A Knock at the Door

Every June, representatives of the congregations in the Unitarian Universalist Association gather for the annual General Assembly. Each year as we do so, we try to shed some light on a local issue of justice, and we invite people of all faiths to join us in working to make our world a better place.

One year, we gathered in Salt Lake City, Utah, and unveiled a new campaign for justice, now called Side with Love. I volunteer as a spokesperson with the campaign, envisioned as an interfaith umbrella for a number of issues, all of which have to do with speaking out for equality and against discrimination, for love and against violence on the basis of identity.

As we gathered in Utah, the state legislature was about to pass a draconian new anti-immigration law, and so the theme of our interfaith rally was Standing on the Side of Love with Immigrant Families. As a minister and volunteer, I was asked to stand on stage to hold up our giant Standing on the Side of Love banner.

And so it was that I was standing there not ten feet from the podium when Mr. Larry Love took the stage, holding the hand of his young adopted son, Ozmar. Ozmar stood right next to me as his father told their story.

Mr. Love was born in Utah and is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. His required mission work took place in Guatemala, where he became fluent in Spanish, and when he returned he began attending a bilingual LDS church in Salt Lake City.

There, he met Ozmar’s mother, who had entered the United States sixteen years ago from Guatemala without documentation or permission, seeking political asylum because of the turmoil in her home country. Her application was denied.

Three subsequent applications for permanent residency in the United States were also denied, despite the fact that while in the US, she had three children – all citizens by virtue of having been born here.

She chose to remain in Utah because she faced violence, discrimination, and possible death in her village of origin, and because she could not afford to bring her American children to Guatemala (where non-citizens have to pay a monthly tax equivalent to seven days of average wages, and the tax on three children would not leave her with enough to live on). There, she worked a variety of jobs. She chose to stay and be a productive member of society. She got a Social Security Number (don’t ask me how) and paid income taxes on her wages.

After meeting Larry Love, the two married and he adopted her youngest child as his. Because she had lived in the US as an undocumented worker for so long, her application for citizenship was likely to be denied despite her marriage. She was advised by a lawyer not to submit a new application for permanent residency until the new Presidential administration took office; at the time, both candidates for President promised swift action on comprehensive immigration reform, one of the few areas where they were in total agreement. So she waited.

From here, I think I should tell the story in Mr. Love’s words. He told us this:

On March 18, one day after my birthday, I heard this at my front door at six-thirty in the morning. [Bangs fist on podium] And it was loud like that. And it was scary. I said, “Who is knocking on my door?” I opened the door and there were two immigration ICE officers at my door, and they said, “Have you seen this woman?” They pulled out a big eight-by-ten of this Hispanic woman and they said, “Have you seen this woman? She’s illegally registering cars to your address.” And I said, “No.” They said, “Can you have your wife look at this picture?” I said, “Certainly.” I called my wife – she was getting ready to go to work – and she looked at the picture and she said, “No, I haven’t seen that woman.” And he said, “We’re not here for that woman, we’re here to arrest your wife, [for] deportation.” They never showed me a warrant; I should have never opened the door.

Mr. Love’s wife was handcuffed, crying, in front of her children. She was allowed to kiss her kids goodbye and then shoved into a van with eight other people. She was denied bail and a deportation hearing was quickly scheduled.

Because she was married to a US citizen, and because her husband immediately hired a lawyer and began making phone calls inquiring about her, Mrs. Love was eventually released with an ankle bracelet and placed under house arrest, still unable to work to provide income for her family or the health insurance that her job provided – health insurance her family needed.

When we gathered that June, the Loves fully expected that Mrs. Love would still be deported. Their legal bills were mounting rapidly, and they were losing hope that, though she was now eligible for citizenship because of her marriage, she would be allowed to stay.

Whatever hope they still have is based on the fact that because of her relationship with Larry Love, Mrs. Love is unlikely to disappear into the system. Four US citizens – her husband and three children – are making sure that our immigration authorities know that she is a vital part of their family.

In this, Mrs. Love is lucky, because her situation is not unique. Some three hundred and fifty thousand people were imprisoned last year because of immigration violations - without having violated any other laws.

Right here in this community, undocumented workers – many of whom also have children who are citizens and spouses with green cards – are routinely swept up in raids, often in the wee hours of the morning or under the dark cloak of night.

That knock on the door comes too often to our neighbors right here in Westchester, and often their only hope is that someone knows that they’ve been taken. Immigration officials count on the fact that to many in our community, our immigrant neighbors are not human beings with inherent worth and dignity but disposable laborers, soon to be replaced by others.

As a matter of theology – as a simple way of affirming and promoting the very first of our Unitarian Universalist principles – we need to do what we can to humanize the immigrants in our community, to understand them as our neighbors, to see them as strangers worthy of our hospitality, to challenge ourselves to work so that their inherent worth and dignity is respected by all in our society.

And on this issue, our theology runs smack up against a brick wall of politics.

Despite the fact that working in this country without proper documentation is a crime comparable to speeding, we insist that those who have come here to seek a better life are “criminals.” It is very likely that I drove over fifty-five miles per hour on the highway on my way here. It is probable that I was among the slower drivers on that road, too. Should everyone on the highway this morning be taken from their homes in the middle of the night, handcuffed in front of their children? I think not.

We get angry because, after all, there are supposed to be legal ways to come into this country, are there not? But Mrs. Love applied for legal entry into the US before leaving Guatemala. Despite the fact that she had run afoul of local gangs and feared for her life, her entry was denied. Her mother, who lives in fear that those gangs will get her, still lives in Guatemala, and has been denied even a tourist visa to visit her grandchildren, despite having US citizens like Mr. Love recommend her for entry.

The truth is that for most poor people around our world, the legal immigration system is impossible to penetrate. In rushing to make these hard workers into criminals, we lose sight of the fact that it was not so long ago that millions of Irish and Italian immigrants got off of boats without paperwork and became a part of American society.

That people are able to come into this country legally is only one of the many myths surrounding immigrants and immigration, including who they are and how they contribute to our economy.

Among other things, they found that foreign-born workers are responsible for twenty percent of the Gross Domestic Product in the twenty-five largest US cities. Twenty percent, or the exact percentage that immigrants are of the population in those cities, showing that foreign-born workers clearly pull their own weight in our economy.

Day laborers, such as the people employed through Neighbors Link, make up about one half of one percent of the immigrant population in our county. One half of one percent.

In the New York metro area, they found that forty percent of registered nurses, pharmacists and physicians, fifty-four percent of security guards, food service workers and cleaning and janitorial workers and sixty percent of dental assistants and nursing aides are immigrants.

Immigrants in New York are a diverse population. Despite a common narrow-minded focus on Latino, Latina and Hispanic immigrants to this area, only twenty-seven percent of the immigrant population in New York comes from Mexico and Central America. Immigrants to New York also come from Europe, South and East Asia, the Middle East, the Caribbean, Africa, and South America. They represent every shade of the human rainbow. And while their native tongues add a wonderful diversity to the many sounds of New York, most immigrants in New York State speak English fluently.

In examining the economy in these large cities, researchers found a direct correlation between the rate of economic growth in the year before our current recession started and the immigrant labor force. While cause and effect are impossible to pin down precisely, it was clear to these professional economists that immigrant labor did not diminish economic growth at all; if anything, it enhanced it.

These studies very purposefully looked at immigrants, you will notice, and not just undocumented immigrants. This is partially because policies intended to target undocumented workers often hurt citizens and holders of green-cards and work visas, and because our demonization of the “illegal alien” in our midst means that people here legally suffer discrimination and alienation as well.

The Fiscal Policy Institute’s report on New York concludes that “immigrants are such an important part of the New York economy that ‘cracking down’ on immigrants clearly [has] unintended consequences with significant negative impacts. ‘English-only’ policies, racial profiling, or a generally anti-immigrant atmosphere negatively affect a large number of people, families, and communities beyond the undocumented workers at whom the measures may purportedly be aimed.

The only possible solution is comprehensive immigration reform. And not any old kind of immigration reform, either – immigration reform that provides a path to legalization for millions of undocumented workers, and immigration reform that prioritizes keeping families whole. No family should be torn apart by a knock on the door in the middle of the night.

Mike Fishman, President of the 32BJ division of the Service Employees International Union, explains his organization’s stand on immigration this way:

Our union’s long-standing position on immigration reform is clear: We fully support a comprehensive solution to our broken and outdated immigration system. Millions of undocumented men and women who are already part of our communities must be brought out of the shadows and given protection under the law. Providing these men and women with a path to citizenship would rightly protect them from unscrupulous employers who often pay less than minimum wage and provide no health care or sick days. Just as importantly, fixing our immigration system must also address a range of issues including safe and secure borders, law enforcement and the future flow of immigrants into our country. Never again should countless workers find themselves without legal rights and protections.

David Bacon describes this kind of immigration reform on the website www.Truth-out.org. He writes:

“First, we want legalization, giving 12 million people residence rights and green cards, so they can live like normal human beings. We do not want immigration used as a cheap labor supply system, with workers paying off recruiters, and, once here, frightened that they'll be deported if they lose their jobs.”

He continues, “We need to get rid of the laws that make immigrants criminals and working a crime. No more detention centers, no more ankle bracelets, no more firings and no-match letters and no more raids. We need equality and rights. All people in our communities should have the same rights and status.”

In the coming months, it is likely that our Congress will take up comprehensive immigration reform once again. Leaders in both major parties are poised to support real and meaningful legislation that will help make our society more just for everyone. These people will be doing something difficult and necessary for our nation.

And many – in both parties – are liable to trot out tired old myths and scare tactics to get us to oppose changing our system. These people will be well-funded by entrenched business interests, and supported by talking heads in the media who claim a fake patriotism rooted in xenophobia and not liberty and justice for all.

We need to be paying attention. We need to be ready. We need to be willing to stand on the side of love.

Because no one should live in fear of a knock on the door.