Religion, Law, and the Immigration Controversy

Paul Harvey

Front CoverI picked up this week Ananda Rose's Showdown in the Sonoran Desert: Religion, Law, and the Immigration Controversy, just out with Oxford University Press, just as news of the Obama administration's recent change of immigration policy towards members of undocumented families who came under the age of 16. Based on a recent Harvard Div. School Th.D. dissertation, Rose's work is a combination of oral history, sociological exploration, and theological analysis of a particular borderlands region where over 2,000 migrants have perished over the last decade trying to make a perilous crossing.

Rose provides excerpts of interviews and studies of people on all sides -- law enforcement personnel, ranchers in the region, "Minutemen," religious and humanitarian aid workers, and others. Early in the book, she explores faith-based organizations such as Humane Borders and No More Deaths, which have responded to the humanitarian crisis engendered by the border crossings. A later section of the work takes up those who defend "state sovereignty" and dispute the theology behind the groups (making a sort of "tragedy of compassion" argument). Her work emphasizes stories based on extensive fieldwork which she hopes "will help us move beyond the stereotypes (of the heartless Border Patrol agent, the sanctimonious aid worker, the bigoted Minuteman, the law-breaking immigrant, etc.) so that perhaps . . . everyone can take a small step back and perhaps see the problem in a more nuanced, humanized light."

This won't be a public policy analyst or law professor's favorite kind of book (for example, see an appreciative but ultimately critical review by a University of Chicago law professor here, which concludes that the "harsh logic of deterrence" is ultimately the answer to the humanitarian crisis). It will, however, appeal to readers who seek human, and humane, stories from the borderlands, and some significant theological reflections from those stories. And for those who spent any time in the "Asylum" movement in the 1980s (aimed at refugees from U.S.-funded wars in Central America), a lot of this material will ring a bell. At any rate, it's a timely book to take a look at now and as the immigration rhetoric flies about through the presidential campaign.

Here's a summary of the book from its website:

The U.S. immigration debate has raised some of the most difficult questions our nation has ever faced: How can we preserve the integrity of sovereign borders while also respecting the dignity of human beings? How should a border-that imaginary line in the sand-be humanely and effectively maintained? And how should we regard "the stranger" in our midst?

To understand the experience of those directly impacted by the immigration crisis, Ananda Rose traveled to the Sonoran desert, a border region where the remains of some 2,000 migrants have been recovered over the past decade. There she interviewed Minutemen, Border Patrol agents, Catholic nuns, humanitarian aid workers, left-wing protestors, ranchers, and many other ordinary citizens of southern Arizona. She discovers two starkly opposed ideological perspectives: that of religious activists who embrace a biblically inspired hospitality that stresses love of strangers and a "borderless" compassion; and that of law enforcement, which insists on safety, security, and strict respect for international borders. But by embracing the stories these people tell about their lived experience-whether the rancher angered over seeing his property damaged by trespassing migrants, or the migrant who has left three children behind in a violent shantytown in the hope of providing them a better life through southbound remittances, or the Border Patrol agent stuck between his loyalty to law and the pain of finding a baby girl dead in the desert-Rose takes readers beyond predictable and entrenched partisan views to offer a more nuanced portrait of the conflict on the border. Ultimately, she argues, the immigration question turns on how we choose to view "the other"-with compassion or with fear.

In writing that is intimate, insightful, even-handed, and often gut-wrenchingly vivid,Showdown in the Sonoran Desert offers a fresh new way to frame one of the most important debates of our time.


  • A new way to frame current immigration debates
  • Interview-based analysis of lived experiences on the U.S.-Mexican border


"With a poet's knack for words, a journalist's observational skills and a theologian's insights into religion's moving force even if it pushes people in opposite directions, Ananda Rose humanizes the complexities and controversies of the U.S. immigration debate." --Catholic News Service 
"There is no better time to read this groundbreaking book than right now. Showdown in the Sonoran Desert offers a powerful, nuanced ethnographic analysis of a seemingly irresolvable problem in contemporary U.S. society: immigration, and all of the urgent moral and political dilemmas it embodies. This study is unflinching in its exploration of the central question of social, and governmental, responsibility for the suffering and death that continues to mark the terrain of the US/Mexico borderland in southern Arizona. Author Ananda Rose shows us that a meaningful response to this human rights crisis is possible, but it requires genuine dialogue and the hard work of listening carefully to a multiplicity of voices--especially those that are least likely to be heard above the din of combative rhetoric."-- Amy E. Den Ouden, author of Beyond Conquest: Native Peoples and the Struggle for History in New England


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