A Prophetic Response to Immigration Reform: A Muslim Perspective


http://www.flickr.com/photos/mr_t_in_dc/7942860282/By Dustin Craun

On a scorching hot summer day in the summer of 2002, I was in the desert on the outskirts of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico walking around a newly developing neighborhood made up of electrical wires running on the ground and brick houses . I stared at the militarized border fence demarcating a line drawn between El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juarez only 160 years ago, and suddenly my attention was drawn to a group of young boys playing soccer. One child in particular stood out, a young boy no more than seven years old whose body was so deformed from polio, a waterborne disease supposedly eradicated in North America, that he had to flip his body over to walk. Once he noticed us he came over to greet us with excitement. This beautiful child’s name was Jesús, and we spent much of the day talking to him and playing soccer with him. I couldn’t believe that we lived in a reality where a child on one side of the fence could get a water-borne disease such as polio, while on the other side of the fence  you can see the University of Texas-El Paso and the El Paso mall, in which there is clean drinking water for all.

How Religion Views Immigration

I had traveled to El Paso, Texas and Juarez, Mexico to take part in a two week long border awareness experience operated by the Catholic liberation theology-based organization, Annunciation House. Their work is a prophetic response to immigration and the crisis of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which created unprecedented migration after this targeted economic warfare destroyed whole cities where agriculture was the primary industry throughout Mexico. The mission of Annunciation House was to live in solidarity with the poor and follow the teachings of Jesus, alayhi as-salaam (peace be upon him) and  the directive in the Bible to serve the poor and immigrants: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:35). It was at this moment, standing there with Jesús, that I began to ask if God believed in these borders. I looked to the Islamic tradition related to immigration, with the central questions “What is our prophetic response to injustice?” and “How do we answer the call when we see these things with our own eyes?”

If we look at immigration from an Abrahamic and Islamic perspective we learn from the stories of Abraham, Lot, Jonah, Jacob, Moses and the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon them all) that there are three primary elements to these stories:

  • First, the people and prophets face grave injustice which threatened their lives;
  • Second, they migrated seeking just allies and safety;
  • Third, they enacted a Prophetic response and call to justice and transformation for their people.

Our moment is directly reflective of the first two elements with 11 million people in this country living in the shadows of our society. Our question then, if we are true believers, should be what is our Prophetic response, and who is ready to stand on the side of justice?

For Muslims, the Prophet Muhammadﷺ is seen as our exemplar, whose life sets an example for us in every aspect of our being: from who we are as leaders, how we pray, how we eat, how we interact with one another, to how we interact with people of different faiths. While the best parts of the Prophet’s ﷺ life set beautiful examples for us, so do the struggles and hardships he faced as he led a community which faced continuous warfare, as a father who lost six children during his life, and as someone who was a refugee and immigrant.

Immigration During the Prophet’s Time

Muhammad ﷺ was born and raised in Mecca as an orphan, but of the highest tribe in Mecca, the Quraysh. He ﷺ was someone who was greatly respected by nearly all the people of Mecca, but after the revelation of the Qur’an began and he started to speak publicly about his call as the final Prophet sent to humanity, he was heavily rebuked by the tribes of Mecca who feared that he would upset the social order which they benefited from politically and financially. The Quraysh began to wage war against the Muslims, torturing and even killing many of the new converts to the religion. To protect the community, the Prophet ﷺ began a series of migrations where he sent fourteen of his followers to Abyssinia (modern day Ethiopia) seeking the protection of a righteous Christian king, who provided refuge for the suffering Muslims.

As things in Mecca deteriorated, the remaining Muslims were invited to move to the city of Medina, where a large number of Christians, Jewish people, and a growing population of converts to Islam were living at the time who would accept the Muslim migrants in their community. The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, after waiting for all of his community to leave for Medina before him, was finally forced to leave Mecca when all the tribes in the city plotted together to assassinate him. He ﷺ left in the night with one of his closest companions, Abu Bakr as-Siddiq, radiAllahu `anhu (may Allah be pleased with him). As a displaced refugee, the Prophet ﷺ stated:  “Of all God’s earth, you [Mecca] are the dearest place unto me, and the dearest unto God. Had not my people driven me out from you, I would not have left you.” Anyone who has been displaced from their homeland can relate. As the Prophet ﷺ and Abu Bakr (ra) set out on the two hundred mile journey across the brutal Arabian desert, they were closely followed by assassins who at one point came so close to finding them that they had to hide in a cave for three days. Told in detail in books like Omid Safi’s Memories of Muhammad: Why the Prophet Matters, they would have been found if it wasn’t for a spider who miraculously spun its web across the cave while a dove sat calmly near the entrance to make it seem as if no one was inside of it. The animals knew which side of justice they stood on.

As the Prophet ﷺ entered Medina, he was greeted by his new community with open arms and songs of poetry. His ﷺ first words to them as they began to build a new life together were, “O people, give unto one another greetings of Peace; feed food unto the hungry; honor the ties of kinship; pray in the hours when men sleep. Thus shall you enter Paradise in Peace.” To enact a prophetic response to his community’s migration, the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ took the group of Muslim converts from Medina who he called “the helpers,” and he paired each person with a member of the new group of migrants. He had the established group split their wealth in half and give it to the newly arrived immigrants. With this act, he ﷺ allowed his community to start their new community on the same ground where all were equally welcome, and no one had to suffer in poverty alone.

How to Apply the Prophet’s Teachings Today

Today we live in similar times, as people throughout the world face grave economic and social injustices, with estimates of over 43 million refugees and 100 million people throughout the world who are migrant workers. Ranging from NAFTA’s economic war against Mexico   to the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and in other parts of the world, millions and millions of people have walked along this same prophetic path of displacement and migration since the time of Muhammad ﷺ more than 1400 years ago. Indeed, after the genocide against the American Indians and the forced migration of millions of enslaved Africans, it is the central narrative of the United States and most of us have some type of immigration story. We are not being asked to split our wealth in half, but we must each ask ourselves what our prophetic response will be as we raise our voices with the 11 million undocumented people in this country. We raise our voices to say enough! We will not let families continue to be divided as the Obama administration has set a record for deportations as nearly two million people have been deported during his administration alone.

205,000 parents of U.S. citizen children have been deported and torn apart from their families , and millions and millions of workers have been exploited, cheated, robbed and abused because they do not have papers and fear turning to the authorities when they are taken advantage of.

The American Muslim community is a majority immigrant community, and there are thousands of undocumented Muslims in this country. However, because of the level of Islamophobia and the victimization of an entire group of people based on the acts of only a few which have been vehemently condemned by Muslims throughout the US and the world, many immigrant Muslims are fearful to talk about immigration in our community and to take a more active role in the movement for comprehensive immigration reform.  Our prophetic example makes it clear that we stand on the side of the interfaith, and social justice movements call for a pathway to citizenship that is no longer than seven years for all 11 million undocumented people. We also feel it is important to raise the issue of religious and racial discrimination, and to make clear that these forms of bias should play no role in US immigration policy, despite the fear mongering that can be raised by a small group of well-funded Islamophobes. Our communities must stand united in our call for just immigration policy as we continue to build a country that is just and fair for all people regardless of race, religion, or country of origin. May God bless and unite us all in this call for justice.

Dustin Craun is a writer and educator, and works as a Muslim clergy organizer for the PICO National Network the United States largest faith-based community organizing network. To contact Dustin, please email dcraun@piconetwork.org 

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6 Comments

  1. Ahmed says:

    ASA, while I agree that immigration reform with an eye towards mercy would be fitting the prophetic tradition, I think you’ve over simplified things a little bit: Firstly, both of the acts of emigration of the Muslims from Mecca was done with the permission of the parties receiving them: the Muslims were accepted in both Abyssinia and Medina, this is not the case with ‘undocumented’ (aka Illegal) immigrants. Further, certain sahaba which escaped Mecca to imigrate to Medina were returned (deported) to their captors in Mecca after the prophet (saw) and the Meccans agreed in a treaty (which is a law) that the Meccans could block immigration, this despite the suffering of that sahaba; here we also have laws which require the deportation of persons who have immigrated illegally.
    I’m sure there are more examples but its important to point this out because no one should be allowed to co-op our religion to support their political views: there is room within the religion for opinions for and against immigration reform and no one should get to say that “this is the Muslim opinion”, say instead “my religion informs my values and this is my opinion and here’s why”… but I understand that maybe that’s too long of a title. Allah guide us.

    • Farah says:

      Agreed brother Ahmed. While my heart wants the entire world to have the same advantages and blessings we do here, I think that the matter is much more complicated than just opening the borders, a issue like this cannot be made this simple, sadly. As for the injustices that are happening, may Allah ease our pain and make our situation better, ameen.

  2. Seth says:

    Simple book keeping says that a single nation / person can’t provide for the rest of the world.
    Yet, when in Spain, I encountered a woman with infant huddled in the corner of doorsteps outside on a cold winter night. How could anyone just walk on by?
    Sometimes, you have to reach out a helping hand.

  3. mww_m says:

    False analogy. The Muslims never made hijrah illegally. Both to Abysinnia and Madinah, the host nation had allowed the Muslims in.

    But now that you’re invoking the Prophet response, let’s look at the treaty of Hudaibiyyah. What happened to Muslim immigrants who came to Madinah when it was illegal. The Prophet (saws) turned them away.

    Food for thought.

  4. ZAI says:

    Complicated issue w/ no simplistic solution.

    #1 Taking examples of the prophetic period, the period of the khulaafa ar rashidoun or even any time in the classical Islamic period is problematic due to the fact that modern economies simply don’t function as they do today. In the pre-modern period Immigration did not occur at todays level and did not negatively affect local economies.

    #2 What Islam would condemn is immigration being restricted based on ethnicity or creed…but a local ruler
    can absolutely impose restrictions based on economic welfare, just as tariffs have always existed in most nations. Basically a ruler has to weigh cost/benefit and has every right to protect the society if it would cause harm.

    For example, if theoretically in the Muslim world…rich nations like Saudi Arabia or UAE allowed unrestricted immigration…they would be FLOODED with immigrants from poor regions like Sub-Saharan Africa or South Asia the NEXT DAY. It would create a catastrophe for the local economy. It simply does not work in the modern world…to think otherwise is PC feel good liberal talk.

    Right here in the States, ILLEGAL immigration is also posing very real problems. The line is often heard that “immigrants do jobs Americans won’t do”…Yes, but that’s only because the corporations have taken advantage of illegal immigration to pay wages no legal resident would work for because a pay that low that legal residents would have to pay taxes on makes it worthless. It also allows corporations to sidestep minimum wage requirements and weaken unions.

    If we criticize Republicans or the Tea Party folks…it should be because they engage in racism or some of them are inspired by racist concerns or support the neo-liberal economic rape going on around the world. However there are many who have LOCAL ECONOMIC concerns or concerns about the application of LAW, and we shouldn’t condemn that. A lot of what they say regarding the LATTER is accurate and as Muslims we should stand for the truth.

    Most people would support legalizing young people who came here at a young age or were born here…it isn’t their fault their parents broke the law. But most right wingers are not going to agree with legalizing undocumented adults. However it is unwise and cruel to break up families through deportation or jail sentences…so an accommodation should be reached: What’s most plausible is to offer the adults legal residency and having to pay taxes(including any back taxes), but they DO NOT get citizenship or it’s privileges like voting or a US passport. There has to be SOME meaningful penalty or the right wing will not cooperate in carrying out reform.

    Immigration is a great thing and I think it should be encouraged and allowed all over the world…including in Muslim nations…but we have to be honest and admit it can NOT be unrestricted due to practical realities of the modern world…and the law also has to be respected with exceptions being made for refugees, the disabled, etc. whom Islam DOES require us to give special attention to.

    Ideally, we would put a gradual and responsible end to this corporate vulture of an economic system that creates poverty around the world so most people wouldn’t feel the NEED to immigrate. Most people love their homeland and would not leave unless they felt compelled for some reason.

  5. Barry Nuechterlein says:

    An interesting article. Quite apart from the religious obligations of Jews, Christians, and Muslims to be respectful of guests and immigrants in their countries, there is a pragmatic and cultural dimension to this that is rarely discussed.

    The truth is that, before the First World War, passport controls and border controls were much less prominent. The concept of requiring such rigid control and surveillance over the movement of people is a relatively recent concept.

    While it is true that at centres like Ellis Island, immigrants were screened for communicable disease, etc. (a sensible precaution to control the spread of plagues), the idea that people needed tighter control than things is a new one.

    The basic modern mindset, that views people as “legal” or “illegal,” and places power over all human movement in the hands of governments, is new.

    Think about the Hajj. While it is sensible to issue permits limiting the number of pilgrims for public safety reasons, and preventing criminals from using the cover of the pilgrimage to make mischief, why is there a whole industry and system of special visas, etc.? I don’t know what’s in the heart of the princes of the House of Saud, but I think they and their friends profit nicely from this. Not that they need the money…they have the world’s biggest oil reserves in the Eastern Province, where they abuse their subjects and laugh.

    This is a perverted idea, and it has taken hold in many societies, Islamic, Christian, and secular. It is because creating a costly system of permits and restrictions (vs. just logging who comes and goes with their basic ID to screen out criminals, as was done before 1900) empowers civil servants and political leaders.

    What we all have to imagine is that another world with other rules is possible. Passports, visas, etc., are stupid, and are instruments of abuse and repression. Why shouldn’t I be able to travel to any country on the planet with a normal photo ID? People have just gotten so used to this nonsense that they don’t even understand they’re being mistreated. Sad.

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