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Theology of Immigration
General Assembly 2008 Event 2026
Presented by Rev. Jose Ballester, Karen Narasaki, Rev. Kim Crawford Harvie
Kat Liu, Assistant Director of our Washington Office for Advocacy, introduced the speaker and gave the background on the pressing issue of U.S. Immigration which has taken on greater urgency in the wake of NAFTA and since September 11, 2001. The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) is the only denomination that has joined the New Sanctuary Movement and several Unitarian Universalist (UU) Congregations have signed the New Sanctuary pledge to support families suffering from unjust immigration laws. She shared some of the history and resources of the New Sanctuary program available from our Washington Office.
Karen Narasaki is president & executive director of Asian American Justice Center, based in Washington, DC. She is a nationally-respected authority on immigrant rights, voting rights, affirmative action and civil rights issues. She is also vice-chair of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the nation's oldest and broadest civil rights coalition, and chair of the Rights Working Group, which works to address the erosion of civil liberties and basic rights of immigrants since 9/11.
Narasaki opened the session by asking for a show of hands from those who are immigrants, children and grandchildren of immigrants, or people who work with immigrants or worship with immigrants. That covered the entire spectrum of the workshop participants.
Immigration is not only a U.S. problem, but a global one. Every country has to deal with this reality to varying extents. She drew stark comparisons between the ease of entry during the era of the pilgrims to the current strict immigration laws skewed in favor of whites. For example, prior to 1955, the quota set for Filipino, Chinese, and Japanese were 50, 105 and 185 per year compared to numbers in the tens of thousands per year set for Western countries like Germany and Ireland.
Not all illegal immigrants are illegal through voluntary crossing of borders. Many are brought here through human trafficking, through physical force, fraud and deception.
Gaining legal permanent residency takes years depending on the country. It takes seven to ten years to bring an immediate family member legally over from Mexico. There are now about 10 million undocumented immigrants with more than 50% from Mexico alone. Of the total number of 35.4 million foreign-born population of the US, more than 30% consists of illegal immigrants who make up five percent of our work force.
Raids conducted by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents around the country target non-whites. These raids are now daily occurrences.
Rev. Kim Crawford Harvie is a fourth generation Unitarian Universalist. For over 19 years, she has served as minister of our of our flagship congregations, Arlington Street Church in Boston, Massachusetts. Arlington Street Church is one of the churches that has signed the New Sanctuary movement pledge and they are part of the “Welcoming Massachusetts Campaign,” seeking to make the state a welcoming state to undocumented workers.
Soon after news of Arlington Street Church 's involvement in immigration reform broke, Rev. Kim received a call from a reporter who asked, “What took you so long?”
That question kept her lying awake at night. As Joan Didion wrote in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, "To live without self-respect is to lie awake some night, beyond the reach of warm milk, Phenobarbital, and the sleeping hand on the coverlet, counting up the sins of commission and omission, the trusts betrayed, the promises subtly broken, the gifts irrevocably wasted through sloth or cowardice or carelessness."
The idea of a person being “illegal” is antithetical to our first principle of inherent worth and dignity of every person. The theological basis in support of immigrant rights is rooted in every faith tradition. Rev. Kim read supportive texts from different religions that call for compassion, and radical hospitality. She called for a reform of immigration laws, a halt to deportation, enforcement of labor laws and a reasonable path to citizenship.
In addition to their pledge to the New Sanctuary Movement, members of Arlington Street Church have formed a Rapid Response Network (RRN). Members of the RRN call one another whenever there is a known ICE raid and they would show up to bear witness. ICE agents behave differently when they are being watched, especially if they are being watched by other white people. It's important for UUs to stand in solidarity with immigrants.
Rev. José Ballester has served the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Houston, Texas, which is part of an interfaith community in support of immigrant's rights. He is a UUA at-large Trustee and the board liaison for the Journey Toward Wholeness Transformation committee.
Ballester's message is “seek the truth in justice-making.” There are many myths surrounding immigrant issues that are rooted in fear and hate: for example, that they are a drain of our social services.
At the 2003 General Assembly, representatives from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers called for boycott of Taco Bell to raise wages for their tomato pickers, and received little support from UUs. This year, they are calling for a similar boycott of Whole Foods, whose founder is a UU. “We are not so pure,” chided Ballester.
Our privileged life is held up on the backs of illegal immigrant workers. This is the new form of slavery. When we know about injustices but are not called to act, then there's something wrong with our theology, Ballester said.
The following handouts and resources are available on the Internet:
- New Sanctuary Movement (PDF)—a UUA Advocacy and Witness Program
- Welcoming Our Neighbors (PDF): An Immigration Resource for Unitarian Universalists—a UUA Advocacy and Witness Program
- Issue Brief: Immigration Reform (PDF)—a UUA Advocacy and Witness Program
- They Take Our Jobs! and 20 Other Myths About Immigration by Aviva Chomsky
- The Politics of Immigration
Reported by Kok Heong McNaughton; edited by Jone Johnson Lewis.