General Assembly: GA Presentations: Presenter views and opinions do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the UUA.

Welcoming the Stranger

Maria Rodriguez, hands clasped, speaking into a microphone.
Maria Rodriguez

General Assembly 2008 Event 3043

Presenters: Rev. William Sinkford, Maria Rodriguez, Rev. Jessica Vasquez Torres, Rev. Kim Crawford Harvie

"Who is my neighbor?" asked Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) president William Sinkford in his introduction to this session. "It's a question each generation of Americans must answer."

And, he goes on: we are, so far, answering it badly. Nobody, on any side of the political discussion, thinks the current system is healthy or effective. There are 12 million undocumented immigrants living here—and the policies that govern them are creating decades-long backlogs, separating families, and landing people in jail for the simple crime of being here.

Immigration has been a special concern of Unitarians ever since the very first General Assembly (GA) in 1961, when the assembly passed a statement supporting immigrant rights. Unitarian Universalists (UUs) were active in the sanctuary movement in the 80s, and were the first denomination to join the New Sanctuary Movement. And here in Fort Lauderdale, under the watchful eye of Homeland Security and being attended to by immigrants, we are dealing with this issue yet again.

Sinkford stressed that "the role of religious communities is not to develop public policy. That's the job of our political leaders. But it is our job to ask questions and point out where our actions fall short of our ideals."

"Knowing who our neighbors are and getting to know them is a critical first step." Immigrants are often invisible to the public life of the country. Most importantly, he continued, we need to tell some hard truths. One of these is that the term "illegal aliens" is unconscionable. Another is that walls don't prevent them from entering the country—and won't, as long as business continues to profit from the current system.

And finally: immigration is governed by laws that are more complex than our tax laws—but from the beginning, our quotas for legal immigration have always been skewed toward white-skinned Europeans. As Sinkford noted: "The Statue of Liberty faces east, toward Europe ."

After Dr. Sinkford's opening remarks, Maria Rodriguez, the founding director of the Florida Immigration Coalition, outlined the three issues that her group finds most critical.

The first is Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). There's been a 70% increase this year in the number of people in Florida who have been arrested, detained, and deported. As a result of this and similar crackdowns, there are 23,000 immigrants in detention in America on any given day, almost all of whom were arrested for no criminal act. The cost to taxpayers averages $95 a day per immigrant.

Rodriguez brought along Gabriella, a young activist whose home was raided in 2006, resulting in her entire family being detained. Her family members were released on the condition that Gaby stop speaking out. This week—two years later—the case went to immigration court. The result of the day was that Gaby's parents and pregnant sister will have to wear ankle bracelets until a second hearing in September.

Rodriguez and Gaby also told the story of Emmy, a 19-year-old Bangladeshi girl who immigrated with her parents when she was three. The family went through what they thought was a legal immigration process, but the attorney mishandled the case. So, ten years later—having bought a house and a gas station, and paying taxes for a decade—their home was raided. Now, ICE considers them fugitives. Emmy has been at the Broward County detention center for over a year; Maria encouraged the audience to call her field officer at 305-762-3350 and ask him to release Emmy.

The second issue is youth. Rodriguez introduced a well-spoken young man named Juan, who emigrated from Colombia when he was six. Juan worked hard, did well in high school, and graduated fourth in a class of 500 students. But because he's undocumented, he cannot get a driver's license, apply to college, take a job, or accept any of the scholarships he's been offered. Worse: he's at constant risk of being discovered, put into detention, and deported to a country he's never really called home.

Rodriguez estimates that 65,000 similar students graduate in the US each year. Juan's friend Felipe did get into a Florida university, and even became the student body president—but even though he was raised in Florida, he has to pay international tuition fees, which are several times higher than in-state tuition.

Rodriguez is focused on reforming in-state tuition laws, as well as passing the federal Dream Act, which allows undocumented students to begin the immigration process if they've been here since before 16, have never broken laws, can demonstrate good character, and are willing to go to college or join the military. "These kids have learned English and become culturally American," she said. "Most don't even realize they're undocumented until they want to get a job or learn to drive."

The third issue Rodriguez discussed is worker's rights—particularly wage theft, which she said has become epidemic in every part of the country. Now that 20% of low-income workers in the country are immigrants, employers are becoming more aggressive about paying sub-minimum wages, shaving hours off time cards, and paying these employees with rubber checks. In Florida, these crimes go unenforced, since the state department of labor was abolished by Gov. Jeb Bush, and the federal Department of Labor has just six staffers in the state—none of whom are lawyers.

Dealing with wage theft is taking some creative politics. So far, these cases have responded best to informal case-by-case intervention: the employers tend to settle up quickly once they know a third party is watching. But that doesn't solve the systemic problem, so Rodriguez' group is looking at ways they might leverage the Equal Opportunity and Living Wage boards in Miami and Palm Beach.

Churches have a useful role to play here, she noted. Wage theft cases are usually brought to local worker or day labor centers, so forming a partnership with a local center is an effective place for a congregation to provide some real help fast. Often, simply getting a fax from a church—or a few church members-- has been enough to get an employer to comply. Rodriguez said, easy as this is, it's very effective: millions of dollars have been recovered simply because of pressure from interested third parties.

Fixing this, says Rodriguez, begins with being clear about the root causes. She grants that anti-immigrant TV host Lou Dobbs is right: our schools, health care, and employment prospects are all worse than they once were. But the immigrants are not to blame—they're just another set of victims of the same policies. Neoliberal economic policies, encoded in treaties like NAFTA, create economic adjustments and reorganizations that displace people—much as happened after the industrial revolution. National debt, foreign aid policies, and military policies all play a role in turning people into immigrants.

Rodriguez draws hope from the alliances that are being made around these problems—particularly with unions, which are concerned about wage theft—ending years of isolation within the movement.

The next speaker was Disciples of Christ minister Rev. Jessica Vasquez Torres, one of the founders of the New Sanctuary Movement that's organizing churches to aid families that are facing division and deportation—and, they hope, change the terms of the debate.

Torres stressed that immigrants come here for one thing: work. And the work landscape is changing in America due to offshoring, the expansion of low-paying service sector jobs, poverty-level wages, the erosion of benefits, and the co-optation of the Department of Labor and the National Labor Relations Board by business. She pointed out that neoliberal economic and trade policies have created low government investment, fueled deregulation and privatization, and eroded the public good.

Torres also took on a common cliché about immigration—that it's all OK as long as newcomers "play by the rules, like my grandparents did." This statement ignores the fact that the rules have always been different for non-European immigrants, who have usually been excluded or exploited—and often enslaved—by immigration law in the past.

At the heart of it, said Torres, is NAFTA, which has greatly increased immigration pressure by devastating the rural economies of Mexico and Central America . The agreement sends heavily-subsidized American corn to Mexico, collapsing the market for locally-grown corn. Impoverished farmers have no choice but to come north to the border to work in the American-built maquiladoras (factories) that sprang up there in the 1990s. When the maquilas went to Asia in search of even cheaper labor, the immigrants living along the border started coming to the United States .

According to Torres, 12 million people are trapped in our broken immigration system, locked into a political game that benefits employers, creates family separations that can go on for decades, militarizes the border, lowers working standards for everyone, and creates a permanent underclass that supports our lifestyle. To correct the problem, we need to regularize the status of the people already here, reunify families, enforce and strengthen labor laws, eliminate guest worker programs, end workplace raids, and advocate for economic justice.

Churches can help through their participation in the New Sanctuary movement. "In the face of injustice, we cannot in good conscience comply," said Torres. While some churches stick to education, solidarity, advocacy, and organizing, some take the final step and offer themselves as sanctuaries, giving material aid to fugitive immigrants a way of living out the values of their faith community. Torres closed her talk with a quote from Cesar Chavez: "The fight is never about grapes or lettuce or laws—the fight is always about people."

The final speaker on the panel was Rev. Kim Crawford Harvie of the Arlington Street Church in Boston, who told of her church's experiences in becoming a New Sanctuary congregation. "New Sanctuary isn't just radical hospitality—it's prophetic hospitality," she said. To dramatize the idea of "prophetic hospitality," the church performed a Christmastime re-enactment of Las Posadas, a Latin American holiday tradition in which people playing Mary and Joseph (and, preferably a live donkey) wander through town caroling from house to house, asking to be let in. Arlington Street's version (which did include a live donkey) took a very pregnant young Mary recruited from a local immigrant center, accompanied by a thousand other participants, around Boston Common on a Sunday night.

They first went to the statehouse, which was closed—so the answer was, "No." The next stop was the FOX news headquarters, where the answer was, "No—you must be kidding." At the Episcopal Cathedral, the answer was, "Yes, you can come inside and warm up for a while." Finally, at the Catholic Paulist Center, everyone went inside for a pre-arranged meal.

The event got massive press coverage. Most importantly, said Harvie: Absolutely don't forget the donkey.

The connections the church made from this event led to the establishment of permanent Sanctuary organizations. The church is working with other groups to protest ICE raids in the Boston area. They've formed a rapid response team that can show up during or just after raids, arranging for legal services, the care of children whose parents have been arrested, and other necessary aid. They're also there as community witnesses to the proceedings: as Harvie pointed out, "It means a lot to have white faces watching as these things go down." They've conducted workshops on immigration reform for a wide variety of public groups, and are now gathering signatures on a petition to the Massachusetts legislature asking for sensible immigration laws.

Concluded Harvie: "When we say all are welcome, let's be that."

Still, Dr. Sinkford concluded: this is not a decision congregations should make lightly. Becoming a sanctuary church means making a commitment to be there when needed—and, almost certainly, putting the church across some very difficult legal lines. Churches that don't choose to do this can still serve in a great many useful ways. Those that do, need to be very sure that they intend to follow through all the way.

Reported by Sara Robinson; edited by Jone Johnson Lewis.