Immigration as a Moral Issue
A belief in “the inherent worth and dignity of every person” is core to Unitarian Universalism: every person, no exceptions. As religious people, our Principles call us to acknowledge the immigrant experience and to affirm and promote the flourishing of the human family.
Our Sources “challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love.” Hebrew scripture teaches love for the foreigner because "you were foreigners in the land of Egypt" (Leviticus 19:33-34). Christian scripture reports that Jesus and his disciples were itinerants. When asked "Who is my neighbor?" Jesus responded with the parable of the Good Samaritan, a foreigner who treated a badly beaten man as the foreigner would have wished to be treated (Luke 10:25-37). The Qur’an teaches doing “good to...those in need, neighbors who are near, neighbors who are strangers, the companion by your side, the wayfarer that you meet” (4:36). The Universal Declaration of Human Rights asserts that “everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country” (article 13.2). Unitarian Universalist Principles and Sources call us to recognize the opportunities and challenges of human migration—caring for ourselves and our families, interacting with strangers, valuing diversity, and dealing with immigration systems.
Before recorded history, some people migrated out of Africa and later across the world. People left their places of birth to feed themselves, protect themselves from hostile environments, or better their lives. Some people migrated voluntarily, while others were forced to migrate due to enslavement, war, famine, marriage, or fear of persecution. Whatever the circumstances, the human family is composed almost entirely of immigrants or descendants of immigrants.
Most of the land mass on earth is now divided into nations with boundaries. Although we recognize that national boundaries are often arbitrary and disregard historical tribal boundaries and wildlife migratory patterns, we acknowledge that these national boundaries exist and that nations will protect their borders. Nations have assumed the right and obligation to protect the security and well-being of their citizens by enacting and enforcing immigration laws. Our challenge as religious people is to distinguish the moral from the immoral, supporting the former and opposing the latter. Moral immigration laws that are just and humane contribute to the public good, define the parameters of legal immigration, and restrict harmful influences such as criminal intent, epidemics, and contraband. Unfortunately, not all immigration laws are moral; some use race, class, religion, ethnicity, ability, or sexual orientation to dictate who belongs and who does not.
Underlying Factors Contributing to Immigration and Lack of Documentation
Today people leave their places of birth and migrate for the same reasons people always have—to be safe, to meet their needs for food and shelter, and to better their lives. Thus, violence, environmental change, and economic conditions often motivate migration. Acts of violence that drive people to migrate include armed conflicts, violence against women, violence related to sexual orientation and gender expression, ethnic cleansing, political persecution, and genocide. Environmental conditions that lead to migration include climate change, droughts, floods, radiation, and pollution.
Economic factors are currently the primary driving force behind immigration worldwide. Economic factors that cause people to migrate include the inability to meet needs for sufficient food and adequate shelter and the desire to better their lives. Contributors to these economic conditions include population growth, environmental degradation, globalization, and policies that address land ownership, tariffs, trade, and working conditions, many of which are continuing legacies of imperialism and colonialism.
A mechanism for regulating immigration is the issuance of visas, which are legal documents giving permission to enter and stay in a nation for a period of time. When the supply of visas is far below the demand, then pressure to enter a country illegally or overstay a visa increases. A similar pressure occurs when the length of time between applying for a permanent visa and its issuance is a matter of years. When people cannot obtain or renew visas but choose to enter or remain in a country anyway, they become undocumented immigrants.
Visas that allow multiple border crossings encourage people to visit their families knowing that they can return and work. When crossing a border is difficult or hazardous, the likelihood of returning to one’s family decreases and the desire to send for one’s family increases. The families of undocumented immigrants wanting to reunite with their loved ones also have no means of entering legally. A broken immigration system opens the way for illegality, human trafficking, and exploitation.
Who migrates, how they migrate, where they migrate to, and when they migrate are central to immigration policies worldwide. While immigrants find jobs, build community, fall in love, have children, and in other ways enrich a country with new ways of thinking and being, some people declare them unwelcome and label them—not just their status—illegal.
Lack of documentation and legal status can lead to exploitation. Work visas often require having an employer-sponsor, which can limit a person’s freedom to change employment. Some employers are unable to find workers willing to do certain jobs under the work conditions and at the wages they offer. Other employers are stymied by onerous requirements to prove that they need people with certain abilities. When the number of work visas is fewer than the number of workers demanded by the economy, employers will fill the need regardless of workers’ documentation.
Documented and undocumented immigrants alike are often denied the civil rights protections of citizens, paid less than citizens, labor in unsafe and unhealthy conditions, and/or are forced to work and live without pay under the threat of violence. In the United States, increased border security has resulted in undocumented immigrants crossing in more dangerous and remote areas where basic human needs such as drinking water do not exist.
Increased enforcement of immigration laws and the proliferation of for-profit detention centers have led to egregious human rights violations with little accountability or transparency. For example, immigrants in the U.S. detention system are not afforded the same due process rights as U.S. citizens, leading to unnecessarily lengthy detentions, and thus greater profits for the prison industry. These centers are poorly regulated and often overcrowded. Essential needs, including medical attention, are often denied, while more cost effective and humane measures are ignored. Immigration enforcement consumes increasingly more of the federal government’s resources.
Many undocumented immigrants and their families live in constant fear of deportation. This fear affects their use of educational opportunities and health care services, and their willingness to interact with local police officers. Enlisting local law enforcement agencies in immigration enforcement violates accepted practices of community policing and erodes trust between police and the communities they serve, sometimes resulting in racial profiling of those who appear to be foreign. Deportation results in destroyed dreams and broken families—partners separated and children taken away from their caregivers or forced to return to a place they do not know. The perceived and constructed threat of those who are different has led some individuals and nations to meet immigrants with fear. Fear has become a social and political force that incorrectly labels people as “illegals,” “criminals,” and “terrorists.”
Our Unitarian Universalist (UU) Principles and Sources compel us to affirm that all immigrants, regardless of legal status, should be treated justly and humanely. At a minimum, a moral immigration policy would include the following elements:
- A path to legal permanent residency and citizenship
- Work visas that
- Require the same worker protections applicable to citizens including fair wages, safe and healthful environments, and receipt of benefits
- Do not depend on a single employer
- Allow multiple entries
- Permit entry into the path for legal permanent residency and citizenship
- Provide parity between the number of visas and the work available in the receiving nation
- Timely processing of applications for visas and timely deportation decisions
- Access to the same medical care and education available to citizens
- Evaluation of human and environmental costs and benefits of proposed barriers to immigration or other changes in immigration policy
- Due process under the law, including legal representation, rights of appeal, and the right to initiate suits
- Alternatives to detention for those not considered a threat to society and humane treatment for those being detained
- Preservation of family unity, including same-sex and transgender couples and families
- Provision of asylum for refugees and others living in fear of violence or retribution
- Collaboration with source countries to address underlying issues that contribute to immigration, including trade policies.
Calls to Action
Given the consequences of immoral and unjust immigration policies, we pledge to ground our missions and ministries in UU Principles and Sources as we undertake individual, congregational, and denominational actions, such as:
As individuals, we can:
- Educate ourselves and others about human migration, immigration policies, human rights abuses that result from immigration policies, and the impact of trade and farm policies on human migration
- Learn a language used by a large number of immigrants in our communities
- Advocate for moral immigration policies
- Tour detention facilities and inquire about treatment of detainees
- Volunteer for local organizations providing aid and advocacy for immigrants
- Take direct action, such as intervening to preserve the lives of immigrants, helping them get needed medical and legal aid, refusing to report undocumented people, or reporting abuses of immigrants
- Advocate enforcement of laws that prevent employers from abusing undocumented workers
- Listen to those who have differing ideas about immigration and creatively develop approaches that take those concerns and our concerns into account
- Record stories of recent immigrants and of our own immigration histories
- Learn how to identify and report human trafficking, including labor trafficking, in our communities.
As congregations, we can:
- Cooperate with other UU congregations, other faiths, and secular groups that are focusing on immigration issues for the purposes of education and action
- Offer lifespan education, youth and young adult programming, and worship services that explore immigration issues
- Create a covenant group that focuses on immigration issues
- Adopt service projects that address issues of immigration and immigrant rights
- Participate in efforts that support the rights and dignity of immigrants
- Explore and implement ways to transform concern into action, including the possibility of providing sanctuary for undocumented immigrants at special risk
- Support and participate in advocacy efforts to change immigration laws that are not moral, including using state legislative ministries where they are available
- Coordinate experiential trips to gain first-hand understanding of border, migrant, and refugee issues; support groups that facilitate such trips, including No More Deaths and the UU Service Committee (UUSC)
- Organize visits to local detention centers, inquire about the care of detainees, and support detainees and their families
- Meet with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials and local law enforcement to oppose detention in privately-run facilities and advocate for alternatives to detention for low-risk detainees
- Fund college scholarships that are available to undocumented young people
- Offer financial assistance to undocumented immigrants seeking to obtain legal immigration status
- Take an active role in UU and interfaith organizations, including congregation-based community organizations that address the needs of immigrants such as UU Refugee and Immigration Services and Education (UURISE), Interfaith Immigration Coalition, Standing on the Side of Love, and Interfaith Worker Justice
- Call upon the immigrants who are members or friends of UU congregations to share their stories and wisdom openly
Welcome changes as new immigrants join our congregations
Encourage the sharing of congregants’ cultural heritages and experiences to create personal bonds and enhance appreciation for the contributions of diverse cultures
Participate in a refugee resettlement program
Provide tutoring to help immigrants achieve English fluency and other skills
Incorporate languages other than English into congregational life
Conduct citizenship classes, voter-rights education, and voter registration drives that target new citizens.
At the denominational level, we can:
- Publicly witness against violations of the human dignity and human rights of immigrants nationally and internationally
- Advocate for moral immigration policies and international conventions, as well as trade, farm and other policies that alleviate the underlying causes of migration
- Support efforts to deconstruct the for-profit prison system that treats humans as commodities and fuels a culture of mass deportation and incarceration
- Share with congregations information about immigration legislation at the national level
- Advocate for expeditious implementation of national commitments made for visas to foreigners who have loyally served alongside our nation’s military
- Join with other faith-based and human-rights groups working for improved national policies on immigration; these policies include labor regulations that protect undocumented immigrants at an equivalent level to that provided to citizens
- Provide curricula, resources, current information, and networking opportunities that congregations can use in their immigration education and advocacy efforts
- Support the immigration-related work of the UU United Nations Office, UUSC, and other UU-related organizations such as UURISE and the UU College of Social Justice.
Affirming the inherent worth and dignity of every person, we take up this call with joy and commitment, celebrating the creative and life-giving diversity of our world’s peoples.