Sticky, Tricky, Tangled: The Immigration Issue

Sticky, Tricky, Tangled: The Immigration Issue

Rev. Anthony David

Oct. 16, 2011


Today’s reading comes from the Rev. Daniel Groody, Roman Catholic priest and scholar:

A few years ago I was working in Mexico at a border outreach center that offered material and pastoral support to those on the move. Some were traveling northwards in search of better lives, and others had tried to enter the U.S. but failed and were deported back to Mexico. One day a group of forty immigrants arrived in the center, sojourners who had hoped to reach the U.S. It had been a long night for them – and an even longer week. For three days they had crossed through the Arizona desert in temperatures that reach 120 degrees in the shade. Amid the challenges of the desert terrain – their personal vulnerability to every- thing from heat stroke to poisonous snakes – they had braved a perilous journey and tried to make their way to the U.S., often under the cover of darkness. They walked remote and diffuse trails that have taken the lives of thousands of immigrants – an estimated 300-500 annually since 1994.

Why were they willing to take such risks and leave their home country? When I asked them, some said they had relatives back home who needed medication they could not afford. Others said the $3-$5 a day they earned for a twelve-hour work day in Mexico was not enough to put much more than beans and tortillas on the table. Still others said potato chips had become a luxury they could no longer afford, and they could not stand to look their children in the eyes when they complained of hunger.

“We are migrating not because we want to but because we have to,” said Mario. “My family at home depends on me. I’m already dead in Mexico, and getting to the U.S. gives us the hope of living, even though I may die.”

But now they were back on the border after a week-long ordeal. While walking through the Arizona desert, they had suddenly heard a rumbling sound on the horizon. Then a white laser-like light cut their world in two. Within moments a border patrol helicopter surrounded them and threw the group into chaos.

“So they circled around us and then rounded us up like we were cattle,” said Maria. “I said, no, dear God … I’ve gone through so much sacrifice to come this far … please don’t let them send us back where we came from.”

“It was an awful night,” added Gustavo. “But the worst part was when they started playing the song, ‘La Cucaracha’ over the helicopter intercom. I never felt so humiliated in my life, like I was the lowest form of life of earth, like I wasn’t even a human being.”

The story of Mario, Maria and Gustavo gives witness to their particular journey across the U.S.- Mexico border, but its dynamics are universal in scope. Today there are more than 200 million people migrating around the world, or one out of every thirty-five people on the planet, which is equivalent to the population of Brazil. Some 30-40 million of these are undocumented, 24 million are internally displaced and about 10 million are refugees. For many reasons some scholars refer to these days as the “age of migration,” touching every area of human life.


Our reading for today tells us that we are in an “age of migration.” More than 200 million people migrating around the world, or one out of every thirty-five people on the planet…. Some 30-40 million of these undocumented, 24 million internally displaced, 10 million refugees.

Listen to Adam Zagajewski’s poem, entitled “Refugees”:

Bent under burdens which sometimes

can be seen and sometimes can’t,

they trudge through mud or desert sands,

hunched, hungry,

silent men in heavy jackets,

dressed for all four seasons,

old women with crumpled faces,

clutching something—a child, the family

lamp, the last loaf of bread?


There’s always a wagon or at least a wheelbarrow

full of treasures (a quilt, a silver cup,

the fading scent of home),

a car out of gas marooned in a ditch,

a horse (soon left behind), snow, a lot of snow,

too much snow, too much sun, too much rain,

and always that special slouch

as if leaning toward another, better planet,

with less ambitious generals,

less snow, less wind, fewer cannons,

less History (alas, there’s no

such planet, just that slouch).

Shuffling their feet,

they move slowly, very slowly

toward the country of nowhere,

and the city of no one

on the river of never.


That’s the poem. We are in an age of migration, an age of humanitarian disasters, more than 200 million people leaning towards another, better planet, shuffling their feet, moving slowly, hunched, hungry, bent under burdens which sometimes can be seen and sometimes can’t.

Meanwhile anti-immigrant furor is on the rise, also around the world. Journalist Jeffrey Kaye writes, “Just as in the United States, [we hear calls for] border restrictions as well as budgets for higher fences, more border guards, and migrant prisons. The recent British election was marked by debates over how to restrict migrants, and by criticism from the right that the government had embraced a too-lenient immigration policy. In the U.K., France, Italy, Spain, Denmark and elsewhere, fear, xenophobia and anxiety over the immigration issue have spurred the rise of nationalist groups, just as in the United States. And, as the U.S. is trying to deter illegal immigration, mostly from Latin America, Europe is attempting to keep out non-Europeans.”

Today we’re exploring this sticky, tricky, tangled issue of immigration—what our values as a people of faith call us to. We’ll be looking at primarily the American situation—we’ll be hearing primarily American voices—but we can’t forget that the immigration issue is global in nature, and what we learn here is to some extent applicable elsewhere.

So: the American situation. The Rev. John Fife, human rights advocate and founder of the Sanctuary Movement, compares our time to when the Reagan Administration declared amnesty in 1986. “Compared to now,” he says, “the climate has shifted 180 degrees. I haven’t seen anything like this before,” he says: “political leaders who talk about immigration, using bigotry and fear and hate speech in ways we haven’t seen since the 1950s in the segregated South. Back then, politicians had to “out-seg” (as in, segregation) their opponents in order to get elected. It’s that kind of thing now—a race to the bottom.”

Arizona got there first, in its attempt to enforce its own punitive anti-immigration laws, then Utah, then Indiana, then our state of Georgia, and now Alabama. Alabama’s law (HB 56) is regarded as the most restrictive of the whole lot: makes it a crime for anyone not to have papers showing that they are in the state legally. Makes it a crime to knowingly rent to, transport, or hire someone who is in the country without documentation. Public schools are required to determine the legal residency of students upon enrollment. Police are required to check the immigration status of anyone they suspect of being in the state illegally. This is the race to the bottom. And while federal judges blocked Arizona, Utah, Indiana, and Georgia from enforcing their own anti-immigrant laws, Alabama got through in a way that no other state had: Judge Blackburn let stand the provision giving police officers unprecedented power to act as immigration agents. A power the police themselves say they don’t want. Racial profiling made legal.

Race to the bottom.

When Georgia passed its anti-immigration law, HB 87, I wrote a letter to the AJC, cosigned by all the Unitarian Universalist ministers here in Georgia I could get ahold of, and in part, here’s what I said: “There are a tremendous number of problems with House Bill 87. It is racist. It is neither workable nor fair. It is bad for business. It reflects Georgia politicians acting far beyond the bounds of their proper jurisdiction. Its twin bill in Arizona has cost that state millions of dollars in litigation, and its unconstitutionality has recently been upheld. But even more problematic than all these is the fundamental spiritual blight that House Bill 87 reflects. It is hate-filled and fear-filled. I urge Governor Deal not to sign this bill into law. We need to make room at the table. There’s always enough of what’s truly important to go around if we’re resolved to make it so. What would Jesus do?”

Well, lemme tell you, my “What would Jesus do?” letter did not go down well with lots of people. One person objected by saying, “What is it about illegal aliens [the ministers who signed the letter] don’t understand? Those people are here in violation of federal immigration laws…. Shame on these ministers for their support and encouragement of lawlessness.”

[Yeah—look at me right here: lawlessness. Woo hoo!]

NOT lawlessness, but justice, informed by a sense of history. Our Unitarian Universalist Association President, the Rev. Peter Morales, makes this point brilliantly. He says, “As a religious people who affirm human compassion, advocate for human rights, and seek justice, we must never make the mistake of confusing a legal right with a moral right. The forced removal of Native Americans from their land and onto reservations was legal. The importation and sale of African slaves was legal. South African apartheid was legal. The confiscation of the property of Jews at the beginning of the Nazi regime was legal. The Spanish Inquisition was legal. Crucifying Jesus was legal. Burning Michael Servetus at the stake for his unitarian theology was legal. The fact that something is legal does not cut much ethical ice. The powerful have always used the legal system to oppress the powerless. It is true,” the Rev. Morales says, “that as citizens we should respect the rule of law. More importantly, though, our duty is to create laws founded on our highest sense of justice, equity, and compassion. Loud voices urge us to choose fear, denial, reactionary nationalism, and racism. We must resist and choose the better way urged by every major religious tradition. We must choose the path of compassion and hope. We must choose a path that is founded on the recognition that we are connected, that we are all in this together.” That’s our Association President, who spent time in jail for his activism in Arizona. Justice is why General Assembly in June of 2012 is in Arizona—Unitarian Universalists from all over the land, getting clear about what law looks like when it is founded on our highest sense of justice, equity, and compassion; Unitarian Universalists from all over the land, standing together, standing together, discerning what Love is calling us to.

You know, what’s so ironic about the appeal to law—the idea that the law is sacrosanct, and once its speaks, there’s nothing more to say—is that the lawmakers themselves admit over and over again that if they found themselves in the shoes of Mexican immigrants, they would find a way across the border in a heartbeat, no hesitations. This is the finding of journalist Jeffrey Kaye. “I have asked countless conservatives and Republicans the same question: ‘If you had to support your family on $3-a-day or less, but you had the opportunity to cross a border illegally to raise your living standard, would you migrate?’ The answer from even the most diehard anti-immigrant advocate is consistent: ‘Yes.’”

This is the American situation: bigotry and fear and hate speech; race-to-the-bottom initiatives in now five states; blindness to the all-important distinction between what is legal and what is just. Also this: in the minds of millions of Americans, myths about immigration that take the form of slogans and soundbites, falsehoods that cover up the reality of what’s truly happening with darkness. Myths like:

The United States has a generous refugee policy. MYTH!

Since we are all the descendents of immigrants here, we all start on equal footing. MYTH!

Today’s immigrants threaten the national culture because they are not assimilating. MYTH!

Immigrants are a major source of crime in America. MYTH!

Immigrants compete with low-skilled workers and drive down wages. MYTH!

Immigrants don’t pay taxes. MYTH!

Immigrants take jobs and opportunity away from Americans. MYTH!

Myth after myth after myth—all easily dispelled. Check out Aviva Chomsky’s book, “They Take Our Jobs” and 20 Other Myths About Immigration, published by Beacon Press. Here, I want to address just one of them—the last: “Immigrants take jobs and

opportunity away from Americans.” Quite to the contrary, from the Brookings Institute we learn that the largest wave of immigration to the U.S. since the early 1900s coincided with our lowest national unemployment rate and fastest economic growth. Immigrant entrepreneurs create jobs for U.S. and foreign workers, and foreign-born students allow many U.S. graduate programs to keep their doors open. While there has been no comprehensive study done of immigrant-owned businesses, we have countless examples: in Silicon Valley, companies begun by Chinese and Indian immigrants generated more than $19.5 billion in sales and nearly 73,000 jobs in 2000.

The myth is easily dispelled—but what’s not so easily dispelled (what no doubt keeps the myths entrenched) is a deep sense of anger and resentment in the hearts of millions about what’s happening to the American economy. You have the Occupy Wall Street movement, which has spread to other cities across the country including Atlanta, protesting an unjust economic system that benefits the 1% of people at the expense of all the rest. Then you have the so-called “53%ers” who oppose the Occupy Wall Street movement, who say our economic system as is is just fine. People who see themselves as the only ones standing up for hard work and personal responsibility. One of these 53%ers says this:

I am a former Marine. I work two jobs. I don’t have health insurance. I worked 60-70 hours a week for 8 years to pay my way through college. I haven’t had 4 consecutive days off in over 4 years. But I don’t blame Wall Street. Suck it up you whiners. I am the 53%. God bless the USA!

I don’t know about you, but I’m having a really hard time understanding why this man, this 53%er, working two jobs, without health insurance, hasn’t had four consecutive days off in four years, isn’t himself whining—why he isn’t plain outraged. I can see a man like this drinking in myths about immigrants, imagining that the little he has is being threatened—this man, believing he’s got to do anything he can to preserve his slight advantage in the shaky American economy. So this man can’t help but support the bigoted politician who stands for punitive anti-immigration legislation. This is what’s happening, for millions of Americans, even as the real problem is and has always been the unholy accord between business and government that benefits the few at the expense of the many. The unholy accord that we find in America and we find around the world. The unholy accord that throughout history has sent refugees on their way,

Bent under burdens which sometimes

can be seen and sometimes can’t,

they trudge through mud or desert sands,

hunched, hungry…

…always that special slouch

as if leaning toward another, better planet,

with less ambitious generals,

less snow, less wind, fewer cannons,

less History…

“When I give food to the poor,” says the Roman Catholic Archbishop, Brazilian Dom Hélder Camara, “they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.” My message today is that we need to be asking the right questions about immigration if things are gonna get better. Questions about racism. Questions about what is legal vs. what is truly just. Questions about how it is that people with so little can feel so threatened by people who have even less. Questions about how our national and global economic system continues to fly under the radar, get off scot free. All of us, asking questions like this. All of us, migrants with that special slouch. All of us, leaning towards another, better planet. All of us.