Review of Miguel A. De La Torre, The U.S. Immigration Crisis: Toward an Ethics of Place

Miguel A. De La Torre.  The U.S. Immigration Crisis: Toward an Ethics of Place. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2016. 176 pp. $25.00.

Gary Slater
St. Edward’s University

Miguel A. De La Torre’s The U.S. Immigration Crisis: Toward an Ethics of Place is a small book about a big problem. Across the course of the its seven chapters, De La Torre’s book moves from diagnosing the problems of migration—problems both within the migrant experience itself and also within the discourse surrounding an ethics of migration—toward the systemic reasons for the problems, and then finally toward promising responses to these problems. De La Torre aims to ground an ethical response to the suffering surrounding migration in concrete spaces rather than abstract principles, and on that front, he largely succeeds. For De La Torre, “An ethics of place recognizes that the physical location in which the oppressed reside is crucial in understanding which ethics, which praxis, needs to be engaged” (xviii). To that end, each chapter begins with attention to some specific geographic location, with locales ranging from Nogales to Indiana. Readers familiar with Scriptural Reasoning may also be drawn to De La Torre’s ending each chapter with a set of discussion questions—although these are sometimes presented in an incendiary rather than reparative tone—as well as his skepticism about liberal generalities regarding migration ethics, his progression from diagrammatic to corrective approaches to the problem, his orientation toward suffering, and his careful attention to ethnographic realities grounded in specific spaces. Although the book lacks either an extensive scriptural engagement or a direct engagement with theology, these omissions represent possible complements to De La Torre’s approach rather than failures of either intention or execution.

It is helpful to reconstruct the sequence of topics across the book. Chapters 1-3 represent an introduction to the human cost of contemporary migration across the US-Mexico border. De La Torre here attends to the economic drivers of migration-related injustice—the corn industry, in particular—with firsthand observations of spaces in Nogales, Mexico, Crawfordsville, Indiana, and five miles from Arivica among a community of migrants. With anecdotes drawn from personal experience, De La Torre explores the intersection of micro- and macro-level factors that generate absurd and tragic situations at the border, which is described as “es una herida abierta [an open wound] where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds” (9). As De Le Torre puts it:

As I stand beside the fence, looking into the United States, I become unmistakably aware that this monstrous wall is a consequence of U.S. conquest, of a nineteenth-century land grab where a powerful nation created a religious justification to disrespect the sovereignty of another nation.”

Particularly affecting is the story of José Antonio Elena Rodríguez, who was shot with impunity through the U.S.-Mexico border in 2012. De La Torre uses this event as a basis for deeper reflection on the border as the site of senseless pain, which is to say as a call that must be heard.

Chapters 4 and 5 shift attention from the suffering of migration to the sources of such suffering, visiting an anti-immigrant Tea Party protest in Oracle, Arizona, as well the courthouse in Tucson for a judicial hearing for undocumented migrants. In these chapters, De La Torre is unsparing in his criticism of damaging, xenophobic, and false narratives on the part of American citizens hostile to migrants. Yet he also takes care to profess empathy for the individuals themselves who are opposed to immigration. As De La Torre puts it, “White men…are, indeed, victims, but not victims in the sense O’Reilly intended. Instead, they are victims of the very structures designed to protect their power and privilege” (84). De La Torre’s prime target is not any set of individuals; rather, it is a juridical system whose ability to mitigate suffering—or even respect the basic humanity of migrants—has been profoundly inadequate. For De La Torre, “The societal structures that cause oppression are not reducible to a formula where only those who are marginalized are the victims” (85). As with the book’s earliest chapters, the middle section of The U.S. Immigration Crisis excels at its navigation of large and small-scale factors within a crisis that is both intricate and all too concrete for those whose lives it upends. These chapters also contain some of the book’s most overtly theological passages. Referencing his visit to the Tucson courtroom, De La Torre writes:

The oppressed (i.e., the undocumented) occupy the liminal space between the crucifixion of Friday and the resurrection of Sunday…To sit in a courtroom awaiting a streamlined trial is to sit in the hopelessness of Saturday. Those with middle-class privilege are usually too much in a rush to get to Sunday. What is needed is to sit with the disenfranchised in the dust (at times the literal dust of the migrant trails), accompanying their suffering. To be hopeless is not to give into fatalism. (101)

De La Torre’s point here opens onto the final section of the book: articulating a response to migration injustice through his ethics of place.

Chapters 6 and 7 identify sources of constructive response to the immigration crisis. These include the Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, as well as members of the community in Nogales, including many individuals who are migrants across the U.S.-Mexico border. Along with an extended conclusion (entitled “Against Hospitality”), these chapters of the book strike a note of, if not optimism, at least resilience. Significantly, De La Torre here finds role models whose examples point toward the ethics of place signposted in the book’s subtitle. As he puts it,“If a tree is indeed known by its fruit, then this church, in spite of all its shortfallings, is a church that believes—not due to its orthodoxy but because of its orthopraxis” (111). Such an ethics works toward dual aims: adding nuance to the immigration conversation and demonstrating an ethics of place. Its short length notwithstanding, the book does, I think, succeed in at least pointing toward both of these aims in a compelling and even practical way. Regarding the latter effort of articulating an ethics of place, in particular, De La Torre is able to shed light on how the border manifests itself psychologically and legally everywhere, yet also how concrete details like an Indiana cornfield are connected to migrants being the “economic heroes” of Mexico (140). A big part of the effectiveness of De La Torre’s approach is to take aim not at the most obvious targets in ICE or the Tea Party (or by extension, the Trump administration, which had yet to take power at the time of publication), but rather with the well-meaning but ineffective rhetoric of liberalism, particularly the liberal rhetoric surrounding hospitality (153). De La Torre offers one of the most effective summaries of the book’s aims in the following passage:

The United States will never be able to rectify, in a justice-based matter, its complicity in creating our current immigration crisis until it is able to understand why ‘they’ came and why ‘they’ continue to come. After reading this book, I hope that a more complex and nuanced comprehension of our current immigration predicament now exists in the mind of the reader. The hope was that by joining me in occupying the physical spaces where the cries of migrants are heard, the consciousness of the reader was raised beyond nonsensical anti-immigrant rhetoric. (152)

To put the matter in a slightly different voice, what De La Torre does in his critique is add a discourse about belonging and alienage within international migration to existing discourses about dignity and injustice.

To state the obvious, De La Torre’s The U.S. Immigration Crisis speaks within a much larger chorus of voices addressing the political, cultural, and theological challenges of the contemporary migration crisis. To best appreciate the book’s contributions, it helps to be familiar with related items that precede, sit alongside, and follow its publication in 2016. For example, De La Torre’s claim that if “our concepts have not arisen from the grassroots, then they really cannot be liberative because of their disconnect with the oppressed” (xiv) stems from a half-century of Latinx liberation theology. Another example is the claim that “Jesus, a colonized man, was an undocumented alien, a victim of political circumstances beyond his comprehension or control. To ask why Jesus was in Egypt is to ask why Latinx are in the United States” (155), which strikes notes reminiscent of Vergilio Elizondo’s mestizaje theology. And particularly relevant to contemporary politics is De La Torre’s attention to the Southside Presbyterian Church, which benefits from familiarity with the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980’s. This movement forms the basis for contemporary American sanctuary cities, and such leading figures within the movement as Jim Corbett and John Fife have articulated their sanctuary for migrants in explicitly theological terms. De La Torre engages these commentators at various points throughout the book. It also helps to be familiar with De La Torre’s career more broadly. De La Torre’s other works have grounded themselves theologically in a manner that both complements and corroborates the recalibration of theological ethics toward justice and concreteness achieved here.

Finally, it helps to be familiar with events that have transpired since this book’s publication in 2016. Many of De La Torre’s firsthand accounts were observed in 2015 at the exact moment of Donald Trump’s entry into U.S. politics as a national figure. Readers of this journal presumably do not need reminding that, since that moment, the migration discourse has dealt with the 2018 child separations crisis, migrant caravans as a pretext within U.S. partisan politics during the 2018 midterm elections, a movement among democrats to abolish ICE, and countless further indicators of a moral and political catastrophe. In fact, given the propulsive onrush of events during the news cycle during the Trump era, it is an unintended strength of the book that it highlights the continuity of the challenges across the situation pre-2016 and the present.

In addition to its intersection with these larger factors within migration history and discourse, The U.S. Immigration Crisisalso intersects with Scriptural Reasoning in a few compelling ways. Readers of this journal could be forgiven for viewing this book with some hesitation. Not only is there a relative lack of theology within its pages (including a paucity of scriptural engagement of any sort, much less along the interfaith lines associated with SR’s practices), but the stated interest in ethics also runs counter to what such leading SR-related figures as Peter Ochs view as a problematic discipline. Such claims as the following also strike a discordant note relative to SR’s self-descriptions as a practice of reparative reasoning. Referring to “an indecent ethics I call an ethics para joder (‘an ethics that screws with’),” De La Torre writes:

When the oppressive structures cannot be overturned, the only ethical response is to screw with the structures to create disorder and chaos. This is an ethics that employs the trickster image to upset the normative law and order of those in power who require stability to maintain their privileged position. (102)

Whatever else might be compelling in De La Torre’s ethics para joder, this is manifestly not reparative in its presentation.

Nevertheless, not only does The U.S. Immigration Crisis offer valuable insights on the migration crisis for practitioners of SR, but SR also offers resources that complement the ethics De La Torre aims to develop. On the former front, SR practitioners might appreciate the continuum of diagrammatic andcorrective reasoning on display across the book’s sequence of chapters; they might also share De La Torre’s frustration with the inadvertent damage caused by liberal efforts to pitch discourse at too general a level, appreciating instead this book’s firm grounding in both suffering and in organic communities of discourse. De La Torre’s critique of theological ethics as one in which orthopraxis stems from orthodoxy—i.e., “Based on the truth of X, we should do Y” (xvii)—resonates with SR’s disinterest in thinking in order to determine the grounds of thinking, and thus represents, at least in aspiration, a rather different sort of ethics from the kind resisted by Ochs and his associates. On the latter front, SR offers a way to extend De La Torre’s compelling but incomplete critique of a rhetoric of hospitality, providing as it does a developed logic of reparative conversation. SR could do this by providing ways of reading scripture that complement De La Torre’s ethics (along with, perhaps, Walter Brueggemann’s Land as a classic scholarly treatment on the significant of territorial space within biblical text), as well as drawing from its mature community of Islamic-Jewish-Christian relationships to provide a neglected interfaith perspective on this very real source of suffering. In sum, The U.S. Immigration Crisis is vital and promising, yet limited, and its limitations could be mitigated in ways that extend directly out of existing SR-related resources and practices.