Learning about Immigration

My sermon today, reflecting on some of what I learned at Justice GA.

Learning About Immigration

The story from “The Death of Josseline”

I am a big picture kind of guy.  When I engage a social and political issue, I want to get the big picture about it -- set it into its overall historical and political context.  How did it come to pass that we are in the situation we are in.  How did we come to the place where hundreds of people are dying in the deserts of Arizona, trying to sneak into the United States of America to work, by trying to walk through some of the most dangerous unfriendly terrain possible?  How did we get to the point where it is controversial, and perhaps illegal, to leave water in the desert for those thirsty travelers?

This year’s General Assembly was held in Phoenix, Arizona and was dedicated to learning about immigration, especially immigration from Mexico and Central America in the Southwest.  There is a story there of how that came to be in itself. 

Briefly: in 2010, Arizona’s legislature passed a bill that was seen as overtly hostile to the immigrant community in Mexico.  It essentially required police to check the immigration status of anyone about whom it was reasonable to suspect that they were in the US without documentation.  It is inescapable that the practical effect of this law would be place all Hispanics in Arizona under suspicion and require them to be able to produce documentation of their citizenship at all times. 

A large nation wide protest was called for Arizona, including a boycott campaign; various organizations chose not to have conventions and conferences in Arizona.   This was in 2010.  The UUA had already committed itself to having its General Assembly in Phoenix in 2012 -- they work about 5-6 years in advance.  So there was a call from within the UUA to move the General Assembly.  Naturally, this was controversial in and of itself.  Add to that, the UUA would have had to lose about $600,000 in deposits already paid, if it moved the meeting.  

Two camps developed, you might say.  On the one side were the Institutionalists -- who said -- look, we’re broke, the UUA has lost about 20% of its income in the recession, is cutting millions from its budget, and we cannot afford to throw away $600K to make a political point.  On the other side, let’s call them the anti-racists -- said “look, injustice is here, a boycott is on, lots of people are boycotting, Major League ballplayers on down.  Everybody has a price of their soul, the number for which they will sell out -- are you saying ours is 600K, which is about $4 per member?

Interestingly enough, it was our local Arizona congregations who saw another way through this rapidly polarizing situation.  They, especially the church in Phoenix, but also
some others locations, had been all ready working on the immigration issue with local partners, community organization in the Arizona immigrant communities.  Those organizations suggested that the UUA come, but come to learn about the immigration issue, and to stand with them against the racial profiling and other injustices of the situation there.   And that is what we did. Instead of a regular GA, we had a Justice GA.  About 3600 Unitarian Universalists from all over the country, many of whom are opinion leaders in their community, came to learn about an issue that was unfamiliar to many.  It was by all measures, a great success.  We heard local speakers from Chicano and Native American communities, from law professors on the doctrine of discovery, from Washington think tanks on immigration etc.  A small number of local people, immigration activists participated in all of our sessions, working toward and achieving a relationship of mutual respect and partnership. 

I learned a lot, but it has taken me a while to sort it all out.  So I have been processing away ever since.  This sermon has helped me think about it.

I think I want to give you two main big picture points. 

The problem of what we call “illegal immigration” is a solvable problem.  In fact, on the broadest policy level it has been solved.   The first element of the problem is that we have about eleven or twelve million undocumented persons living in the United States -- about the size of the population of the state of Ohio.    Secondly, although we need their work, our visa and work permit system does not allow us to easily get the labor to do what people want to get done.  I recall eating in restaurant in Oslo, Norway; the server was a college student from Sweden.  Norway and Sweden had work permit and visa regulations that made it very easy for a Swede to work temporarily in Norway.  Our server was going home to Sweden at the end of the summer. The third problem is that because there are limited legal ways to work temporarily in unskilled labor in the US, there is a large flow of unsanctioned migration across our borders, which sets up a criminal black market, and danger.

The basic elements of a what is called comprehensive long-term immigration reform are then, three things: (1)  a path to citizenship for the present undocumented residents in the country (2) a more flexible visa system that allows the people who want to do jobs in the United States to get here to do the jobs and then return home, all within the system and (3) better border security.

These three elements were addressed in a bill in 2007.  The bill had the support of Edward Kennedy and most Democrats, President George W. Bush and Senator John McCain.  It passed the House of Representatives and received 53 votes to bring to the floor in the Senate.  If the US senate operated by majority rule, it would have passed.  Of course, there were elements of the bill that some people objected to, but it could be a policy framework upon which to build.

The issue upon which this potential reform act foundered was the widespread fear that it’s path to citizenship represented an amnesty of some sort.  Which brings us to the second big picture point I want to make. 

For almost the entire history of the Republic, immigration policy has been made with an eye to preserving the racial character of a European white America.   Immigration policy has been made with a white nationalist assumption -- that the United States is a country ordained to be a predominantly white.  Real Americans are white. 
No one says that anymore out loud, although if you listen to country music for example, you hear many songs extolling the real America of white small towns and the All-American girl as blue-eyed and blond.  In fact, any reference to “real America” usually has a racial subtext, or presumption.

No one says it out loud now, but for most our history, they did. Historically, the discussion of immigration policy was about how to shape the national character by controlling what nationalities were able to come into the country. 

For most of the country’s history, white Europeans have had almost completely free immigration rights into the country.  Most of our ancestors in this room came without restriction.  Less than 1% of the people who presented themselves at Ellis Island were rejected -- usually only for carrying infectious diseases, or moral reasons -- most notably prostitution on the ships.    

But on the other side of the continent, and throughout much of the same time, Chinese people were excluded from coming into the United States.  Too many Chinese would spoil the national character, it was thought.

For a long time, immigration slots were available on a formula proportional to the present population of the United States.  Hence, there were many spots available for British and German people, because these are large communities in the US -- much less for people from Asia, Africa, Latin America.  Even now, when immigration slots are assigned on the basis of education and skill, the explicit goal is to shape American culture by regulating who can come and can’t come in.  Could there be no better proof that the goal of immigration policy has been largely to preserve the present ethnic mix of the United States?

These same fears of a changing culture in America seem to be bubbling under the surface of in some of the contentious points in immigration discussions -- English as the offical language, suspicions that a path to citizenship for millions of residents is a plot to increase the Democratic vote, or Arizona’s companion law to SB1070 which forbade the teaching of Hispanic culture and history in Arizona schools and restricted bl-lingual education.

With this in mind, it is useful to step back from Arizona and see what is going on there. 

Tucson and Phoenix are, you must remember, unsustainable and artificial cities.  My father and mother moved to Tucson in 1971 and when I would visit, my father would often say, as we looked out over the city from the foothills -- that in 100 years it would all be gone.  They would drain the Oglalla aquifer, the underground water source under much of Arizona, run out of water, dry up and blow away.  It is more of moon colony than a real economy.   But they are currently active and thriving cities, attracting two different populations.  One is a largely white, older population from all over the United States.  The other is poorer, spanish-speaking population from Mexico and Latin America, who were there first, but in much smaller numbers. You could argue that both of these populations are invaders and settlers.  But it is the white population that has the power and the money. 

The conflicts in Arizona now are conflicts between communities.  The white community is alarmed at the growth of Latino and Latina population.  They know that many are here outside of the official immigration process and would to induce the “illegals” as they call them to leave.  Self-deportation they call it.  To make life so difficult for undocumented people to stay that they voluntarily leave.  Nothing against the legals, just the illegals. ON the ground, however, this distinction is meaningless -- people with papers and people without papers live in the same communities and are intertwined within families.  And the fact that by being born here, children have different citizenship status than even their parents.  To put pressure on quote illegals unquote is to make the entire Chicano community under pressure -- to turn the hostility of the government toward an entire community.  Self-deportation is a lower level of ethnic cleansing.

It is no surprise that the Chicano community, both documented and undocumented is fighting back.  And I am perfectly comfortable being on their side.

You see, I mourn for another America -- several other Americas that were possible, but not allowed to be.  These other Americas are siblings to us, but died young and never saw maturity.

There is an America that does not include this southwest arizona -- that did not divide the Tohono O’Odam nation with a straight line drawn on a map in the Gadsen Purchase.   That those people who intermarried and intermixed with the Spanish settlers would have had the freedom to develop on their own.

There is an America that could have been after the Civil War -- suppose we had stayed the course on the Reconstruction and built an interracial democracy in the South.  Suppose the Negro slaves did get their 40 acres and mule, and they retained the vote and the rights of citizens that were promised by the 14th amendment.  Just suppose -- suppose there had been no lynchings and segregation and economic exploitation by the share cropping system.  Suppose their work had made them wealthy.  Suppose there was no need for the Great Migration.  None of what happened was inevitable, the whole history -- the re-enslavement through debt, Jim Crow the loss of voting rights, segregation, the exclusion of agricultural workers and share croppers from Social Security -- all that were conscious decisions made in the light of day with the tacit approval of people like us. 

I mourn that lost America -- an America that was not allowed to mature.

I mourn the lost Chinese America -- what would our country have become had the Chinese not been excluded in the 19th century?  Suppose we had not confiscated the land of Japanese American farmers in WW2.  Lost Americas that could have been.

And the most mind-boggling of all -- suppose Europeans had migrated to the New World, and not conquered it. 

We all know that the demographic transformation of the United States is coming -- that someday soon, the majority of people will not be what we call ‘white people.”  We carry a faith that it will still be the country we love, different but still the same. 

Historians may look at the entire period of 200 years between the Civil War as the period when the old white power structure held on against a rising tide of population and cultural diversity.  They put up a long struggle, those Euro-Americans, but in the end, it was not meant to be. 

But there were some along the way and in increasing numbers, embodied a greater love for all humanity, that welcomed this transformation and eased its way.  I hope that we are in that number.


  1. This was really helpful. Wish I could have heard you deliver it.


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