Immigration

America First

For days, weeks and possibly months, the political sport of dissecting the election will continue. A wide range of explanations will emanate from leaders of both political parties, elected officials at all levels of government, commentators and the media. As we did during the campaign, we run the risk of over load and possibly even addiction. It might be more profitable to step back and slightly alter what we should examine. I suggest vivisecting the electorate itself—the people of the United States, regardless of how they voted or why they voted as they did. Who are we as a people? And what does it mean to put America first.

“God bless America” has become the norm for ending presidential speeches and even most campaign speeches. In and of itself it is innocuous. But it is also a blatant attempt to manipulate the listeners, at least those who believe in God. President Nixon first used the expression to deflect attention from his criminal activities surrounding the Watergate scandal. President Reagan used it to inflame the passions of patriotism. And now, in spite of the fact that it has become commonplace, it serves to suggest that every word in the speech that preceded it must be true because the speaker believes in “God and Country.” But there is a problem. Maybe the expression is not so innocuous after all, for it creates and then plays into a myopic vision of the world.

If there is one word that encapsulates this past election it is xenophobia—in its broadest sense. Not just fear of foreigners, but fear of anyone and anything that is different. Fear of people who are different whether because of their place of origin, the language they speak, the color of their skin, their sex or sexual orientation, their faith, their political beliefs. This broad definition of xenophobia also encompasses fear of international trade, of political and cultural exchange, even of scientific knowledge. In this kind of fear and uncertainty it is much more difficult to determine who are we as a people. Everything seems to have become unfamiliar and threatening. So we define ourselves by our past.

I am not convinced that the values of the right and the left are all that different. What I am convinced of is that we fear each other. But there is a solution. Getting to know an individual or group of people who are different from us; placing them and ourselves on the same plane; accepting them as equals; this is how we eliminate fear. By way of example, the reason that same sex marriage is so acceptable to most younger Americans is that they have grown up with friends who are gay, lesbian, bi and, more recently, transgendered. But when we ghettoize our existence, when we wall each other out—or in—we feed fear. And in that world of fear, who we are as a people becomes less attractive.

It is not surprising that the overarching xenophobia that drove the recent election centered around immigration. Immigrants are the ultimate other. They look, speak and worship differently than we do. And they come here to share (some would say take) our prosperity, our way of life. But this is the great conundrum for the Christian, and by extension for all other Americans.

Prior to WWII, most political and religious groups accepted that nations had an inherent right to limit immigration. After witnessing the devastation of the Nazis, and the Fascists and the threat posed by Communism, the Catholic Church made a profound move away from that right. This was partially influenced by the Church’s universality, and by its own immigrant experience, especially here in the United States. More importantly, though, the Catholic Church was evolving a body of social teaching that began in 1891 with Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical letter “Rerum Novarum.” In 1963 John XXIII declared in “Pacem in Terris” an absolute right to emigrate, and by 1967 Pope Paul VI made clear in “Populorum Progressio” that an individual’s right to emigrate supersedes a nation’s right to close its borders. Over the last fifty years, the Church has only reinforced its defense of the rights of immigrants to move where they will.

Although not popular with politicians or nativists, the Church’s teaching should surprise neither a believer nor a student of humanity. What country we are born into is purely an accident of birth. The land does not belong to us. We are its stewards, not its owners. For the believer all the earth belongs to God. For the non-believer it belongs to the whole of humanity. Immigration, along with globalization, must be seen as part of God’s plan for a universal humanity, one in which everyone partakes of and shares the world’s resources and where the few do not prosper at the expense of the many—not only within one country, but around the globe.

The Cold War that emerged at the end of WWII brought with it terms such as “Super Power” and “Leader of the free world”—words and ideas that became part of our daily lexicon. Whatever positive imagery arises from them, they also carry an unmistakable downside—dividing the world into us vs. them, and further deepening suspicion and fear. But we need not be restricted to the concepts that rise from those terms. Our imaginations remain unlimited and we possess the creativity to conceive the world any way we choose. The founding of the United Nations with its Declaration on Human Rights proves this. We have the ability. We seem to have lost the will.

I am glad to have been born in the United States and I appreciate my life here. But I do not believe in America first. America is a land of great opportunity, but it is not inherently better than other countries. We profoundly proclaimed our right to freedom and self-determination with words that have inspired people the world over:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The rights articulated here belong to ALL people, not just Americans.

Our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution have long been beacons to the world, enshrining the concepts of liberty and justice. But when we surrender to the grasp of xenophobia they are reduced to the status of dusty documents, illuminating neither us nor the world. We should not accept America first. We should only accept America together. To borrow the language of fictional Camelot, all countries should be seated at a round table where all are equal.
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The Secret

There is a well-guarded secret at the heart of the immigration crisis. But first...

For months now we have heard the plight of unaccompanied minor children, some as young as eight years old, crossing the southern border of the United States in search not so much of work as safety. They come from Central America, primarily from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Back home they face violence and almost certain death at the hands of gangs bolstered by illegal drug activity. Exaggeration? Consider…

In area, Honduras is slightly larger than the state of Virginia. With 7.6 million people, its population is smaller than Virginia’s 8.1 million. And yet, the murder rate in Honduras is the highest of any country in the world and the city of San Pedro Sula, in the Northwest corner of the country, has the highest murder rate of any city in the world.

Why the comparison? If 90 out of 100,000 people were being murdered in Virginia, something would be done. That reality would not be tolerated by either state or federal government, nor by the people of the United States. Ah! But Honduras is a foreign country. Not our problem. Except it really is.

To a great extent, the current situation in Honduras is a U.S.-made
problem. In the early part of the 20th century, U.S. fruit companies benefitted from massive land grants and tax exemptions, guaranteeing a permanent underclass of poverty. Later, America’s feigned obsession with communism fueled the crisis. I use the word “feigned” because the possibility of Communism in Central America was never a threat to the United States. It was not even Reagan’s concern. It was mere subterfuge. Consider Cuba.

When Fidel Castro overthrew Fulgencio Batista, the revolution and subsequent government control were not at issue. Nor were they the cause of the embargo. The United States objected because the Castro government seized the land of U.S. tobacco farmers without compensation. Reagan was not about to let that be repeated in Central America. The U.S. concern throughout the region has always been about money—money for U.S. corporate interest.

Successive administrations, both Democrat and Republican, have continue the trade embargo against Cuba, to the point of telling companies in other countries that they cannot do business in Cuba without suffering U.S. retaliation.

Reagan used Honduras as the base of operations for his illegal war against the democratically elected governments in Nicaragua and El Salvador. The Obama administration could have been more forceful in denouncing the military coup d’état that removed Honduran President Manuel Zelaya from office. After all, The United Nations, the Organization of American States and the European Union all condemned the coup. Obama was pressured by the Republican minority to condition his opposition. Could this be because the Honduran Supreme Court issued a secret arrest warrant against President Zelaya? Sounds like the secret FISA court warrants in the United States.

Now the secret: What happened in Central America is occurring right here in the United States, and it has nothing to do with immigrants, legal or illegal.

The same forces that guaranteed poverty in Central America are doing it here. The labors of the poor and working class have allowed a tiny few to become obscenely rich. The gap between the rich and poor has reached historic proportions. Money is always power, and so the influence of the wealthy over government policies and social life is greater than ever and it is guaranteeing a permanent underclass here in the United States of America.

Forget the humanitarian, moral and religious reasons for not sending children back to Central America to face death. Forget the fact that U.S. law guarantees them the right to make a case for refugee status. Forget the fact that they are only children. I say let them pass. Welcome them with open arms. In a few years, the United States will be just like Honduras. In a few years they’ll be right at home.
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Full Circle: Apartheid Returns to America

The word apartheid was never used in America to describe the era of segregation, nor was it used to describe race relations in general. It is a word sprung from the heart of the Afrikaans language to express a deep-seated prejudice against non-white South Africans, primarily blacks. What many do not know is that the South African system of Apartheid was directly modeled on the American system of segregation.

During its 40-year history, Apartheid came to be vilified as one of the most despicable institutional government policies of the modern world. Even before formally establishing this horrendous system, South Africa created legislation known as “pass laws” to regulate the movement of non-whites. These laws required non-whites to carry passbooks that proved they had a right to travel within certain areas of the country.

Not only an implement to control the movement of non-whites
within an area, these pass laws were also used to keep them completely out from others. For example, Indians were not allowed in the Orange Free State (one of the four provinces that comprised South Africa before the new constitution was established in 1996).

The United States of America became the recipient of a dubious gift from the U.S. Supreme Court in late June. Apartheid has returned to the nest. There is no other conclusion to be drawn from the Court’s decision on the Arizona anti-immigration law (SB 1070).

Given that Apartheid was such a disaster in South Africa, the chick was clever enough to return masquerading under a new name: Arizona v. United States, No. 11-182. Admittedly, it is not as simple or catchy as Apartheid, but it is just as effective.

It is true that the Supreme Court does not incorporate the word Apartheid into its decision. But that is just an insidious affront to the intelligence of U.S. citizens—or an acknowledgement of the lack thereof. It is almost as if they know, or inherently suspect, that their decision is a violation of human rights, dignity and justice.

It has almost become trite and tiring to reference Emma Lazarus’ poem at the foot of the Statue of Liberty whenever immigration comes up for debate. And yet, that poem should be as foundational in American life as the Constitution, itself. For, not unlike the Declaration of Independence, the poem enlists words of profound beauty to enshrine the values that define the new America. Values that underpin the Constitution and make it possible. Indeed, the poem appeals to and calls forth our better selves.

Most people find familiar the lines beginning with, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” They are the great rallying cry, proclaiming to all the world: Here lies a land of freedom and equality. We have always struggled to live up to the challenge. Sometimes we simply refuse to heed the call. Three sentences earlier in the poem, we read about the statue herself: “From her beacon-hand glows worldwide welcome.” That simply is no longer true.

Some might suggest that poetry is not law. Fair enough. But we are not just a nation of law. The constitution was not created in, nor does it exist in, a vacuum. If poetry espouses the values upon which the law is founded, then the law should reflect back those same values. On this point the Supreme Court failed.

The issue at hand is not whether someone entered the United States legally or illegally. If officers can demand papers when they stop someone, then people who are here legally will not be afforded the rights that are legitimately theirs. Let us at least be honest about two things. First, just as in the South Africa of old, the only people who will be questioned will be people of color. Secondly, the United States is no longer a land where everyone is welcome.

As the right wing xenophobes in more and more states seek to turn this national disgrace into law, the courts become the only recourse for a society seeking to regain its moral balance and sanity.

The justices on the Supreme Court swore to uphold the Constitution. Perhaps they should look not just to the letter of the law, but the principles that breathe spirit into the law.
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