This last Sunday was national immigration Sunday in the Church, big C. The reason is obvious: this country was founded with immigrants, and so it is appropriate that the week of July 4th, we reflect on our history, on our beginning, on how we came to be in this place and to be the people we now are.
The three scriptures I posted above all say very similar things: Don’t oppress the stranger, the foreigner, the “resident alien” - in other words, the immigrant: the one who lives in your country but is not a citizen in your country. Why? For the Israelites the reason was that they needed to remember that they too had been immigrants. They needed to treat others remembering once again that time is the difference between us: that they had also been in those situations and they were to treat others as they would have others treat them. They had been the immigrants before, and in remembering that, they were called to treat those who were the “new” immigrants with the same welcome, acceptance and compassion as they had sought to be treated.
What does this have to do with us? With the exception of full blooded Native Americans, all of us were also either immigrants (or our ancestors were) or we were brought here against our will. “The resident alien who resides among you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the immigrant as yourself, for you too were immigrants in this land.”
But, as you must all surely acknowledge, as a country, as a people, we have struggled, from the beginning, in our relationships with the newest immigrants or newest arrivals to this country. Who those immigrants are has changed and who we struggle against therefore has changed. But the struggle itself has not. For a time, the immigrants from Ireland were oppressed and rejected. Did any of you come across with the Irish immigrants? And were your ancestors treated well? Then it was immigrants from Italy: also abused, mistreated, threatened. Again, any of you have Italian ancestry? Currently, it is immigrants from Central and South America as well as immigrants from predominantly Muslim countries with whom we struggle. The faces have changed, the group we struggle with has changed, but the problems: the discrimination, the fear, the abuse - it is the same, each and every time. What’s interesting is that we still have undocumented immigrants from Ireland and Italy. Apparently, we have 50,000 undocumented Irish immigrants in the US, 10, 000 of those are in San Francisco alone. But we no longer struggle against them. No, our focus has changed. Or the deeper reality: our fear has changed. Because when it comes down to it, that is, always, the reason we struggle against immigrants. We are afraid. We fear many things, but it comes down to fear. Perhaps we are afraid that the United States will become too crowded. Perhaps we are afraid that their way of life is somehow different from ours and will be threatening. Some would say we are afraid of an increase in crime, though the statistics over the last twenty years tell us the exact opposite is true:
Immigration-crime research over the past 20 years has widely corroborated the conclusions of a number of early 20th-century presidential commissions that found no backing for the immigration-crime connection. Although there are always individual exceptions, the literature demonstrates that immigrants commit fewer crimes, on average, than native-born Americans. Also, large cities with substantial immigrant populations have lower crime rates, on average, than those with minimal immigrant populations. … Cities and neighborhoods with greater concentrations of immigrants have lower rates of crime and violence. (http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/fact-check-immigration-doesnt-bring-crime-u-s-data-say/)
In some cases we fear that the level of education in this country will decrease. This too is countered by the facts:
Compared with all Americans, U.S.-born children of immigrants are more likely to go to college, less likely to live in poverty, and equally likely to be homeowners. Thirty-six percent of U.S.-born children of immigrants are college graduates—5 percent above the national averagehttps://www.americanprogress.org/issues/immigration/reports/2017/04/20/430736/facts-immigration-today-2017-edition/
The biggest fear I think is just plain racism. This is supported again by our behavior towards our immigrants. Because as I mentioned above, we aren’t talking about deporting the Irish “resident aliens”. To put this in bigger perspective, CNN reported that a PEW research study indicated that in this country right now there are between 475,000 - 500,000 undocumented Europeans. Again, there is no conversation about blocking or deporting them. Less than half of this country’s undocumented folk are from Mexico, and most undocumented folk come into this country legally and simply overstay visas. Yet, we persist in ideas of building walls. (http://gothamist.com/2017/01/09/undocumented_immigrants_nyc.php)
Perhaps we are afraid of how they will impact us economically. A news program that I heard about a month ago was discussing the finances that go along with the current immigrant situation. There has been a lot of “scare”, again, around the idea that somehow undocumented persons are taking our money or costing this country a great deal. But the truth is that undocumented persons are paying taxes and many are paying into social security; every time they buy anything they pay taxes, and most have taxes taken from their pay check as well, by giving false social security numbers or in a variety of ways, they are actually paying taxes, often more than most of us. But these are people who will never be allowed to withdraw any of that as social security or many of the other benefits that come from our taxes. While this in itself is a severe miscarriage of justice, none the less, when the money numbers are punched out, the fact is that our undocumented persons contribute a great deal more to our economy and our taxes and our social security than they will ever receive or take.
In addition, as you know, our undocumented persons are currently doing jobs that most documented persons in the United States just plain won’t do. Sometimes they are severely abused, taken advantage of: hired to do work for which they are not paid, knowing there is no legal recourse for them. Or being paid so little that they can barely feed their families. But the economic reality in this country is that California provides over half the agricultural food for the rest of the country, and most of the work on that food is done by undocumented persons. If our immigrant workers leave, the cost of our food will rise exponentially. This, too is a severe injustice and has created almost a slave caste of people in the United States. Rev. Anthony Robinson, a UCC pastor in Washington says, “Injustice anywhere leads inexorably to injustice everywhere. If there is a class of people without rights, without voice, without legal recourse and protection, it puts not just that group at risk. It puts an entire society at risk. It becomes a cancer that eats away at the whole social body. If a certain group can be exploited, then exploitation begins to infect the whole society. Its overall standards of justice and fair play are lowered and distorted.” In the face of this, while treated amazingly unfairly, these undocumented persons still choose to come here, which tells us that at some level even this is better than what they have left behind.
But whatever it is we are afraid of, (and I think it is important to look at what it is we actually fear and to find out if those fears are real or imagined) the God who is God of all people, including these people, is a good God and when we decide that “these people” (whoever that is…whatever group that is) will somehow affect us negatively we are forgetting first that they, too, all of the “theys” out there are God’s children, and second that they are our brothers and sisters whom we are called to love and care for no matter what. “The resident alien who resides among you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the immigrant as yourself, for you too were immigrants in this land.”
While I realize that we could, and no doubt will, argue over the politics and economics of immigrant rights, really this is a much more basic issue about how we are to treat one another, our neighbors, our brothers and sisters. We often feel a sense of deep entitlement to this land, to this country, to the things we have here as legal immigrants (because again, we are all immigrants whether in this generation or previous). But where do we get this sense of entitlement? Certainly not from God. We don’t own this country. We don’t own the land, we don’t own the resources. All of these are on loan from God. Given to all people to use well, to care for responsibly, to be stewards over. Who are we to decide who is acceptable to live here, who can go where, when and how? “The resident alien who resides among you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the immigrant as yourself, for you too were immigrants in this land.”
When I was a seminary student, half of my internship involved working with the immigrant population in an area of San Rafael known as the Canal district. During one of my first days there, I met a wonderful woman named Maria. When I met her she was working her little plot in the community garden of the Canal, while watching her four year old and six year old play ball together in the nearby park. She was very friendly, but even so, it took her some time to open up and tell me her story. It seems she and her children had escaped from Guatemala after their village had been destroyed by the military, after her husband and brothers had been disappeared, after she heard the rumor that they were looking for her too. It was hard to understand why her family had become a target of the military. They had not, like some Guatemalans, dared to speak out against the military oppression in Guatemala. She and her husband had, though, been organizers of the people, beginning community projects such as childcare cooperatives and a community garden that would raise them out of the deep poverty that they all experienced, the day to day doubting whether they would have enough food to live. Average income in her village was about $3.50 a week, almost enough to buy a pound of meat, but certainly not enough to raise her four children. Still, the military had felt threatened. They saw too much power in this poor Guatemalan family’s ability to organize the people. But now she and two of her children were living in the Canal district. She tried unsuccessfully to keep a smile on her face as she told me she had had to leave the other two children in Guatemala, with friends, there just wasn’t a way to get them all out. Their new life here wasn’t the life they had known. The United States wasn’t and would never be, home. Rather than being seen as a leader of her people, here she was an outcast; considered illegal, she was marginalized, refused services, anonymous, and often unseen. Still, she told me that she didn’t mind too much, that in a way it was nice to be unknown for a change, not sought out. She did worry about their illegal status. She had tried to apply for asylum, but the U.S. didn’t recognize the oppression of the Guatemalan military and so asylum was denied. Still she was here. Yes, they were poor and illegal refugees. Yes, they lived in what many felt was a dangerous part of town. But she told me she was okay; her family was safe so far, and thank God, while finding work was difficult, they had enough to eat, enough to get by.
I saw Maria a lot at first and her love and commitment to improving the lives of those around her, even in the United States, was an inspiration to me. But there came a day when I stopped seeing her around. After a while I noticed that her little plot of land had fallen into ruins. At first when I asked about her all I got were anxious looks. But finally in answer to my persistent questioning, one of the other women came forward. She told me that one day while Maria was working in the garden, Miguel, her four year old, had run into the street to get his ball and had been hit by a car. Maria was not fluent in English and she did not have a car, but she managed to get Miguel to the hospital. The hospital did save Miguel, but they had felt it necessary to call immigration as well which had promptly picked her up and sent her back to Guatemala, leaving her four and six year old children here because they had been born here, without parents, without family. I never found out for sure what happened to Maria, but I was told she disappeared soon after her return to Guatemala. Unless her kids are extremely lucky, the life they face will be extremely hard.
This story may leave you with mixed feelings. You may feel it is an extreme story, but unfortunately, it is not. People come here, making the often extremely dangerous and risky trip here to the United States for many reasons - all of them about survival for themselves and their children. Who are we to decide that we are somehow more deserving of a life that is safe, that is economically sound, that has hope and a future than some other child of God on this planet? The resident alien who resides among you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the immigrant as yourself, for you too were immigrants in this land.”
Many of my children’s friends are immigrants or the children of immigrants. While many of these have been the top students in my kids’ classes, the fear for their families has caused some of their grades to plummet. The school district has also reported that many children of immigrants have dropped out of extra curricular activities because of that fear. My daughter’s best friend was born in this country, but her parents were not. At one point when I went to pick Aislynn up at her house, her friend's mother met me at the door in tears, “Why do all white people hate us?” She demanded. “we are not all bad! We work hard, we pay taxes, we never do anything wrong!” For all my assurances, she was not convinced that we did not all feel this way.
Still many cling to stereotypes that tell us they are “other” and not as good somehow. Because we are afraid.
Our call is so simple. Love your neighbor as yourself. It is not an easy call. It is not easy to step outside of our fear of the unknown, our fear of the “other”. It is not easy to remember that this is God’s land, not ours. It is not easy to remember that we too were foreigners in this land. But it is simple. Love your neighbor as yourself. It's that clear. It's that simple. Get to know your neighbors, get to know those who are different from you. Talk to those whom you fear. Learn to love them for the people they are. Amen.