by The Reverend Kenneth Gordon Hurto, Southern Region Congregational Life Staff
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
The New Colossus, 1883; Emma Lazarus (1849–87)
In her 2012 UUA GA Ware lecture in Phoenix, NPR journalist Maria Hinojosa spoke movingly of “two Americas,” one which moved about freely and another always in fear of being detained, harassed, or arrested because of color or accent. A Mexican born American, she noted having a New York drivers license was not sufficient to prove her citizenship. She then asked the assembled whether we felt the need to bring our passports to travel to Arizona.
A line stayed with me: No human being is illegal. Entering our nation without a visa is an illegal activity; it violates our law. However, she warned, breaking a law is an action, not a state of being. To say you are an “illegal” means you have no dignity, no rights. Hinojosa spoke of Nazis declaring Jews, Gypsies and homosexuals “illegal” to provide legitimacy for hatred, violence, and murder. She warned this was happening in our immigration debate.
“No human being is illegal.” I confess: I am no expert on immigration. I respect the notion that a nation ought to have borders that ensure its integrity. Yet, seeing the faces of thousands of children yearning to be free of violence or poverty, risking death in the desert — truly the wretched refuse of central America’s dysfunction — troubles my soul. These are kids, not “illegals.” Truly, these are the huddled masses? Do we welcome them to our shore?
Our nation’s immigration history has always discriminated as to who is “ok” and who is not. Immigration quotas are biased toward white, northern Europeans, less welcoming of southern Europeans, let alone Africans. If you are Cuban, you are granted amnesty the moment you set foot on US soil; if you’re from Haiti, you’re sent back asap.
We value people differently. No doubt, this is a sign of “my tribe” in opposition to yours. At its best, “my tribe” is a source of identity and pride. At its worse, “my tribe” leads to spiritual xenophobia and justification for treating those different as of less or no worth. Our immigration policy is driven by such fear.
President Obama has deported more people than any other President, ever. The pressure to seal our borders with a ghastly, thousand miles long fence is immense. But it does not address the problem of global inequality. My ancestors left Norway in mid-19th century seeking a better life on the prairies of the Dakotas. So, too, today, with any poor and oppressed. As long as we are a free people, others will want to come here.
Secure borders, compassion for the poor? There are competing goods in this debate; it is cheap grace and cheaper law to ignore that. Finding a balance is what we all must seek.
Immediately, Unitarian Universalists can stand on the side of love and argue compassion as a first value in the immigration debate. We should work to ensure those who cross our border be treated decently. We should confront the oft-repeated, obfuscating use of “illegals.” Our compassion should include those trying to cope with the immense challenge of what to do with the over 50,000 unaccompanied children who have arrived in Texas.
Good news, if there is such, is that faith-based groups from around the country are pulling together to lend a hand and a heart. True reform of our fear-driven policies will not come soon or easily. I have no “do this now" prescription for my fellow Unitarian Universalists, save to encourage your engagement in the debate and to lend a hand where you can.
In her 2014 Ware lecture last month, lawyer, poet Sister Simone Campbell — organizer of the “Nuns on the Bus” protest decrying the effects of the so-called “Ryan Budget” on people in need — called us to “walk towards trouble” as a core part of our spiritual life. She offered this poem to encourage us:
Let gratitude be the beat of our heart, pounding Baghdad rhythms, circulating memories, meaning of the journey.
Let resolve flow in our veins, fueled by Basra’s destitution, risking reflective action in a fifteen-second world.
Let compassion be our hands, reaching to be with each other, all others to touch, hold heal this fractured world.
Let wisdom be our feet, bringing us to the crying need to friends or foe to share this body’s blood.
Let love be our eyes, that we might see the beauty, see the dream lurking in the shadows of despair and dread.
Let community be our body warmth, radiating Arab energy to welcome in the foreign stranger—even the ones who wage this war.
Let us remember on drear distant days, we are a promised Christmas joy we live as one this tragic gifted life— We are the Body of God!
Love is our core teaching. It calls us to tear down walls, to reach out. May we do so.