Siding with Love: Immigration

If you have been paying attention lately, you have been exposed to a mountain of information about the status of immigrants and aliens in the United States. You have heard some of the heart-wrenching stories about separated families and exploited workers, about thousands of deaths as a result of attempted border crossings, and the enormous amount of money that changes hands illegally in that process. There is nothing about our current national immigration policy or our border maintenance that is either sensible or just. Indeed, the fact that we talk about immigration policy in itself reveals something of how partial our perspective is—because every immigration with an I is also an emigration with an E; and if we look at this issue from a global perspective, what we are really talking about is migration, which is a constantly occurring phenomenon in both the natural and human worlds.

If you have been paying attention, you have been reminded that we are a nation founded and built by migrants; even the very oldest of our citizens, the indigenous Native American tribes, are descended from ancestors who once crossed a long ago land bridge from Asia and settled across the continent. Any of us who are of European or African heritage have migrant forbears within historical memory; some of us may be transplanted here from other national origins ourselves. You have heard of the powerful incentives that draw people to want to enter the United States; the hope of escaping violence and persecution in their countries of origin, the longing to be reunited with families and communities already building new lives here, the aspiration for a better future, or at least greater opportunities for their children, that makes people willing to risk so much to participate in the possibilities that this country still offers.

If you have been paying attention, you have come to understand that the way the United States government currently responds to these migration patterns has three practical flaws, that produce untold and unnecessary injustice and human suffering. First, the process by which it enables families to enter the country legally together, or to be reunited with relatives already here, is arcane, and currently has a processing backlog of years. It often forces would-be migrants to remain unmarried, or allows one spouse to enter the U.S. while the other waits for an unspecified period, usually multiple years, to join them. Even more cruel, during this time the successful migrant is not permitted to leave the country, and the waiting spouse is not allowed to enter it, no matter how briefly. Families must make a painful decision about which spouse will be separated from the children. If uprooting yourself from everything familiar, learning a new language, and becoming part of a despised minority were not disincentive enough, one might suppose that such enforced separations would make families reluctant to pursue their dreams of a better life in this unwelcoming system. Yet so strong is the hope and determination that American life inspires that people continue to sacrifice years of their most precious relationships in order to be part of it. And the reality is that much of that sacrifice is completely unnecessary; it is purely a function of an inefficient and over-burdened system that lacks the resources to do its job properly. That needless complexity and the back log it creates is a function of our indifference as citizens of this government. If we cared about this injustice, it could be changed.

The second essential flaw in the way our laws handle migration is the way they deal with temporary workers. While many people will go to extraordinary lengths to become American citizens and establish new lives in this country, not everyone wants to relocate here permanently. There are hundreds of thousands of seasonal and temporary workers who are lured to the U.S. by jobs that attract few native citizens, but represent prosperity to migrants. These workers form an essential part of the economy, and employers rely upon them. While here they pay taxes, including $7 billion a year in Social Security that they never collect, but they aspire to return to their homes eventually, not remain in this country. By unrealistically limiting the number and type of workers allowed to enter the country legally, the current system encourages employers to circumvent the laws and hire undocumented illegal migrants. Moreover, whether they enter the country legally with a difficult-to-obtain employer based visa, or illegally, such workers are vulnerable to the worst kinds of abuse and exploitation by both employers and recruiters. Many are charged thousands of dollars up front in return for the visas, sometimes with false promises of citizenship to follow. Once in the U. S. they may face unrealistic hours or productivity requirements, dangerous working conditions, unfair wages, underpayment for their work, abusive bosses or other exploitive conditions. Most feel that they have no recourse and are powerless to complain, for if they are working illegally, their employers can have them arrested and deported. But even if they are legal, once the employer fires them, their visa disappears. They cannot effectively unionize, or seek the protection of occupational safety laws. Their tentative status becomes an incentive for employers to treat all workers irresponsibly, and undermines the principles of fairness and accountability that have made the American workplace trustworthy. It is worth remembering that some part of the corporate sector has a vested interest in the continuation of this inequitable situation.

The third broken element of existing U.S. policy is the arbitrary, inhumane and unjust ways in which these policies are enforced. Migrants detained by the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement are held in jails, whether or not they have committed a crime. They may be denied bond, and deported without hearings. The ACLU reports that "Detainees, including children, are often subjected to strip-searching, shackling, solitary confinement, lack of access to telephones, mail and legal resources, denial of outdoor recreation, and verbal, physical and even sexual abuse. Survivors of torture, asylum-seekers, families with small children, and individuals with serious mental health issues and medical conditions… are routinely mixed in with local prison populations serving time for crimes." The ICE itself acknowledges that between 2005 and 2008, 66 people died while being held in its custody, many of them from inadequate medical care. It is common for detainees to be denied medication for chronic illnesses, or needed medical treatment. Raids by the ICE are frequently conducted with unnecessarily violent tactics, traumatizing children as they are forcibly separated from their parents. These enforcement strategies do not serve to address the basic issues of migration or national security for the United States. They only make the inadequacies and abuses of the current system more tragic, and highlight the urgency of a more rational and just approach to process of migration and the inevitable presence of non-citizens among us.

In the light of all this, it appears to me that the whole concept of an managed immigration policy is based on an outdated understanding of the world, and the willingness to live by our basest fears rather than out of loyalty to our ideals. At the heart of every religious tradition is the fundamental insight that we are called upon to welcome the stranger, to share our prosperity, and to put the well-being of humanity ahead of the sovereignty of nation-states. And the most rational of humanist logic must concede that on our shrinking globe, it makes no sense to build walls against one another, either physically or legally; they never achieve their alleged purposes, and they inevitably create injustice and suffering. The progress of humanity has always been, and will always be, about the tearing down of arbitrary exclusions, and the freedom to seek our personal and collective fulfillment where we believe it can best be found. Personally, I long for a world in which it makes no more sense for Korea to aim missiles at China than it does for Kansas to bomb North Dakota; where someone can move from El Salvador to New York to find a better job as easily as they can move from California to Texas. If Unitarian Universalists believe what we say about the goal of world community, with liberty and justice for all, it seems to me that this is a vision we share.

Indeed, I would propose that every one of our UU basic principles is challenged by the inequities of this country's current tangle of immigration policies. Do you believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person? Is that dignity a function of nationality or citizenship? Then how can we justify creating an underworld of workers and families who dare not claim the rights and freedoms so precious to the more fortunate among us? How can we let it be okay that thousands of people die every year in the deserts and on the seas around our borders, trying desperately to share in the life we have demonstrated is possible?

Do you believe in acceptance, and encouragement? Then why do we separate families, forcing children to grow up without their parents, and partners to struggle alone across the world from each other for years on end? How does this help us to accept and befriend those who are different from ourselves, and encourage people to become good citizens and responsible neighbors, building a shared community and a better future for everyone?

Do you believe in freedom, and responsibility? What could be more responsible than the incredible effort required to recreate your life from scratch in a new land, so that your sons and daughters can be safe from violence, can grow up to be educated and productive people? Where is the freedom in walls that lock people out, and laws that lock them up, when they seek to participate in the great experiment that is America?

Do you believe in justice, equity, and compassion? The immigration policy and practices of the United States government as they presently exist are neither just, nor equitable, nor compassionate, but rather arbitrary, discriminatory, and the cause of suffering. Even a highly exclusionary policy—which I think would be a mistake—could still be rationally designed, fairly administered, and humanely enforced. But there is no footnote in our commitment to the ideals of justice, equity, and compassion which says that they are to be for legal American citizens only. These are the qualities to which we aspire in our dealings with the whole world, and all people, and that includes the strangers in our midst.

Do you believe in democracy? It is a common expression to say that people vote with their feet. True democracy includes the voices and votes of everyone who is affected by a decision, and continually strives to extend its franchise. Is it not the very opposite of democracy to create a second class of those who must abide by laws and policies that they have no influence in formulating? In our increasingly connected world, where what we do to the earth impacts all the people of the earth, can we afford a democracy only of the privileged? Or are we not called upon to take into account the needs and the dreams, the wishes and the ambitions of people wherever they are?

Do you believe in the interdependent web of all existence? If so, the future of our one nation does not come apart from the fate of the planet as a whole, or the well-being of all our neighbors. Do you believe that that web is sustained by our diversity as much as by our similarities; that the beauty of every part of our lives depends on the variety inherent in the universe? To affirm diversity is to hark back to the words of John Stuart Mill: "It is hardly possible to overrate the value, for the improvement of human beings, of things which bring them into contact with persons dissimilar to themselves, and with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar. There is no nation which does not need to borrow from others." Together with trade, migration is one of the most ancient and enduring ways that human beings learn from one another, and are improved by contact with thoughts and actions and ways of life that are different from their own. I submit that this nation's greatness—whatever it is that restrictive immigration policies are meant to protect—is the product of all the diversity, creativity, innovation and energy that centuries of human migration have brought together here. And I propose to you that we have far less to fear today, as we have always had far less to fear, from those who seek to join this adventure and become partners in our future, than we do from the tyrants we become when we try, and fail, to stop them.

For in the end, if our liberal faith teaches us nothing else, surely it teaches this—that there is no 'us' and 'them'; that only evil ever results from thinking that humanity can be divided into those who matter and those who don't. We are in it together, for whatever this life and this world are worth. The doors to injustice open wide whenever we start to believe that there are any people who need not be treated in the ways we have agreed we must treat each other. The great mid-century Unitarian statesman Adlai Stevenson once said, "The world is now too dangerous for anything but truth; too small for anything but brotherhood." Our world has only become increasingly vulnerable since he uttered those words, and our global village more closely interrelated. All people are our neighbors, no matter where they live; we share the air and the atmosphere, the seas and the aquifers, the nuclear power plants and the nuclear bombs, the corporations and the stock market fluctuations. The earth is our common wealth, and it is only when we welcome one another that we are just, and only when we are just that we are secure. We have only one shared future on this planet; either our capacity for competition will kill us, or our capacity for cooperation will save us. It's not a decision I can make for everyone, but you will find me standing on the side of cooperation, compassion, and love. We are all migrants through history, on a journey together that will bring us either to destruction, or to a whole new place of possibilities for humanity, for the earth and its inhabitants. The summoning of that longed-for land, with all its promise and the perils of the journey from here to there, is for every one of us, neighbors and strangers both, and we might as well sing on the way.