Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Guest Post: How Can the Law Assure Social Order?

By Robert Chao Romero

A key biblical principal is that God has established the institution of government to maintain social order (Romans 13: 1-7).  How is the follower of Jesus to respond, however, when government knowingly violates the legal guidelines it has created for itself in order to guarantee this social order?  This is one of the central issues involved in the immigration debate in America—though not in the way that many Christians typically frame the issue. 

According to the 1976 U.S. Supreme Court case of De Canas v. Bica, “[p]ower to regulate immigration is unquestionably exclusively a federal power.”   This important case stands for a simple, and uncontested, legal principle:  it is the job of the federal government to regulate immigration.   States and local governments do not have this authority.  Only the federal government can create laws and policies which determine who gets to stay in this country and who can be forced to leave.  Only the federal government has the authority to check the immigration status of individuals and make decisions about visas, asylum, and deportation.   With limited exception, states and local governments cross the line into unconstitutional territory every time they try to engage in these types of activities.  One basic exception to this rule is that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is allowed to enter into special agreements with local law enforcement agencies which authorize them to enforce immigration laws.   According to these “287(g)” agreements, ICE provides basic training to local police and then delegates to them some of its authority to regulate immigration.  Outside of these special agreements it is illegal for states and cities to engage in the regulation of immigration.   This is the current state of immigration law and it is uncontested.  It is really that simple.

Arizona Senate Bill 1070, and the 14 copycat bills which have been introduced in states such as California, Illinois, Florida, and Texas, knowingly violate existing federal law and Supreme Court precedent.   SB 1070 and its modified version, House Bill 2162, empower Arizona police to investigate a person’s immigration status as part of a "lawful stop, detention, or arrest."   This provision flagrantly violates federal law because it takes the regulation of immigration out of the hands of the federal government and places it unconstitutionally in the hands of Arizona state authorities.    It basically says, “we the state of Arizona, by our own prerogative, authorize all of our police officers to regulate immigration by checking peoples’ immigration status.”   Again, this is not contested legal territory.  Regulation of immigration is entirely a federal prerogative. 

Hazleton, Pennsylvania provides another recent example of the way in which this legal principle has been blatantly disregarded.   By passing the “Illegal Immigration Relief Act” in 2006, the city tried to take the issue of undocumented immigration into its own hands by fining landlords who rented to undocumented immigrants and suspending the business licenses of people who hired them.   In other words, as reflected in the name of this legislative act, Hazleton sought to regulate immigration through the implementation of fines and the revocation of business licenses.   As the federal District and Circuit courts have since ruled, Hazleton’s “Illegal Immigration Relief Act” represents a clear unconstitutional attempt to regulate immigration. 

How is the Christian to respond to the Arizona state legislature, the city council of Hazleton, and other government authorities who consciously violate the legal norms which the U.S. government itself has established to ensure social order? Ironically, they themselves are breaking the law.  I leave this question for you to reflect upon and decide.  It is my hope that this brief discussion has provided a different angle on the immigration debate for you to consider and that through the legal perspective offered we might all be sharpened. 

Robert Chao Romero is an Assistant Professor in the UCLA César E. Chávez Department of Chicana/o Studies.  He received his J.D. from U.C. Berkeley and his Ph.D. in Latin American History from UCLA.  He is the author of The Chinese in Mexico, 1882-1940 and various articles related to race in Latin America and the United States.   He is Founder and President of Christian Students of Conscience, a ministry devoted to training and mobilizing university students around issues of race and justice from a biblical perspective (  

This article is cross posted from blog by permission of the author.
March 8, 2011

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