“Why Can’t They Do It the Right Way, Like My Ancestors Did?” by Patricia Nemore, Oswaldo Montoya, Okima Bryant, Peter Bankson, Sandra Miller, David Lloyd

December 10, 2017

Second  Sunday of Advent

Patricia Nemore: I’d like to start with a quote from the Boston Declaration of Christian religious leaders, a document endorsed by Seekers Church naming what we think Jesus’s teachings require of us in the 21st Century:

“We lament national boundaries that make our worries about security a pretext for destroying the lives of others. . .”

This is the time of year when we encounter the story of the family that arrived in town after a long trip too late to find lodging and so spent the night or a lot of nights in a barn, where their baby was born.  And then fled their homeland to a foreign country to keep their tiny child safe from being murdered by a powerful king.

So, then, a great time of year to talk about others fleeing their homelands for safety or a better life, and more specifically, to talk about the situation of those who emigrate to the US without the documents deemed necessary to cross our borders. 

Last fall, 12 of us gathered in a School for Christian Growth class to read and discuss the book Undocumented:  How Immigration Became Illegal by Aviva Chomsky.  Today a few of us from that class want to share with you a tiny bit of what we learned and what touched our hearts.  There is so little time and so much to say; our comments can be impressionistic, at best.  I encourage you to read yesterday’s (Saturday, December 9, 2017) Washington Post story “Deported – Divided”.  http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/local/2017/12/08/deported-divided-how-a-moms-return-to-el-salvador-tore-her-family-in-two/?utm_term=.5a7fc8c94cbf.  It is a thoughtful and heartbreaking exposition of one immigrant’s experience, illustrative of many.

Chomsky’s book is hard reading, especially if you have a soft spot in your heart, as I do, for the plight of people here without the right documents.  The book is both informative and provocative.  She questions who benefits from borders (she believes primarily the powerful) and who has the easiest access to work (again, she believes the well-off are advantaged in this regard).  Over the course of the book, she walks us through a century and a quarter of  federal immigration law in the United States. You have a bulletin insert that summarizes that.

But the focus of her analysis is the US-Mexican border; the people she describes are predominantly Mexicans but also Hondurans, Salvadorans and Guatemalans.

I am a lawyer by training so the law actually matters to me.  Hence, the name for this sermon:  “Why Can’t They Do It The Right Way, Like My Ancestors Did?”  (Please note that not all presenters of this sermon are descendants of voluntary immigrants.) As I said, I have a soft spot in my heart for the plight of those without documents, but the “legality” issue has always caught me just a little.  Telling our own families’ immigration stories, we discovered that the “right” way for them was nothing like it is today and that some came under shady circumstances.   From the book, it was helpful to learn, or be reminded, that some Mexicans in the US did not cross the border at all, rather, the border crossed them when, in 1848, Mexico ceded territories that are now the SW US.  To be reminded that the US and Mexico had labor agreements for decades that made the border porous, that allowed workers to come to the US to work then return to Mexico without a lot of fal da ral.  That Mexicans were not even considered immigrants – they were considered workers –  in the US until 1965.  That Mexican workers have been moving easily across the border for so many generations that they think of such movement as a natural part of life more than a matter of whether they are conforming to US immigration laws. That our immigration laws have always, either explicitly or in effect, favored Europeans.

The complexities of our immigration laws, categories for visas, pathways to citizenship are staggering.  Even to say what actually is “illegal” strains the brain; I’ve made a barebones attempt, also in the bulletin insert, but there is so much more that could be included.

But what broke open my heart  the most in this inquiry was the indomitable will of our southern neighbors to find a way to a safer, better life.  The dangers  they are willing to face – of riding La Bestia, of putting themselves in the hands of brutal drug cartel operators, of crossing the desert in the freezing cold or boiling hot and of doing it again and again if they first don’t succeed –speak of a yearning to be free that is almost unimaginable to me.  That circumstance makes it so clear that we have to find a better way.

Oswaldo Montoya: I invite you all to learn from my brothers and sisters of Latin America who against all odds come to this country, risking their lives to save their lives, facing huge discriminations due to how they look, how they talk, where they come from, many of them living in overcrowded and deteriorated households, often living in the basement of a house, or sleeping in a tight living room, on the floor, waking up at 4 am to commute to their jobs, serving as maids, as housekeeping cleaners, agricultural workers, drywall installers, cook assistants, etc. being cheap labor to feed the exaggerated patterns of consumption of American citizens.

I’m angry at the leaders of my country and other countries in Central America and Mexico who are complicit in this tragedy. The politicians who only worry about their interests. They can use left a wing language, or a right wing language, they can pretend to be liberals, o conservatives, or socialists, or Christians, whatever ideology, but deep down they have proven to be of the same kind: looking after their own interests only, taking advantage of their positions within our governments and making decisions that left large segments of the population excluded and obliged to leave their countries.

I’m angry at those politicians here in the US who are either direct makers of policies that have promoted an unjust international system, or are complicit and participant in sustaining this system. Much of the political and economical nightmare and problems, including decades of war in Central America, have been fueled by the US government interventionist orientation. Foreign US policies kept in place right wing dictatorships in Latin America for too long. All this exacerbated the conditions that push millions of people to emigrate to the US.

As a privileged “documented immigrant” in this country I need to tell my fellow Latino “undocumented” immigrants that there is no moral justification to the fact that I and my children and my spouse have access to jobs, tax credits, and other opportunities that are denied to them–just because you, my fellow immigrants lack the right piece of papers and I have them. Both your children and my children, your family and my family, have the same needs and aspirations for safety, for food, for a decent housing, for clean water, for education, for meaningful connections, for being treated with dignity and respect. But you face enormous difficulties in meeting some of these needs just because you entered into this country and remain here with the wrong passport, or visa or card.

All of us who are in this room–most of you American citizens, and documented immigrants like myself– have a responsibility, a moral obligation, a Christian duty to do something about these injustices. We have to use our privileges to challenge these same privileges that continue denying the human rights to those who came to this land to work, to serve, to raise their families, to support their families in their country of origin and to live a dignified life.

Okima Bryant:  I would want the world to know that we are all connected to the works of the undocumented. For an individual to think it is none of his/her concern is very ignorant. Another thing is that the attention the undocumented receives depends on the political propaganda or which community politicians are willing to drown for their benefit. We all need to bridge the gaps and close any opportunities politicians may use to divide us. Whom ever is lifted up for any politicians’ agenda, it’s only temporary be it poor whites, the undocumented, and the colored. It gets hard.

My heart is busted open at the realization that children are making this voyage alone and without adult supervision or protection. The pressure that an adult would put on any child that he/she must save the family is ridiculous. Children should never have to make adult decisions. Their experiences through this journey can give scares that would last a lifetime.

Peter Bankson:  Although my ancestors came to this country a long time ago, they were all immigrants. For a long time I’ve identified with those who came to this land in search of opportunity. In my early years, in Washington State where there were few African-Americans, our prejudices were directed at the Native Americans and other immigrants who came after we were here. (I was offered the arguments that Native Americans were lazy because they didn’t hold jobs, and that the Irish were not English or Swedish, and therefore not really American.) It was the same kind of tribalism that plagues us today, but they weren’t being deported. It reminds me of Faces of the Enemy, a book by Sam Keen about how universal, and regretful, it is to project what we don’t like onto others who are identifiably different.

In the class I was surprised to see just how much the private incarceration industry has profited from laws that support “Lock ‘em up!” as the right approach to denying welcome to those who come now, in search of opportunity.

Sandra Miller:  Getting to a way of thinking into and beyond the visceral level to which I reacted to everything I learned and that broke my heart was difficult and may be impossible even with more perspective over time. Sometimes my heart was broken open and sometimes moved beyond open to sheer horror. Horror, grief and a well of sadness sits at the edge of my awareness all the time because of facts and history of which I was ignorant. I admit to failing miserably in moving beyond my compassionate self to a rational evaluation of what I read, heard, and saw to a vision of what is mine to do, which was a part of what I hoped would become clear through the class.

The statistic that the risk of dying making the trek to this country was more than twice as high in 2009 than in 2004, and nearly 30 times greater than in 1998 is heart wrenching and appalling. Or the fact that immigrant detention has more than quintupled in size in the last 15 years. Statistics that are important to know are also a bright, blinding light shining on the lives of whole groups of people subjugated to the will of an economic machine that rolls over them in seeming indifference. Last year when I was asking people walking down Columbia Road if they were registered to vote, what were the real, individual stories each undocumented worker who told me they were ineligible carried as both hope and burden?  It is heartbreaking to think what people are willing to do for freedom from fear and want.

The reality of the daily lives of the multitudes of undocumented workers lucky enough not to be detained is still a life lived in constant fear and want. Poverty and violence in too many countries have made people willing to risk absolutely everything to reach the land of promise only to find themselves compromised in ways they could not have anticipated.  And those who are detained and/or deported, are ripped from their circle of family and friends, church community and what few support services they have managed to obtain and face an emotional and physical reality that is unimaginable.

In the face of such inequality and injustice, my heart and mind are broken open to consider what is mine to do, though I am totally overwhelmed by the prospect.

David Lloyd:  I was one of those with an ancestor with a shady immigration story.  One of my German ancestors poached a hare, fled to Hamburg and worked under a false name until he earned enough to book passage on a ship to Philadelphia, then changed back to his rightful name.

This book and the class made me re-examine my own history and how blind I have been to the reality of the lives of more recent immigrants.  Where I grew up, all of those who worked in the poultry processing plants of Delaware and the Eastern Shore were poor African-Americans.  After the civil-rights movement opened up other jobs for African-Americans, those who replaced them were poor Haitians.  More recently they were replaced by workers – documented and undocumented – from Guatemala and El Salvador.

I didn’t fully internalize the U.S. role in civil wars in Central America.  When Seekers formed in the 1970s we had a guest preacher who was the wife of a candidate for vice president of El Salvador as its civil war was ending.  She informed us that nearly 70% of the economy of El Salvador depended upon remittances sent by Salvadorans working here who had fled the civil war.  When many of us went on the Guatemalan pilgrimage some of us encountered young men who had come to the U.S. without papers during its civil war and worked in the construction industry.

But even after the class I usually don’t think about how poor immigrants affect my life and how I have a stake in the economic forces that make their lives difficult.  When I enter a new office building I almost never think about the immigration status of those who helped build it. Two days ago I ate a raisin bran cereal without thinking about the immigration status of those who picked the grapes that became raisins.  Yesterday for lunch I had turkey soup without thinking about those who work in the poultry processing plants.  Last night we were at someone’s house for dinner and I enjoyed a delicious salad without thinking about who picked the lettuce plants, the apples, the pecans, or the grapes that became raisins.  I just don’t think about the people behind the things in my everyday life.

Our class has made me aware of my hypocrisy in this.  I am too much like the Pharisees and Sadducees who came to John the Baptist for baptism but who had not truly repented, had not truly changed their lives.  John the Baptist called them out for their hypocrisy.  If he were alive today he would be calling me out as well.

Chomsky’s book and the class challenged us to think about the changes we need to make for a more just approach to immigration.  Chomsky’s book mentions young activists involved in attempting to change our culture to one that doesn’t start from a position of being anti-immigrant.  But Chomsky’s final paragraph, which was reflected in most of the discussion in our class, raises a harder challenge:

Although the cultural strategy is a very important way to raise awareness and open a real debate about immigration policy, we also need to address the root global and economic factors that have contributed to today’s problems.  In the most immediate terms, we as a society created illegal immigration by making immigration illegal.  In larger terms, we created illegal immigration by fostering a global system that bases the prosperity for the few on the exploitation of the many and enforcing it, in the modern era, through borders and exclusive citizenship.  It’s up to us to change it.*

*Chomsky, Aviva.  Undocumented:  How Immigration Became Illegal.  Boston, MA:  Beacon Press, © 2014, p. 208.

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