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A nation of laws or compassion?


Two basic American truisms -- “Give me your tired, your poor” and “a nation under law” -- have collided all over the front pages of every newspaper in the United States. Before the new Bush administration had even been officially launched, George Bush’s nominee for secretary of labor, Linda Chavez, ran aground on the tension between the two ideals. In one nomination, compassion and order, mercy and justice, wound up at odds. The danger is that as a people we may heed one part of the story and miss the implications of the other. That could be the gravest mistake of all. The fact is that, in the end, whichever of these two stories dominates historical memory may well mark the character of this nation.

The trouble with truth is that it comes in stripes of different colors. There are two truths here: The first is that Marta Mercado, an abused and undocumented alien from Guatemala, lived in the Chavez home for two years doing odd jobs around the house in return for room, board and a bit of spending money. The second is that immigration and labor laws require entry permits of foreign nationals that are often difficult to get, as well as minimum wage scales and taxation standards that have no legal meaning without legal documentation. Those not certified by the law have no claims under the law.

Obviously, both positions are laudable. One is an answer to charity; the other a response to justice. The situation of a homeless woman cries out for mercy; the responsibility to pay aliens a just wage guards against exploitation and domestic slavery. The question is, which ideal should prevail and when and what is the cost of choosing one over the other?

Clearly, underneath the headlines of a first-round confirmation loss lies an even greater problem for the soul of a nation than that of a failed political nomination. What Linda Chavez did was clearly illegal. She harbored an illegal alien. Laws passed to stop the flow of immigrants across the Mexican-American border require employees to certify the citizenship of all workers. Another set of laws requires all employers and employees to pay Social Security taxes and unemployment insurance. Chavez did not require proof of citizenship and she and Mercado, the employee -- if she was really an “employee” in the truest sense of the word -- did not pay taxes. Chavez and Mercado broke the law.

What is not equally clear, however, is whether or not what either of them did was immoral as well as illegal. Mercado was fighting for her life -- a situation in which the rules of the game change for everyone. Chavez, a bearer of Hispanic history herself, was faced with the stranger at the door, of which the scripture speaks when it reminds Israel to take care of the widow and the orphan, providing them food and clothing “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (1 Deuteronomy 19). If we allow ourselves to think back, we know the case only too well: So were all our émigré parents “strangers in the land” -- long before immigration quotas and taxes turned out the light on Lady Liberty’s torch.

There is so often a world of difference between what is legal and what is moral. In search of one, George W. Bush -- the “compassionate conservative” who “will restore dignity to the White House” -- just stubbed his toe on the other. Many of us do. Perhaps, if the process of becoming spiritual adults is ever to be truly complete, all of us must. Sometime or other in life, we are each confronted with a choice between keeping one set of laws or honoring another. The simplistic approach is to assume that the law must always be kept. The anarchic approach is to assume that it must never be kept. Surely moral valor -- often moral courage -- lies someplace between the two.

There is a price to be paid, of course, if a nation of laws is ever to be stretched enough to become a nation of compassion. The suffragists, Martin Luther King Jr., the Berrigans, Deitrich Bonhoeffer, Nelson Mandela, all bowed to the laws even while they broke them. But break them they did, so that the rest of us could finally see the law above the law and repair the one that was so clearly inferior, so clearly less human, so clearly beneath what we claimed to do and who we claimed to be.

Linda Chavez, and the first two Clinton nominees for attorney general, incidentally, whose nominations soured for the very same reason as this one, have paid the price of the law, too. They were denied cabinet-level positions in a new administration. In this most recent case, Linda Chavez is no longer nominee for secretary of labor. Whether that was a good appointment or not on other grounds, we will never know.

But several things we will remember for a long time, thanks to these now defunct candidacies: The first is that as a nation, at least where aliens are concerned, we have yet to resolve the tension between the needs of people and the legal niceties of “a nation under law.” The second is that if Chavez had obeyed the law she would have turned her back on what she herself felt to be morally imperative. The third is that we have yet to see whether or not any purely law-and-order administration can really “restore dignity to the White House.”

Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister writes from Erie, Pa.

National Catholic Reporter, February 2, 2001