Telling Truthful Narratives: A Review of “Migrants and Citizens”

August 9, 2018
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Title: Migrants and Citizens: Justice and Responsibility in the Ethics of Immigration
Author: Tisha M. Rajendra
Publisher: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
Publish Date: August 15, 2017
Pages: 179 Pages (Paperback)
ISBN: 978-0-8028-6882-4

Tisha M. Rajendra’s new book Migrants and Citizens offers an important intervention to recent attempts to articulate a just response to the global immigration crisis. In recent decades, a proliferating number of books on the ethics of immigration have focused on how states might deal justly with immigrants. Instead, Rajendra, associate professor of theological ethics at Loyola University Chicago, asks a crucial but often ignored question—”Who is responsible for ensuring the just treatment of immigrants?” While the global political community recognizes a set of universal human rights that apply to immigrants regardless of their place of residence or lawful status, Rajendra rightly diagnoses that these basic rights amount to “empty words” in the absence of a clear sense of who is responsible for upholding and protecting these rights. In view of this absence, Rajendra proposes a new definition of justice as “responsibility to relationships.” Justice as responsibility to relationships is premised on telling truthful narratives about the historical relationship between migrants and citizens. Rajendra’s theory of justice draws richly from political philosophy, Catholic social teaching and theology, and migration theories in a nuanced but incredibly accessible work that needs to be read by anyone interested in the ethics of immigration.

In the first-half of the book, Rajendra argues that the citizenship-based social contract model of government in many Western liberal democracies results in immigrants existing in political limbo as resident “non-members” of the state. In other words, immigrants are those without an institution responsible for upholding and defending their most basic human rights. However, lack of political representation is only the beginning of the problem in developing a theory of justice for immigrants. Rajendra also observes that the general public and political leaders in many Western nations are often immersed in telling and re-telling of false narratives about who immigrants are and why they choose to migrate. Rajendra argues that despite there not being a universal theory of migration, most migration theorists reject the popular narratives, which portray most migrants as either impoverished people deserving of compassion or as free-loading lawless individuals deserving of contempt. Rajendra shows that migration is a “complex and multifaceted” phenomenon in which “preexisting relationships between migrants and citizens” are at least equally likely to determine the flows of migration as increasing wealth and liberty (32). Rajendra thus concludes that any account of the just treatment of immigrants “must assume a relational account of human agency, in which decisions about migration are always made in a social, historical, and political context” (34).

In the second-half of the book, Rajendra moves from theory to history and narrative, focusing in particular on the historical relations between migrants and citizens in the most prominent immigrant-receiving nations in the West, i.e. France, Great Britain, United States, and Germany. Rajendra’s retelling of these historical relations reveals that, far from being arbitrary, many of the immigrants living in these Western nations are participants in long-standing migration structures whose origins can often be traced back to guest-worker programs, colonial migration systems, and/or foreign investments. Yet, these histories are often absent from the general media and play little to no role in determining immigration policies.

Rajendra argues that these historical relationships (often initiated by Western nations and asymmetrically benefited and continue to benefit the Western nations) establish a ground of responsibility to the immigrants in these nations. The problem with false narratives, she argues, is not only that they tell lies about the past, but also that they help to create systems of injustice and discrimination which impede states and their citizens from dealing justly with immigrants. Rajendra highlights the connection between narratives and responsibility to relationships by drawing from the Old Testament Torah law and the narrative of Israel’s exodus and entrance into the Promised Land. She observes that the demands on Israel throughout the Torah for the just treatment of the resident alien “are only intelligible in the context of the narratives of the relationship of God with Israel and of Israel with Egypt” (109). Israel was not to treat strangers residing in the Promised Land in the same way that they were treated during their captivity in the land of Egypt, lest they stand in opposition to the God who in the exodus from Egypt is revealed as the God who loves and protects the resident alien.

In the final two chapters of the book, Rajendra elaborates on her constructive proposal of “justice as responsibility to relationships.” She concludes by highlighting three characteristics of her proposal: first, justice toward immigrants begins with a more faithful account of the concrete, historical, and “messy” relationships between citizens and migrants; second, the recognition of “responsibility itself as a social good which, like other social goods, is produced and distributed in communal life;” and, third, this account of justice “supplements rather than supplant structural theories of justice” (115).

Rajendra’s account of justice as responsibility to relationships is commensurate with a Reformed theological view of sin as total depravity. The hamartiological notion of total depravity, among other things, suggests that sin is not simply an individual’s actions of disobedience toward God, but more profoundly a pervasive reality of disordered relationships with God, with other humans, and with the rest of creation. God’s salvific work in Christ thus reconciles and reorders not only our relationship with God but also all relationships in creation. Rajendra’s account of justice as responsibility to relationships adds an important layer of richness in reflecting theologically about immigration. Dealing justly with immigrants, which is to say being responsible for the relationships between migrants and citizens, is not merely a matter of legal policy but a way of living into the church’s ministry of reconciliation. Rajendra also rightly warns the reader of the extreme and often unnoticed perils of false narratives which perpetuate relationships of domination and enmity. This presents an open question and opportunity for the church—where and how does the church engage in telling truthful narratives about creatures in relationship with God and with other creatures? For Christians, and certainly for Reformed Christians, the church’s liturgy is such a place. Liturgical moments like prayers of confession, prayers of the people, and congregational testimony can be important places where the church can denounce false narratives and speak truthfully about our individual and corporate complicity with unjust social structures. Churches seeking to do justice in the midst of the immigration crisis have therefore an urgent need to recognize these liturgical moments as spaces for telling true stories and debunking false narratives about immigrants.

Tisha M. Rajendra leaves no stone unturned as she dispels myths about immigrants held by both those on the left and the right of political spectrum and proposes a theory of justice to the immigrant that is grounded in truthfulness and relationships. Citizens and Immigrants is a great resource not only for those interested in the immigration debates in the public square but also those with interest in migration theory and theories of justice. Moreover, Rajendra’s Migrants and Citizens is a must-read for churches seeking to respond faithfully and justly to the ever-growing and polarizing immigration crisis.

About the Author
  • Alberto La Rosa Rojas is a current doctoral student at Duke University and member of the Reformed Church in America.  Having emigrated with his family from Callao, Peru to the U.S. in 2001, his doctoral research reflects on how immigrant experiences of leaving home, crossing borders, and having “encounters on-the-journey” can illumine our reading of the Bible and provide insight into our theological understanding of the Christian faith.

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