This 4th of July, Please, Don’t Look Away

Flags fly in my neighborhood.  Plans are being made for parades, cook outs and fire work displays.  I love it.  But this year, I’m conflicted.

I love my Country.  I love her ideals and aspirations: ‘Liberty and justice for all’.  I honor those who serve and have served, to defend the Constitution and the ideals and values for which we stand.  But this year, I’m conflicted.  

I love the iconic Statue of Liberty.  With this poem inscribed on her pedestal:

The New Colossus

By Emma Lazarus, 1883

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

In this iconic poem, written by Emma Lazarus, a Jewish immigrant, she calls Lady Liberty, ‘Mother of Exiles’.  Each 4th of July, this line humbles and inspires me.  But this year, I’m conflicted.

I’m conflicted because our ideals and values are under siege.  Our President has imposed a policy that is anti immigrant, anti refugee.  Who makes applying for asylum (a right inscribed in our Constitution) as difficult as possible.

I’m conflicted because of undocumented immigrants housed in inhumane detention centers along our southern border. Housed in our name, by our government.  https://af.reuters.com/article/worldNews/idAFKCN1TW3J2

I’m conflicted because I can’t stop seeing or thinking about the photo of Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez and his 23 month old daughter, Valeria, dead on the shores of the Rio Grande.   Father and daughter clutching one another.

They were refugees from El Salvador, hoping to apply legally, for asylum in the United States.  The international bridge in Matamoros, Mexico was closed.  They were told by authorities to wait several days (with hundreds already in the cue).   An intentional strategy by our government, to make applying for asylum as onerous as possible.

But America, and the promise it symbolizes seemed so close. Just across the Rio Grande.  So, they swam. They swam for their lives.  They swam in desperation.  They swam to their death.

Perhaps, like me, you’re also conflicted this 4th.  What then can we who love the United States do?

We can choose to not look away.

We can say ‘this is not ok, this is not who we are as Americans’.   We can find ways to ensure our voice is heard.  We can gather with a wide variety of organizations that advocate for the well being of our immigrant neighbors.  We can vote. We can march for justice.  We can advocate for a humane immigration policy.

This 4th of July, I’ll fly the flag.  And, with my fellow citizens, I’ll recommit to the timeless ideals and values which truly make America great.

May it be so.

 

The Counter-cultural Act of Being Civil

The state of our union is fractured.  We’ve moved into camps.  Most political conservatives have rallied around the flag of Donald Trump.  Liberals and moderates are looking ahead to the mid-term elections, hoping for a check on the policies of our president.

Within my Christian community the camps are clearly defined.  Theological conservatives for the most part have embraced Mr. Trump.  Fully 82% of white evangelicals voted for him and still think he’s doing a good job.   Theological liberals and moderates like me are perplexed how our Christian sisters and brothers come to such different conclusions.

Our polarized society has led people to no longer talk with but rather talking at and about each other.  The result is that the narrative of ‘the other’ as an opponent, even an enemy, is reinforced.

What to do?  Is there a third way beyond labeling and confrontation?

Recently I participated with a small group of clergy in a meeting with leaders of Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE).  We had sent a letter asking for a meeting for the purpose of humanizing and better understanding one another.

To be clear I have grave concerns regarding the policies of our current administration towards undocumented immigrants.  I also know I have the capacity to view those tasked with enforcing such policies (ICE) as the opposition.

With this in mind we sent the letter asking for a meeting.  To our surprise ICE responded quickly welcoming such a meeting.  The meeting consisted of two ICE officers (one a senior official) and four clergy: a Rabbi, a Catholic priest, a Pentecostal pastor whose congregation includes recent immigrants and me (an American Baptist pastor).

For an hour we had a civil conversation.   The clergy group asked questions regarding ICE priorities and methods. We voiced areas of concern.  The ICE officers shared their perspective.

We also got to know the ICE officers as people.  My sense was that these two officers, one who had been working in ICE for over twenty years, are people of integrity, trying to enforce policies in as humane a manner as possible.

Let me be clear.  I think the policies being enforced are often inhumane.  For example, the current policy to separate children from parents at the border, as a means of discouraging immigration, is morally bankrupt https://action.aclu.org/petition/separating-families.

Yet, I think it is unfair to paint all ICE officers with a broad brush stroke.  They don’t set the policy.  They are tasked with enforcing a policy which I suspect can take a toll on their emotional and spiritual well-being.

For my part I am going to continue advocating for a more humane immigration policy.  I will continue to stand with our undocumented neighbors at risk.  My faith teaches that I can do no other.

What I won’t do is paint all ICE with a broad brush stroke. I won’t label them.  I’ll keep the officers and their families  in my prayers, as I surely keep in prayer those arrested and detained and their families.

I’ll work and pray for an immigration system that doesn’t dehumanize those seeking a better future and those tasked with enforcement.  I’ll remember that everyone has a story.

Perhaps that is the answer to becoming a more humane and unified society.  Moving beyond labels and listening to the stories of others.   In listening we discover our common humanity.

 

In the Company of Dreamers

I spent this week attending a conference on immigration hosted by PICO http://www.piconetwork.org  We gathered as a faith-based group of 110 activists from 13 states working for humane immigration reform.

Several workshops were led by Dreamers.  The Dreamers I met are educated young people,  who move effortlessly between English and Spanish.  Each is deeply committed to the values that we as a nation aspire to: Hard work, family, faith, responsibility to community, respect for others.

I heard their stories.  Listened to their hopes and dreams.  I heard too their fear of being deported, of being separated from family and friends.  Of being forced to return to a land they don’t know.

I was inspired by Jennifer who came to this country at thirteen years of age.  Her parents crossed the border without papers, fleeing violence and poverty in Honduras.  In the eighteen years since, she graduated from college, has a full-time job, pays taxes and is raising two beautiful children who are U.S citizens.

Jennifer is a Dreamer. One of the 800,000 who were brought to the United States by their parents as children.


In 2012 President Obama, as a result of Congress’ inability to act, passed an executive order (DACA) giving them temporary legal status (renewable every two years).  DACA allowed these young people to go to college, get a job, serve in the military.   They became known as ‘dreamers’.

In September 2017 President Trump rescinded that order.  As of March 5th 2018 the Dreamers will lose their protection and be subject to deportation.

In the meantime, the Republican led Congress is playing a cruel game.   Dreamers are used as pawns for their political maneuvering.

In recent days Republicans led by President Trump, Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan have become more hard line.   They’ve tied the fate of the young people to further militarization of the border with Mexico,  further restrictions on immigration and an increased budget for deportation.

The budget includes adding beds in detention facilities.  Their goal is to increase from the current 39,000 beds nationwide to 51, 379 beds by the end of 2018.  Each bed on average is used by ten individuals over the course of the year.  As a person is detained and then deported it frees up the bed for a new detainee.

Do the math and the goal of ICE is to ramp up to 513, 790 deportations per year (double the average in recent years).  Each of these 513, 790 people have a name. Each has a story.  Each has a dream.

One of those names at risk, is my friend Jennifer and her two children.

It’s been said that ‘the one who controls the narrative, has the power‘.  Mr. Trump and his supporters cast immigrants in the most negative way.  He has referred to brown and black immigrants as coming from ‘shithole countries’.  He whips up a crowd saying that ‘Mexicans are rapists, murderers and drug dealers’.

This narrative is racist and fear based.

But I believe in a different narrative. That the United States has always been more than a place on the map.  We are a country of ideas and ideals to which we aspire.  One of those ideals is that we are a nation of immigrants.  That we make room for people of all backgrounds, who aspire to work hard, raise a family and contribute to the overall good. 

A new friendship, Kent and Ruben. Kent was born in the United States. Ruben in Haiti. Both call USA, home.

 

This is the story I believe in. This is the story that makes America truly great.  This is the story I will stand up for.

How about you?  What story do you believe in?  What story will you tell?

Each generation must decide which story we believe in.  Which ideals we will live by.

 

 

 

 

 

Immigrants, Refugees and Undocumented, Oh My!

‘Immigrants, Refugees and Undocumented, Oh My!’  Grabbing a line from the Wizard of Oz we are living in a troubling time.  Especially if you are a new immigrant or refugee and God help you if you’re undocumented.

Using a time-tested technique, President Trump and minions play the  anti-immigrant fear card to advance their political agenda.  But this is nothing new.

“New immigration” was a term from the late 1880s that came from the influx of Catholic and Jewish immigrants from Italy and Russia (areas that previously sent few immigrants).

Nativists http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nativism_(politics) feared the new arrivals lacked the political, social, and occupational skills needed to successfully assimilate into American culture. This raised the issue of whether the U.S. was still a “melting pot,” or if it had just become a “dumping ground,” and many old-stock Americans worried about negative effects on the economy, politics, and culture.

 Immigration 1930 to 2000:

Restriction proceeded piecemeal over the course of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but immediately after the end of World War I (1914–18) and into the early 1920s, Congress changed the nation’s basic policy about immigration.

The National Origins Formula of 1921 (and its final form in 1924) not only restricted the number of immigrants who might enter the United States, but also assigned slots according to quotas based on national origins. It essentially gave preference to immigrants from Central, Northern and Western Europe, severely limiting the numbers from Russia and Southern Europe, Africa and declared all potential immigrants from Asia unworthy of entry into the United States.

Underneath it all was a desire by those already here to keep America as they knew it.  Essentially ‘white’.

This specter of racism and fear of ‘the other’ has been a reoccurring theme in American history and is once again being played for all its worth by ‘nativist’ like President Trump, advisor Steve Bannon and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

The antidote of course is building relationships with immigrants, refugees and undocumented neighbors.  In the past two weeks:  An undocumented refugee from Congo (who fled a war) walked into my office to ask me to pray with him.  He spoke of his fear of being deported, separating him from his wife and two-year old son (both of whom are US citizens).

I spoke with a young couple from Brazil who are here on a temporary visa but want to stay and take care of her ailing father who is a US citizen.  And, while my car was being serviced I spoke with a young legal immigrant from Egypt who pumped my gas.  He told me of ongoing insults shouted by passing motorists, calling him a ‘f***ing towel head’ and ‘go back where you belong’.

Such are the stories of  immigrants and refugees that are our neighbors.  ‘Nativists’ would have us believe that they are to be feared, that they are not like ‘us’.

The problem however, is that I’ve gotten to know their names.  Listened to their stories.  Discovered that they want the same things you and I want.  Safety and opportunity.  Their family to be healthy and happy.

Despite  prejudice and hateful rhetoric immigrants and refugees still see the United States as a refuge a place to make dreams come true.  They see what is best in us as a nation…even when we forget.

What is needed is meaningful immigration reform. Something that Congress has resisted since last initiated by Ronald Reagan.

What is needed is the wisdom of a Moses:

‘Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for once you too were foreigners in Egypt.” ~ Exodus 22:21