Neighbors at an Unseen Border

Neighbors at an Unseen Border
Rev. Douglas Taylor
April 7, 2013 (Social Justice Sunday)

Last year I agreed to serve a term as a board member of the American Civic Association.  The reason I did this is because I care about diversity and plurality. Here in this congregation I strive for theological plurality with you of course – that is a basic element of our covenant together.  But further than that I strive to embrace and help us all embrace other differences of race and ethnicity, class, sexual orientation and sexual identity.  We do that because personal identity matters and our differences beautify the whole.  We are a better people when we honor and encourage differences.

Earlier this week Lynne Theophanis and I were talking with Andrew Baranoski about his participation on the Social Justice Sunday panel later this afternoon.  Lynne is the chair of our Social Justice Council and is responsible along with the rest of the council for the fine event we’re hosting this afternoon.  Andrew is the executive director of the American Civic Association, a local non-profit that supports immigrants and refugees working to become naturalized citizens. 

Andrew was lamenting the boxes we tend to put people in when we talk about immigrants.  He mentioned a recent local news story in which the individual was regularly referred to as a Cuban.  The man had come to America when he was four years old, at what point is he an American in the eyes of society? 

Binghamton is a small but many-cultured community. One box that I have and think many of us have is that immigration is a problem for states like AZ and TZ; but up here.  We generally don’t see immigration as a local concern.  But it is.  Binghamton and Broome County have a significant immigrant population. We don’t need to travel to a US border to bump into the dilemma of Immigration. The border is many miles away, yes; or perhaps there are unseen borders hemming us in and keeping us from really meeting our neighbors. Binghamton has its own distinct flavor of immigration. 

Part of our history, for example, is the influx of immigrants during the Endicott-Johnson era, the influx of eastern European immigrants to work in the shoe factories. Those immigrants settled and became locals.  The demographics of immigration have changed since then and many of the people who become citizens in Broome County these days are from places like Burma, Haiti, Vietnam, and Pakistan. 

According to recent census data there are a little over 12 thousand foreign-born individuals in Broome County; something less than half that number are not naturalized citizens at the moment.  Of those roughly 5 and ½ thousand non-citizens, and I have no idea what the break down of percentages would be, there are some with documentation and some without, some in the process of becoming citizens and some who are not.

It is easy to lump the various types of people together under the issue heading of “immigration,” but really there are many different situations to consider. There are people here on a work visa or a student visa.  Many of the scenarios by which a person is considered ‘undocumented’ are simply cases of their temporary visas running out.  There aren’t simple solutions for that though it seems like a fairly simple problem.  Another scenario is the many examples of refugees and people seeking asylum.  And of course there are the migrant workers as another category of immigrant.

Lynne Theophanis mentioned to me that one of the people she tried to get on the panel was too busy, a person who works with local migrant farm workers, mostly undocumented people.  I admit I was surprised by that information.  I was living in the misperception that migrant farm workers don’t come to New York State.  This information didn’t fit in the box I had for what migrant workers are all about.  It’s not easy to challenge assumptions, there are so many assumptions we make in life, many of them necessary to get through our daily lives.  But we also have many assumptions that don’t help us get us anywhere

I was watching a TV program and the show introduced a character from a minority status.  When I saw this I thought to myself, “How interesting.”  This show is introducing difference, something that seems out of the ordinary to our society and beginning the normalization process for us.  But then at the end of the show, rather than letting the character be normal, the show did this twist where the regular characters basically agreed that the minority person was still in the stereotyped box of ‘unusual’ or ‘exotic.’  It’s like any social awareness growth pattern. 

First, members of the dominant culture are totally unaware that there is anything other than quote-unquote ‘normal.’  Then there is awareness of the ‘other’ and gradually there is some tolerance and eventually acceptance.  Historical trends offer evidence that this sort of pattern holds not as a ‘how-to’ concept but as a general social dynamic reality people move through whether we are talking about what we think of here as our social justice issues such as sexual orientation, ethnicity, physical disability, mental health, or any number of other identities or situations. 

Indeed, I have dramatically over-simplified the concept merely to make this point I stumbled into while watching my TV program: We make progress and it is wonderful if all we were talking about were ideas and concepts.  And in the grand scheme, two steps forward and one step back is pretty good.  As I’ve said many times, mistakes and set backs and failures are part of the process. But we’re not talking about ideas and concepts.  We’re talking about people. In our understanding of immigration, it is good for us to have the freedom to take two steps forward and one step back in our understanding of how it all works and what it means to us.  But it is also important to remember that for many people it is not an ‘issue’ it is how they live.  So compassion is a key component to everything we are talking about.

To look at immigration from the perspective of laws and regulations is to miss the human part of the situation; it is to miss the stories of families.  In many ways I think the situation is largely fueled by economics.  And this is true from the legislative side of the issue and from the human side of the situation.  “Illegal” immigrants are people looking for work to support their families and to build a better life.  Undocumented workers are not criminals, they’re workers.  They often work without the protections many citizens assume such as the expectations of minimum wage and a fair grievance procedure when they are ill treated.

From the legislative side of things we could end undocumented immigration pretty quickly if instead of going after workers we went after the major businesses that are taking advantage of these workers. There are huge and powerful interests that like to keep things just the way they are.  Of course not all employers are exploitative or sometimes even aware of people’s immigration status.  But the employment of undocumented workers is easy money.  The exploitation of migrant workers and undocumented immigrants is a systemic problem. The whole system benefits from the arrangement.  That’s something I try to remember whenever I eat a salad I didn’t grow in my own garden.  You and I don’t chose to exploit undocumented workers, but we live in a society where it happens and we are therefore implicated as well.  While the economics of it all is hidden below the surface, I think even that is a distraction from the heart of it all. 

At the heart, immigration is a human issue, not a legal issue.  And I am more interested in the question “Is it moral” than “Is it legal.”  All manner of legal actions over the years were immoral.  Forcing the indigenous North Americans from their land onto reservations was legal.  Building the country on the backs of slave labor brought in from Africa was legal.  Jim Crow laws keeping African Americans from voting were legal.  The detention of Japanese Americans citizens during World War II was legal.  All of that was legal, but was it moral?    

As UUA president Peter Morales points out (in his 5/30/10 sermon “Immigration”):

Apartheid was legal in South Africa. The confiscation of the property of Jews at the beginning of the Nazi regime was legal. The Spanish Inquisition was legal. Crucifying Jesus was legal.  http://www.uua.org/documents/lfd/dg_immigration_sermons.pdf

Our Unitarian Universalist principles call us to speak out against injustice and work to build a fair and equitable world.  We honor the words of other religious traditions that call us to treat the alien like anyone else, to love my neighbor as myself, to desire for my brother or sister that which I desire for myself.  These shining precepts from around the globe inform our Unitarian Universalist faith and lead us to ‘Stand on the Side of Love’ as our banner proclaims.   

The story I read at the Time for All Ages, “Hannah Is My Name,” evokes Dr. King and his message.  And I think it fits to refer to the King when talking about immigration.  The specifics of King’s message was about racism and voting rights, but all that was encased in the bigger message he offered about democracy and America. 

In his sermon at Riverside church in New York City in April of 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. clarified the theological ground he stood on when calling for non-violence.  He said the work is grounded in the call to love your neighbor, to love your neighbor before all other calls for allegiance.  He said we the love of neighbor should come before nation, before tribe, before race.  Dr. King said,

“When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response … I am speaking of that force which all great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality.”

This big orange sign we keep moving around the inside of our building claims that we are “Standing on the Side of Love.”  That is our theological ground.  It is a challenge and a calling for us to live and act from an open place.  Standing on the Side of Love is a people-first perspective.  Our calling as Unitarian Universalists has always been to put people ahead of laws.  The dissenters and non-conformists of our heritage refused to be bound by church creeds and laws.  And we now hear that call drawing us to use that same logic, that same theological ground to consider how we respond to the justice issues of our day.  We are called to love our neighbors as ourselves.

In the end the issue is not about jobs or the economy or border control.  Reasonable and clear statements of truth can assuage misinformation; and logical, researched arguments can poke holes in rhetoric.  In the end the issue of immigration is a struggle for this country because of a particular form of racism called xenophobia.  At the end of the day, for reasons I find it hard to understand, this country founded on immigration has become afraid and hateful toward immigrants. 

Yet immigration is deeply engrained in the fabric of our country.  Unitarian Universalism can only affirm the benefits of embracing differences.  Diversity and plurality enhances our faith community; and we can witness to the ways it enhances and strengthens the country.  America benefits by the multitude of cultural sources flowing together. I encourage all of you to take advantage of the panel program the Social Justice Committee is offering this afternoon to learn more about immigration as a local issue and simple steps you can take to make a difference.

Unitarian statesman Adlai Stevenson once said, “The world is now too dangerous for anything but truth; too small for anything but brotherhood.”  Our Unitarian Universalist principles lead us to forgo the easy solutions that rely on “us” vs. “them” ways of thinking.  Our liberal faith leads us to refuse the division of humanity into those who are worthy of rights and respect and dignity from those who do not matter.  The world we strive to build demands that we see an injustice against one as an injustice against all because how we treat each other – particularly how we treat the vulnerable among us – defines who we are as a people.  In recognizing the global village our world is becoming, our faith calls us to respect our neighbors and to treat the stranger among us with the dignity.

In a world without end

May it be so.