted a question from the audience.
“I think some candidates are driven by a desire to get elected,” Taylor said. “Their calculation is this stand helps that. … It’s the difference between a statesman and a politician. A statesman does what he does for the common good of society. A politician does whatever it takes to get elected.”
“Fear is the big issue,” added Crutchfield. “Fear of the stranger. Fear of the true nature and effect on the economy. Fear of people willing to work hard for a minimum wage who may be taking jobs away from Americans. The stance is very similar to what they called the ‘Know-Nothing Party’ of the 1850s in our country. That group had the same kind of platform on immigration in that period. It goes in cycles.”
Charton added a personal story.
“The best and the brightest have emigrated here to find work and a better life over and over again,” he said. “My grandfather didn’t stow away on a merchant marine ship because he was lazy or not eloquent or lacked intelligence. If he wasn’t intelligent or was a slacker, he would have sat on a couch in his country.”
Two versions of the documentary are packaged on a single DVD: a short version (31 minutes) used most often for public screenings, and a long version (53 minutes) that can be divided into four segments for a multi-week study. Free discussion guides are available for each version.
Taylor noted that the ongoing conversation was created as part of a cooperative effort among Baptists, Methodists and Catholics, the three largest mainstream Christian denominations in the United States.
Denominational bodies in each of these traditions, and more, have ordered the DVD in bulk to distribute to constituents.
“No single group can solve this problem,” said Taylor. “It is inspiring the Lord has provided this opportunity. There are no denominational issues on this topic. We are not arguing about doctrine.”