Monday, February 6, 2012

Sermon - "Immigration: Standing on the Side of Love"

You may have already heard that last week, our guest speakers were unable to join us after the service. Instead of having them speak, we had a discussion about how we all felt about the issue of immigration. I was actually really moved by the depth of sharing and the openness toward other’s views.
But I want to follow up on that conversation with a little bit of vocabulary. Immigration is a complicated topic with lots of different viewpoints. It’s something that clearly isn’t settled. Even for folks who have a general inclination toward more leniency or stricter enforcement the conversation is still going. But to have that conversation we need to have some commonly terms.
Around political issues, sometimes we find ourselves using words without recognizing their full meaning. One very good example of that is the word “illegal alien,” of “illegals,” for short. It’s a word that was used several times in our discussion on Sunday. And I know it wasn’t meant to be injurious or to hold a particular political opinion. For many people, the word is very offensive. That’s because no human being is inherently illegal. Yes, they have violated immigration policy or been brought to the United Sates illegally by their parents when they were young children. These are illegal actions according to our government. However, calling a person illegal holds certain implications for their humanity.
The much preferred term for people living in the United States without permission to be here is “undocumented person.” There are many people living in the U.S. who lack proper documentation and permission to be here. However, labeling a human being as illegal is understood as a significant insult to their humanity.
You may or may not agree with the way this language has taken shape. But if you think about it, most of the language that describes groups of people is hugely charged yet somewhat arbitrary in its origin. Regardless of the what you think the words themselves should be, it’s pretty widely understood that “undocumented” is more respectful that “illegal.”
And that is what we are talking about today. And that is why language matters. It’s not for the purpose of sounding like you know what you are talking about. It’s not about an agenda. But if we can use words that make people feel that they are valued as human beings, it’s worth using those words. Standing on the side of love is about treating all people with respect, and standing up to forces that would reduce them to numbers and policies. Even more so, Standing on the side of love is about refusing to treat our brothers and sisters as if they were somehow less than human, just because of they sought a better life for their family.

We should understand that being in violation of immigration law is not a felony, it is a misdemeanor. It is a civil violation, much like a speeding ticket or a parking ticket that you or I would get. But the punishment is much, much harsher.
When an undocumented immigrant is detained, he or she is taken into custody by the Department of Homeland Security. From there they go into one of two places, an Immigrant Dentention Center, which have virtually no oversight, or they are simply sent to jail. The Department of Homeland Security pays for “bed space” in over 312 county and city prisons across the country. The majority undocumented immigrants detained, 67% end up in local jails, mixed in with the local prison population (Detention Watch Network).
As the federal government has increased its enforcement, it has surpassed its capacity to detain undocumented people in any humane conditions or facilities. The growth in detention has resulted in often terrible conditions at Immigrant Detention Centers. Problems sited include: grossly inadequate health care, physical and sexual abuse, overcrowding, discrimination, and racism. NGOs frequently receive widespread complaints from detainees and their loved ones regarding problems like lack of access to necessary medications for persons with chronic illnesses; lack of proper nutrition and recreation; shackling; use of segregation or tasers for disciplinary purposes; inability to visit with family members and problems with access to telephones. Perhaps most importantly, access to legal aid is highly restricted in most detention situations, leaving detainees at a severe disadvantage in making a case for release or asylum (Detention Watch Network). You may remember last week I described a Federal Courthouse holding trial for over 50 undocumented people. They were represented by 5 attorneys who had prepared all 50 cases the same morning.
It is also important that we talk about the number of people who are subjected to these dangerous conditions. This is no small project, affecting a few immigrants. Over 387,000 men, women, and children are detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) each year, the majority of whom have no criminal history whatsoever (Detention Watch Network). That’s about 16 times the population of Laguna Beach, detained and arrested annually. And obviously, this is massive expense is funded with tax dollars.

The other piece of inhumane treatment I learned about more recently has to do with deportations. When I went with some other UU leaders to learn about immigration and we visited Nogales Mexico. We went to a bus station just across the Boarder. This particular bus station was known for helping people who had recently been deported to find an inexpensive ticket back to their home of origin. Remember, Mexico is not a small country. Deportations only take you across the boarder.
Also at this bus station we met a young American who volunteered with the organization “No More Deaths.” We learned from him and from some of the people at the bus station how a good number of people who were ejected from the United States had NOTHING, not because they went in with nothing, but because in the shuffle from detention facility to detention facility, it was lost, including any source of personal identification. So a volunteer was there with a cel phone, helping recently deported people call their families to collect what little resources they had to get home.
I think the best indication of the helplessness of the situation, was that these folks couldn’t even get a Western Union money transfer from family, without and ID. So the volunteer, from a very trusted organization, also served to facilitate this process.
Our government treats undocumented immigrant men, women, and children like dirt. I don’t have the answer to immigration policy reform. I don’t know how to fix the whole problem, but I know, hopefully we know, that something is deeply wrong.
Hopefully by now, it’s not lost on you why I chose to tell the story of the Good Samaritan this morning. It’s easy for us to get caught up in the detailed questions of policy. It’s easy for us to feel constrained by social norms of who is supposed to care for whom. But, the Samaritan knew that another human being was in desperate need. So breaking all social norms he stopped what he was doing, lent a hand and some money. I didn’t have time to research this, but I’m fairly certain that these two didn’t speak the same language.

That’s basically what Standing on the side of love is about. It’s not standing on the side of affective federal policy. It’s not standing on the side of multinational trade agreements. It’s not standing on the side of intellect. Standing on the side of love is about seeing our brothers and sisters in need and offering what we can to help.
We’re s smart bunch, Unitarian Universalists. A highly educated bunch. But frankly that gets in the way sometimes. There are a lot of smart people in our midst, but this is not a think tank, it is a faith community. Our values are our platform: The inherent worth and dignity of EVERY person, compassion, support for families, real family values that actually value keeping families in tact. Those are the things we stand for.
Standing on the side of love is about recognizing in our gut that there is a deep problem, that we will not turn away from until it gets better. And it’s also about seeking a resolution to that problem in a compassionate way.

You’ve heard me say this before. Too much of our public discourse is driven not by love, but by fear. Day after day we read newspaper articles that pit one team against another, as if the goal of politics and government was competition, rather than serving the people. This is not football, this is our government we are talking about, the institution that educates our children and provides for our seniors. It is the institution that safeguards our food and transportation. And what we hear, is who beat who in the latest battle.
Too much of the public discourse is driven not by love, but by fear and competition, which usually scapegoats particular people and deems them somehow less than human. Now it is easy to think that we stand on the side of love, because of course what we care about is right. But to actually stand on the side of love, to bring love and compassion to the forefront of our conversations is a much more demanding task. Partly because that football game we call politics is fun to watch. And because we get so angry at those other people. You know, the ones who just don’t understand. The ones who are mean and want to make money off of us. Those people who don’t care about children or the elderly. Those war mongers. Those bigots.
I think you get the point. It’s easy to go down that road when we care passionately about something. But assuming that our adversaries are mean-spirited, rather than misinformed is not standing on the side of love. And it’s not helpful.
For one, when we scapegoat someone, we don’t take them seriously and we don’t understand them. Absolutely no progress is possible when we don’t make an honest attempt to understand the hearts and minds of the people we engage with.
And second and more importantly, standing on the side of love is more than good strategy, it is who we are as a religious community. We believe in the inherent good and dignity of every person. We believe, even when it is hard, that people act out of good intentions and not malice. We believe that just becomes someone is ill informed or disagrees with us, that does not make them any less of a person, or any less worthy of dignity.
My goal, our goal as Unitarian Universalists is to change the public discourse, change the focus from hatred to love. It is a huge goal. Ambitious, maybe even naïve. But I refuse to accept the alternative. I refuse to accept that solving problems looks like a verbal boxing match, or that our fellow human beings are either with us or against us.
I find that when a problem feels overwhelming, it’s often because we pose it in an either or situation. And we make both of those options the extreme. Either we open up all the boarders and freely welcome anyone and everyone who would come to the United States, or we shut down all the borders and invest Billions of dollars to hunt down undocumented immigrant and deport them immediately. Well of course that is overwhelming, because the choices offered are ridiculous. There is meaningful change to be made that doesn’t swing to either of these extremes if we can keep our hearts open long enough to make it happen. I’m not sure exactly what that middle ground is, but it is there. I am sure that even when we don’t know the answer, especially when we don’t know the answer, we are called to stand on the side of love.
Before we wrap up, I want to let you know that I will be working with the Social Action Committee to organize ourselves to speak about immigration to our elected officials. Not to say that we have an exact answer, but to say that compassion must be a part of whatever answer is found.
It has also come to our attention that there are several programs that offer English language tutoring to children in our area. This sort of work obviously helps the kids themselves. But it also helps their classmates as the whole learning environment is improved. And perhaps most importantly, it helps us build relationships across cultural boundaries. We will bring you more information about how you can help the Social Action Committee to stand on the Side of love in our local community.


1 comment:

  1. Thank you, Kent...There is a middle ground and we will find it if we can practice the respectful dialogue with each other that we shall need to be ably use with those outside of our progressive faith. It is about love. And we are Standing on the Side of Love... Paz y Gracias, Lee Marie Sanchez