Unalienable

On Friday, (yes, Holocaust Remembrance Day, and yes, a week after coming into office), President Donald Trump issued an executive order to reform immigration policies. This included, among many other things:

  • stopping immigrants from 7 countries from entering the U.S. for 90 days, and those of refugee status for 120 days
  • a provision for banning Syrian refugees indefinitely
  • reducing the number of refugees the United States will accept this year from the pledged 110,000 to 50,000
  • a statement (not part of the order itself, but made at its signing) that the United States will give preference to immigrants and refugees who are Christians over those who are Muslim

There are other implications of the order, but these are some of the highlights. Currently, there are several federal courts that are pushing back against parts of the order, especially in regard to U.S. residents with green cards who have been travelling and are suddenly being detained at airports, as well as refugees who have already been through a thorough vetting process and who are also being detained.

These courts, because their job is to defend the Constitution of the United States, are looking to prove that parts of this executive order are unconstitutional. I believe that in regards to green card holding residents, they will be able to do so pretty easily. (I think the fact that they have to is evidence that, while timely action can be a virtue, there is a reason that major actions usually take more time and more people. This one was obviously not thought out or implemented very well.)

However, I am doubting that they will be able to find anything in the Constitution to combat the actions to keep out refugees. Why would they? The Constitution was created to dictate how the United States government treats United States citizens. Under the Constitution, the government’s primary responsibility is to protect American citizens, regardless of anything else. In addition, it covers some of the basic rights of immigrants, travelers, and others who find themselves in America. There simply are no rights guaranteed for refugees or people in other countries who want to be here.

So that’s it. America has no responsibility for people outside its borders.

Except…it does. The Constitution is not America’s only defining document. Well before the Constitution came the Declaration of Independence. The declaration doesn’t have much hold on what the government does. But if we claim to be Americans who uphold the principles upon which this country was created, it has a lot of hold on us.

The Declaration states that we believe “all men [mankind, of course]” are “created equal” and are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” including “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

I’ve studied Latin for about 7 years now. In most circles, it’s not a terribly helpful area of knowledge, but once in a while it does lend some insight. Unalienable is important word. It comes from alienus, which is an adjective used to describe the strange and foreign. In other words, if certain rights are unalienable, they are so intrinsic that they can’t be made foreign.

Do we actually believe that? It’s beautiful rhetoric, sure, but do we actually believe each person is completely equal in their inherent worth? Or does that present too many moral questions we don’t want to face? I mean, it does bring up the question of whether we have a “Creator.” It makes us wonder who qualifies as “created” and endowed with the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – like unborn babies. But those are discussions for another day. Today I’m thinking about what that means for those who are alieni.

The writers of the Declaration were writing for a country of immigrants. Many of them were refugees, fleeing poverty and religious persecution. Why would they have been persecuted because of their religion? Well, because it conflicted with state religion and therefore made believers dangerous. How can we trust that someone who places higher faith in God than in man, and believes in Him differently than we do, will obey our laws and be loyal to our country?

In fact, many of the first settlers came to the United States and set up theocracies (think Puritan witch hunts). That’s a little scary, huh? The Mormons tried to do the same thing, and they were persecuted from Missouri to Illinois to Utah – which wasn’t even an American state. So we’ve struggled with this question for awhile. We’ve even had periods of our own religious terrorism – the KKK was alive and well in the South not too long ago. (My mother can tell you some stories.) Yet we’ve always managed to work through it and figure ourselves out eventually.

Why have we managed to work through it? Is it because we’re a fearless, perfectly tolerant, amazingly cooperative people? Honestly, no. It’s because we’ve had to acknowledge that once we doubt the rights of others, we’ll find them slippery in our own hands.

If we place preference on one religion over another when it comes to life-changing decisions, and if we make it okay to label a religion as dangerous and un-American, we’ll soon find we’ve paved the way for our own religion to be seen that way. We can’t ask to preserve religious freedom if we don’t mean for everybody.

I’m a Christian. I’m even a Southerner, and my family has deep Southern Baptist and Pentecostal roots. I’m not a member of the KKK. Duh. I also went to high school with about 4,000 other teenagers, and none of them turned out to be high school shooters. Go figure. Yet it does happen. There have been more deaths in America from white supremacists and from messed-up (American) kids who find solidarity in groups like ISIS or who come up with their own vendetta than from any foreign terrorists.

I’m not saying terrorism doesn’t exist. I’m saying it exists on a far wider scale than we think it does. If we think we can keep out Syrian refugees and protect ourselves from terrorism, we’re kidding ourselves.

Again, the government doesn’t have responsibility for refugees. It has responsibility for us. But if it turns away refugees because we are scared, we are in trouble. My life is not worth any more than a Syrian refugee’s. If a few Americans like me have to add an extra sliver of risk to their lives to the huge risks they already take every day (I mean, I get on the road in Utah in the winter; that’s saying something) in order to save 60,000 refugees from suffering on a level most of us can’t even fathom, it’s worth it. If I lose my life, or I lose someone I love, it’s a tragedy. There’s no taking that away. But it would have been a tragedy 60,000 times over if I had let those refugees lose their lives or, probably just as bad, lived lives with no liberty or opportunity to pursue happiness.

If we think that a refugee doesn’t have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, we’ve lost our own claim to it. If we have the ability to offer those rights in our country when they are denied in other countries, we have the responsibility to do it. The government isn’t responsible, but I am. And so are you. Because we’re Americans.

We gave ourselves that responsibility in 1776 when we used the word unalienable.

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