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Showdown in the Sonoran Desert: Religion, Law, and the Immigration Controversy

Ananda Rose
Published by Oxford University Press in 2012

Reviewed by Carl A. Ruby, Student Life, Cedarville University

In the final chapter of Amanda Rose’s narrative account of the consequences of our nation’s current approach to immigration policy she observes, “The U.S.– Mexican border is a place of extreme behavior, a place where social and economic ills are played out with terrifying and tragic outcomes” (152). This geographic backdrop, or specifically, a 262-mile stretch of it in the Sonoran desert, provides the context for a series of narratives told by Rose to highlight many of the challenges the United States faces in the area of immigration policy, a system that she and many others acknowledge as broken.1

This portion of the Sonoran desert, a stretch of inhospitable desert near the Huachuca and Chiricahua mountains south of Tucson, Arizona, is significant because in the absence of a comprehensive approach to immigration, states are responding in a piecemeal fashion by tightening security in the areas where it is easiest to cross the border. This has created a funnel effect pushing immigrants toward a remote region near Tucson, an area that comprises only fourteen percent of the shared border but accounts for half of all immigrant deaths. Rose noted that during the time she was writing this book, the bodies of 550 immigrants were found in Arizona. Official estimates of the death count vary from 2,000 to as high as 5,000 during the decade leading up to 2010.

ose uses personal narrative to expose the human side of this political impasse, stating, “My aim in these pages has not been to take sides but rather to try to approach the problem in a disinterested fashion; to try to play a bit of the devil’s advocate all around; to see the merits and flaws behind clashing philosophies” (9). While Rose claims to approach this issue in a “disinterested fashion,” her sympathies clearly lie with those who are seeking to enter the United States through the Sonoran desert and with groups like Humane Borders, No More Deaths, or The Samaritans who are working in that region to provide assistance to those who are making their way north.

Though Rose’s sympathies seem to be pro-immigration, she also refuses to demonize those who favor stricter enforcement. She frames the debate as an “ideological battle between ordinary Americans forced to grapple with the difficult realities of illegal immigration” (7). Rose concedes that the discussion is rife with harmful and often inaccurate stereotypes, heartless border patrol agents, sanctimonious aid workers, law-breaking immigrants, and bigoted ranchers and Minutemen. Heartbreaking stories humanize those seeking to enter the United States illegally, illustrating that only a small percentage (sixteen percent) fit the stereotype of immigrants as dangerous criminals. In fairness, Rose also observes that, “most Border Patrol agents have their hearts in the right place; they feel that they are serving their country, trying to make it safer, trying to do the right thing for and by others” (77). On both sides of the issue are individuals seeking to grapple with a very complicated social, moral, economic, and political challenge.

Rose frames the debate over immigration policy within a theological context. Noting that seventy-eight percent of Americans describe themselves as Christians, Rose begins one chapter with the following challenge: “Imagine Jesus standing in the desert – not one of the many deserts in Judea or Galilee, but the Sonoran desert” (145). She asks the reader to contemplate how Christ would respond to a group of “illegal immigrants stumbling toward him from afar.” Such imagery is moving and powerful, but Rose readily admits that it oversimplifies the theological issues at the heart of this debate; issues like the legitimate tension between loving one’s neighbor and the challenge found in Romans 13 to submit to the laws of the land. Rose asks, “How can we hold up principles of justice, accommodation, dignity, and even love which have guided the founding of world’s great religions while also respecting the laws of the land” (7)?

Most Catholics and many evangelicals have responded to the immigration issue with general support for comprehensive reform, though Rose notes that a letter from a group of Catholic bishops also “acknowledge[s] the right of a sovereign nation to monitor its borders in furtherance of the common good” (44). A resolution passed by the national Association of Evangelicals concedes, “The Bible does not offer a blueprint for modern legislation,” but it added that Scripture “can serve as a moral compass… [shaping] the attitudes of those who believe in God” (44). The nuanced statements of each group rightly suggest that simple solutions will prove evasive, even to those with strong biblical convictions.

Rose’s book is divided into two sets of narratives. One is told from the perspective of the immigrant and from those who are compelled to approach the issue in terms of its demand for humanitarian relief. The other perspective is from individuals who see immigration first and foremost as an issue of law enforcement and national security. Both sides bring legitimate sets of concerns to the debate. Rose notes that both groups share a tendency to “cherry pick” biblical quotations, lifting them out of context to prove their point.

The stories told in the first half of the book revolve around individuals like Sister Maria Engracia Robles and groups like Humane Borders who “work to create a just and humane border environment” (52), providing assistance to those crossing the border in the region of the Sonoran desert. Rose attributes the actions of the humanitarian groups profiled in this part of the book to the Judeo-Christian concept of radical hospitality, a concept rooted in Old Testament law, and according to Rose, reinforced by Jesus Christ in the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Many of these accounts raise vexing questions about the legitimacy of civil disobedi-ence. There is a fine and often-blurry line between acts of compassion intended to save lives, and the illegal activity of harboring illegal immigrants who are in the process of entering the country illegally. Those who argue against aiding immigrants who are in the process of illegal entry often cite Romans 13 as justification for a response that favors apprehension, criminal prosecution, and deportation. Many theologians, including those speaking on behalf of the conservative National Association of Evangelicals, argue, however, against a unilateral and literalistic interpretation of this passage, noting that such a hermeneutic would justify the suggestion that all leaders and all rulers are to be obeyed, a conclusion that we should avoid in light of the atrocities of leaders like Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot.[efn_noteThe National Association of Evangelicals, An Evangelical Call for Bipartisan Immigration Reform (May 7, 2010[/efn_note] The National Association of Evangelicals has issued a statement imploring Christians not to limit discussions about immigration to a strict defense of rule of law and national sovereignty, but also to acknowledge that laws and policies need to be evaluated in light of the fact that immigrants, whether legal or not, bear the image of God and our response provides an opportunity for a display of biblical grace and mercy.

Throughout the book, Rose notes the many stark contrasts that contribute to the complexity of this challenge. Rose draws a contrast between the right of states to control their borders and the right of immigrants to migrate in order to seek a better life. Another contrast frequently used is the tension between obeying federal or state law and honoring higher moral laws. Rose clearly favors a more open approach to immigration with more emphasis on the human rights of those seeking a better life, and a different approach to enforcement, justifying her preference with a quotation from Abraham Lincoln who said, “I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice” (13). Rose notes that fear plays a large role in mobilizing resistance to immigration: particularly, fear of potential physical harm (crime), fear of economic loss, and fear of a dilution of our national identity (120). Such fear is fueled by individuals like Patrick Buchanan who predict that the United States will fail to “preserve the Republic” (93) if we do not immediately build a fence along all two thousand miles of our southern border.

A number of evangelical groups are proposing a different—in the opinion of the reviewer, more balanced—response. One group, starkly called “No More Deaths,” proposes that effective immigration reform should be based on the following set of principles (78).

1. Recognize that the current strategy (Militarized Border Enforcement) is not working.
2. Develop a strategy for dealing with undocumented persons who are already here.
3. Prioritize family unity and reunification.
4. Develop an employment-focused policy that provides a simple legal means for larger numbers of immigrants to enter the country.
5. Recognize the role that environmental, economic, and trade inequalities play in encour-aging immigration.

Another group including noted evangelicals like Michael Gerson, Bill Hybels, Richard Land, Leith Anderson, Mat Staver, Samuel Rodriguez, and John Perkins have issued An Evangelical Call for Bipartisan Immigration Reform based on a similar set of principles.2 Their statement calls for immigration reform based upon the following priorities:

1. Respect the God-given dignity of every person.

2. Protect the unity of the family.
3. Respect the rule of law.
4. Guarantee secure national borders.
5. Ensure fairness to taxpayers.
6. Establish a path toward legal status and/or citizenship for those who qualify and who wish to become legal residents.

While current movement within the evangelical community gives some grounds for optimism about such reform, Rose rightly notes, “One thing seems certain: until the governments of Mexico and the United States make immigration reform a top priority, until the complex machinery of immigration and border enforcement policies are properly evaluated, it seems that little will change” (84).

The primary strength of Showdown in the Sonoran Desert isthat it humanizes the debate over immigration. Rose’s account is an emotional appeal to recognize the human cost of a failed approach to immigration policy.

hile the book may appeal to many in faith-based organizations who are engaged in ministry to immigrants and undocumented workers, it is not a theological study of many of the issues surrounding immigration. Those who are looking for such a study should consult Matthew Soerens’ and Jenny Hwang’s Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion, and the Truth in the Immigration Debate or Daniel Carroll’s Christians at the Border: Immigration, the Church, and the Bible.3

Other limitations of the book are that by its very nature it focuses exclusively on one geographic area and one particular group of immigrants. It does little to enhance our understanding of the challenges facing other ethnic groups or people attempting to enter the country in other areas. It also makes no attempt to suggest policy improvements, or to explore economic and historical factors that support immigration reform. Those objectives are better met by Jason L. Riley’s Let Them In: The Case for Open Borders.4

Rose’s book excels at what it set out to accomplish; to tell a compelling and moving story about a variety of individuals who are facing issues of life and death in the Sonoran desert. To this end, it adds a valuable perspective to the national debate over immigration policy.

Cite this article
Carl A. Ruby, “Showdown in the Sonoran Desert: Religion, Law, and the Immigration Controversy”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 42:2 , 209-213


  1. Matthew Soerens and Jenny Hwang, Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion, and Truth in the Im-migration Debate (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009); Lisa Sharon Harper and D. C. Innes, Left, Right, and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics (Boise, ID: Russell Media, 2011); Richard Land, “God and Immigration Reform,” USA Today (August 15, 2010); Chuck Colson, “Defending the Strangers in our Midst: The Demonizing of Immigrants,” BreakPoint (April 16, 2012,
  2. The National Association of Evangelicals, An Evangelical Call for Bipartisan Immigration Reform (May 7, 2010
  3. 4Matthew Soerens and Jenny Hwang, Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion, and Truth in the Immigra-tion Debate (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009); Daniel Carroll, Christians at the Border: Immigration, the Church and the Bible (Baker Academic, 2008).
  4. Jason L. Riley, Let Them In: The Case for Open Borders (Grand Rapids, MI: Gotham, Reprint Edition 2008).

Carl A. Ruby

Cedarville University
Dr. Carl A. Ruby serves as Senior Student Affairs Executive at Ohio University. Before Ohio University, Dr. Ruby served as the Vice President for Student Life at Cedarville University.