Monday, January 30, 2012

Sermon - "Immigration: Just Us"

As you may know, the topic of human migration has become very important to Unitarian Universalists around the country. In June, when thousands of Unitarians come together at General Assembly, our annual national meeting, we have decided to put aside our usual business schedule to focus as much of our time as possible on justice issues, particularly immigration.
With that event on the horizon, and as immigration comes to the forefront of our moral consciousness as UUs, there has been a great deal of energy put into educating ourselves about the topic. That’s why we are focusing on the topic for these two Sundays. And it’s also why, in October I took a trip with our district Board of Trustees to Arizona. To get a better perspective we went to visit our boarder with Mexico and to visit some of the people who lived there.
The first piece of our adventure was a hike into the desert. South of Tucson and just north of the border, we ventured out into an unmarked area of the desert. Our guides were local humanitarians, who set out hundreds of gallons of water in the desert near areas where they knew immigrants would be attempting to cross the desert on foot.
Being in that area was astounding. It is some of the harshest terrain I’ve hiked, with blistering heat and very little shade to be found. We hiked only a short half-mile to experience some of the terrain. For those risking their lives to make it into the United States, it is on average a forty-mile journey. The cactus strewn rocky terrain is traversed at night to avoid the heat of day and the eyes of Border patrol agents.
There in the desert we had the opportunity to visit a make shift memorial that had been erected where one unfortunate immigrant had not survived the journey. He had been crossing with a group of people. Ofetn, when a person in one of these groups becomes to weak to go any further, they are left behind. Sometimes help is sent in time, but being left in the desert, without resources is deadly.
I want to share with you a picture of that memorial that we visited. Like most pictures, it doesn’t do the real thing justice. But short of taking you there with me, it’s what I can share with you right now.
Before being there, on that sacred spot, immigration and the struggles that people experience was a very abstract issue to me. What I learned there in the desert was more than facts or figures. What I learned there was the first inklings of the suffering that people experience in the tangle of U.S. immigration policy.

I’m sharing that picture with you for shock value, or to wrench your heart. But as we discuss this topic as a community, it is critical that we move beyond numbers and policies. It is critical that we begin to understand what happens on real people on the ground. Suffering isn’t something that most of us can deal with easily. It’s human nature. We spend our lives trying to avoid suffering. And when we are confronted with it, we do our best to sooth the afflicted. We turn away from pain. We turn away from a reality that is too heart-breaking for us to engage. It’s human nature. But it’s not going to get us any closer to solving our problem.
I say our problem because the mess of immigration is our problem. It is a problem that belongs to you and to me, and our government, and immigrants both documented and undocumented. It is a problem that all of us are tangled in. And the sooner we accept the fact that our government is enacting immigration policy on our behalf, the sooner we can move toward change.
Though we may not like what it looks like all the time, it is important to remember that the United States government is acting on our behalf. Another part of the immigration justice tour that we did was visiting a federal courthouse in Tucson. There, we watched something called Operation Streamline. It’s a process to expedite the legal proceedings for immigration cases. In the hour that we were there, we watched over fifty people be tried and sentenced. Most of them were deported immediately, a small handful were sentenced to time in detention centers for minor offenses other than illegal entry into the country. It was amazing to see a courtroom full of fifty defendants. There were five attorneys from the public defenders office who had met with the fifty defendants that same morning in preparation for the one-hour expedited hearing.
What was especially powerful though, was that after the hearing, the judge stayed in the courtroom to chat with us. The group of 12 UUs were the only witnesses gathered for the hearing. He noticed us lingering there after the room had completely cleared of border patrol agents, attorneys, and other support staff. He stayed and engaged us in a conversation. We navigated the conversation delicately until he understood where we were coming from. Eventually he confided in us how ludicrous he thought these laws were. He knew that these folks he had just seen and deported would try as quickly as they could to cross the border again. “But,” he said, “I’m doing my job. We are all doing our job to enforce laws we don’t really believe work. Judges and Boarder patrol agents and local police.” And all of these sorts of officers were there in the court. All of them were there doing their jobs. And suddenly we realized that a person wearing a uniform doesn’t always agree with the laws they enforce. But just like you or me, they have a job to do. The judge told us that we can argue all we want with people enforcing the rules, but until the rules are changed, those people are going to continue doing their job.
He insisted that we as voters had more power to affect immigration that he did as a federal judge. It sounds very strange, but it is true. As voters, as U.S. citizens, this government is ours to deal with. This judge was doing his job. Border patrol agents do their job. But we have to do our job as citizens, to steer our government toward more compassionate and meaningful means of managing immigration.

More than anything, this trip to the Boarder, and what I want to convey to you today, is that immigration is never just about other people. It’s not just about immigrants, or just about law enforcement, or just about legislators. It is about us as well.
Folks in the political and social circles that we find ourselves in often talk about the government as if it is some separate entity from the people. As if there’s some completely different cast of characters that are fundamentally different kinds of people. But the truth is, we elected those legislators. Our democracy is far from perfect. But for the most part, the person with the most votes still wins.

Immigration Enforcement works for us. On behalf of our votes and our tax dollars, their actions are carried out on our behalf. We are, all of us, responsible for the actions of our country. Saying we disagree with the politics or disavowing the government doesn’t remove us from the picture. We are part of it, all together. And though we are slow to admit it, we also reap the material benefits that immigration policy creates for middle-class Americans.
On our immigration tour, eventually we crossed the boarder into Nogales, Mexico. There we met with a couple of community organizations. The people were hopeful and inspiring. We went to a bus station where recent deportees from the U.S. arrived with no money and with no identification to get a foot hold back in Mexico. But what was most impressive to me about this town was the number of maquiladoras there. Maqiladoras are factories that import materials and equipment on a duty-free and tariff-free basis and then re-exports the product, sometimes back to the raw materials' country of origin. In Nogales we saw factory after factory that operated in a sort of tax-free no-man’s land. We had lunch at the home of a woman who worked in one of these Maquiladoras. She said that the average pay was about $50 per week. As little as that sounds, it’s not bad money for low-skilled factory work in the developing world. The much bigger problem is the impossibility of organizing any sort of union there. Workers are typically fired immediately if any organizing is attempted. The workers work long hours under strict rules. Because of a glut of labor, they can lose their jobs at the drop of a hat.
The more complicated piece of the picture is that there is a tremendous number of unemployed people vying for these jobs just across the boarder. They are there, because the farms that they used to work on are no longer profitable. The food that they had grown there for decades, maybe even centuries, has been undercut but cheap government subsidized U.S. crops, particularly corn.
I don’t want to get into too much detail about policy, but this whole arrangement came about because of NAFTA. With Free Trade, the U.S. agricultural industry put Mexican farmers out of business. They migrated north, to work in U.S. owned factories, just across the boarder. But the poor working conditions and high turn over leaves a tremendous glut of labor who can literally see the United States, the land of financial promise, through the giant fence we erected there.
That’s a snap shot of just one of the pieces contributing to immigration pressures from just one country. But I’m not going to talk details anymore. They are overwhelming and if you really want them, you can read them somewhere else.

I was saying, I was struck by the number of these maquiladoras. It just happened that the one factory that we drove past several times was a factory owned by the American company Master Lock. For some reason this particularly resonated with me. Not because I have an affinity for the brand or that it was some how special. In fact it was just the opposite. I was struck by the mundane nature of the object, knowing that I have two or three of these locks floating around my home not being used. It’s something I don’t think twice about, and probably something I didn’t think twice about purchasing because it was so cheap.
Meeting someone who worked in those factories, and seeing the factory that produces an object that I so took for granted somehow completed a circle in my heart. It made real what I already knew in my head. Human migration isn’t just about the people who are moving around the globe. It’s also about me. It’s about the lifestyle I live, the taxes I pay, and the government that acts in my name.

In the struggle for justice, there is just us. We are in this together, all of us. The Boarder Patrol agents, ICE agents, judges, cops, you and me and immigrants from around the world. We are all people trying to do what is right, and making the best of a very bad situation.
Most of the members of our congregation don’t have a good deal of experience relating to migrant workers. We may encounter people in the service industry, or out and about. But by in large, we don’t’ have a great deal of social connection to with immigrant communities.
If we are going to understand the challenges of immigration, and if we are going to do any meaningful work in the direction of justice, we have to build some relationships first. We need to know not just numbers and policies, but people and stories. This Sunday we have a unique opportunity to open ourselves for just that sort of learning. Three members of the Orange County Dream Team are coming to speak to us during sandwich Sunday.
Our guest speakers are undocumented immigrants who are college students. Though they were not born here, they grew up in the United States. Without legal documentation they are working hard to navigate the gauntlet of higher education bureaucracy and trying to find financial aid to help pay for school. They are trying to make something of their lives while the whole world is telling them no. So stick around, listen to their story. And they are very well-versed in the ins and outs of immigration policy. If you have nuts and bolts questions, they can probably answer them much better than I can.
We need to know their stories. We need to know the stories of the people who enforce these laws. We need to know how these laws affect us, so that we can begin the long journey toward fixing the mess. Remember, it is just like the human knot game. It will take some uncomfortable maneuvering. We will all have to give a little and be flexible. But the first step is realizing that we are all connected. Until we have some sense of working together we’re not going to get very far at untangling the mess that we are all a part of.



  1. Theres a lot of people who wants to travel abroad and it is so hard to get your own visa but here with the help of US Immigration Services it will be easy for you.

  2. Yes, listen to the stories, don't depend on what you here reported in the "mainstream media" which is mostly interested in how many people tune in...and not the whole picture. Thank you Kent for your story to add to all the others.
    Paz y Gracias