Prof cites rights violations at border

Miguel De La Torre says using words like “hospitality” to discuss immigration reform assumes that “I own the house.”

By Bob Allen

The greatest human-rights violation in the United States is happening along the border, a Baptist ethicist said in a weekend radio interview about congressional inaction on immigration reform.

miguel de la torreMiguel De La Torre, professor of social ethics and Latino/a studies at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, told Interfaith Alliance head Welton Gaddy that Christians in the United States should use caution when discussing immigration in religious terms.

“Many times we use the language of hospitality, that as good Christians we should be hospitable to strangers,” De La Torre said Nov. 30 on Gaddy’s “State of Belief” radio show. “The problem with hospitality is that it assumes that I own the house and out of the goodness of my heart I’m going to let you live in my house.”

De La Torre, who was born in Cuba just before the Castro revolution and came to the United States when he was 6 months old, said it has taken more than a century to “get into the mess we are in now” and it may take another century to get out.

He said the country’s immigration problems didn’t occur overnight but are the direct result of the “gunboat diplomacy” foreign policy of toppling governments in Latin America in order to keep goods and services flowing toward the U.S. Added to that is NAFTA, a 20-year-old trade agreement between the U.S. and Mexico that critics charge has had negative effects in both countries.

“So you have this massive push of immigrants out of their former home because of our trade policies and because of the wars and violence that we have created in Latin America,” he said. “So the real question is when one country builds roads into another country to extract their raw material and their cheap labor, why should we be surprised that those same people take those same roads following everything that has been stolen from them?”

“So the question is no longer hospitality,” he said. “It is their cheap resources and labor that built the house. So maybe we should be talking about restitution. But that’s a conversation politicians and many Americans are not willing to have.”

De La Torre said he believes many politicians don’t really want to reform immigration laws, because they fear that if immigrants become citizens they might vote in more liberal and socially conscious ways.

“There is a fear of the changing demographics in this nation and the power that comes with these new demographics voting,” he said. “So for many of these politicians, no, they do not want to bring about change.”

Another factor, he said, is lobbying by private prison corporations that receive billions of dollars in government contracts and have a vested interest in making sure that if caught undocumented migrants go to jail.

De La Torre said “there is something morally wrong” when in the wealthiest country the world has ever known people are dying of thirst trying to cross dangerous Southwest deserts in search of a better life.

De La Torre said it’s difficult to get politicians to change their minds, because those who are privileged by power structures are generally unwilling to surrender that power. That’s why, he said, “we see all kinds of shenanigans going on,” like voter ID laws that disenfranchise many voters.

“Sometimes the only thing we can do is to mess up the system, to actually protest the inhumanity, the human rights violations, that are going on at the border,” he said.

De La Torre issued a “double-dog dare” to Gaddy’s listeners to personally visit the border through volunteer projects like No More Deaths, a group formed in 2010 to resist anti-immigration practices.

“If they see for themselves the human rights violations that are occurring there, it would evangelize, it would spiritualize, it would revolutionize their entire faith,” he said.

De La Torre, author of books including his most recent Liberation Theology for Armchair Theologians, writes for media outlets including Associated Baptist Press. He was raised Catholic and in his 20s became a “born-again” Christian and joined University Baptist Church in Coral Gables, Fla.

He left behind a successful real-estate business to attend Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., where he earned the master of divinity degree in 1995. While in seminary he was pastor of Goshen Baptist Church near Hardinsburg, Ky.

After seminary De La Torre earned a Ph.D. in religion from Temple University. He taught at Hope College in Holland, Mich., before joining the faculty at Iliff, a seminary related to the United Methodist Church, in 2005.

He is co-founder of the Society of Race, Ethnicity and Religion and was elected president of the Society of Christian Ethics in 2012. He is editor of the "Journal of Race, Ethnicity and Religion," which he founded in 2010.