The U.S. Immigration Crisis

Toward an Ethics of Place

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Miguel A. De La Torre
Cascade Companions
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Cascade Books
    , June
     2016.
     196 pages.
     $25.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781498223690.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Miguel A. De La Torre takes readers of this accessible book on a journey, one rich with his experiences and reflections on emotionally-loaded locales that reflect the marginalization and disenfranchisement of the immigrant. He travels from a town on the Mexican side of the US–Mexico border to the Indiana “corn country” that helped to bring about current US border policies, along a border-crossing trail to an anti-immigrant protest, a US District Courthouse, a Sanctuary church, and finally back to the Mexican border town.

The challenges confronted by the people the author encounters along the way (or those they left behind) are crucial to De La Torre’s larger project. As he puts it, “How can I write about the immigration dilemma if I do not walk the migrant trails, or sit in court while they are being processed, or worship with them at the church where they are seeking sanctuary?” (xix). In visiting these representative places and sharing his experiences with the reader, the author not only is able “to radically be in solidarity with those on the margins,” but also helps the reader to do the same.

De La Torre’s introduction, entitled “¡Presente!,” outlines the ethical approach at the foundation of his project. He attempts to posit a unique ethics of place. While localist ethical approaches are not new, and others have called for academics and activists to connect with grassroots movements, De La Torre’s assertion that avoiding “the trap of claiming the importance of social location without being present,” which can only happen when we “occupy the same space as the disenfranchised,” takes localism further (xviii). To De La Torre, this location or space is not just representative of a context, it is actually a physical place where bodies (in this case brown bodies) are located, and thus the space where the body of the scholar and/or activist should also be. The desired result of his new methodology is to bring us closer to justice. As the author states, “for me, an ethics of place means that praxis must be developed in the place of oppression, in the midst of the effects of institutional disenfranchisement in the hopes of creating an ethical response” (xviii, n 2).

De La Torre attempts to overcome what he sees as a false dichotomy between ethical theory and practice by upending the traditional ethical methodology, whereby ethical contemplation leads to a truth claim/theory, which then reveals the morally correct course of action. Instead, he asserts, orthodoxy should flow from orthopraxis. It would be interesting to hear the development of this theoretical approach; the process by which this theory came out of practice. De La Torre continues this practical theme throughout, later referring to a “church that believes—not due to its orthodoxy but because of its orthopraxis” (111). Developing this ethics of place is also intended to help his reader “better understand the spiritual” through justice-based practice that is engaged in transforming society (xviii).

This small book attempts to achieve multiple goals, some of which are accomplished, and others that could benefit from further development. The ultimate goal of the book—to “invite the reader to leave their comfortable space and join the undocumented and their allies in the continued struggle for justice” (xx)—was successful: the reader was invited. After encountering the author’s mixture of narrative and rich description, readers will feel as if they have already been on the desert trails and leaving water and food for the migrants who would otherwise die, while at the same time feeling obligated to go there now. The author skillfully weaves together a book with an incredible depth of facts, stories, and a sense of life-and-death urgency.

The ethics of place proposed in the book, however, needs further development, given that the author seems to assert that physical location is critical to every instance of ethics. Most people would agree that contextual ethical analysis needs to consider both the social location and the actual physical location of the marginalized. De La Torre, though, appears to claim that ethics cannot be practiced from other physical locations or, at least, prior to an ethicist being at a relevant physical location: “However we define ethics in the future, it should be derived from occupying the same physical space as the dispossessed” (xx). “An ethics of place insists that the scholar be present, to also occupy the space of the undocumented and their allies” (xix). If this is the case, then readers in their own location might not be engaging in ethics, even if acting to help the undocumented while reading this book.

If this definition of ethics (requiring physical accompaniment) were to become operative, it could be argued that De La Torre himself, although accompanying the undocumented in various precarious situations, is only-too-briefly present in each context—or, alternatively, that he cannot be truly physically present, given that he does not experience the same biological stresses. After all, during the visits of this scholar and citizen, he operates from his own position of security and privilege. De La Torre’s desire to closely ally himself with the “untouchables” in our society is admirable, as is his project, and a bit more development of his notion of an “ethics of place” could bring forward important dialogue about the relationships between contemplation and action, social and physical location, and scholar/activist and marginalized bodies.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Mary Beth Yount is Assistant Professor of Theology at Neumann University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Date of Review: 
September 26, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Miguel A. De La Torre has authored numerous articles and more than thirty books, including the award-winning Reading the Bible from the Margins (2002); Santeria: The Beliefs and Rituals of a Growing Religion in America (2004); Doing Christian Ethics from the Margins (2014); and Hispanic American Religious Cultures (2009). He presently serves as Professor of Social Ethics and Latinx Studies at Iliff School of Theology in Denver. He was the 2012 President of the Society of Christian Ethics.

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