by Rev. Kate Lore
A sermon given January 20, 2008
First Unitarian Church
The outcry in our country about the "invasion of immigrants" has been long and loud. As one person put it, “Few of their children in the country learn English. . . . The signs in our streets have inscriptions in both languages. . . . Unless the stream of the immigration is . . . turned they will soon so outnumber us that all the advantages we have will not be able to preserve our language, and even our government will become precarious.”
This blast did not come from one of today’s right-winged talk show hosts or from one of the Minutemen who guard our borders with Mexico. No, these were the words of Benjamin Franklin, deploring the wave of Germans pouring into the colony of Pennsylvania in the 1750s. Yes, anti-immigrant sentiments are older than the U.S. itself, and they’ve flared up periodically throughout our history, targeting at times Irish, French, Italian, and Chinese immigrants. Even President Bush’s current project to wall off our border is not unique to our history. John Jay, who later became the first chief justice of the Supreme Court, proposed “a wall of brass around the country for the exclusion of Catholics.”
Luckily, these past public frenzies ultimately failed to exclude the teeming masses, and those uproars now appear—in retrospect—to have been the result of some combination of unfounded panic, political demagoguery, and blatant xenophobia—the intense fear of foreigners. Still, this does not mean that the public’s anxiety about today’s massive influx of Mexicans coming illegally across our border is illegitimate. Polls show that there is a deep sense of alarm about illegal immigration in all sectors of our society. Even those of us who worship here on Sundays are divided on this issue. Thus, I want to take some time to discuss this controversy, drawing upon the wisdom and writings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—whose birthday we celebrate tomorrow.
It is my hope that by reflecting together as a community, we might somehow figure out how to best to address the complicated issues around immigration and—with time—even muster the courage to build that Beloved Community of which King dreamed, that place where “justice shall roll down like waters and peace like an ever-flowing stream.”
One of the most significant characteristics of Dr. King was that he was not only an activist but also a theologian. And King’s God was the God of all people. America has never known a theologian who took that truth more seriously and this, I think, was the key to King’s success and will be the key to OUR success—if we take the time to reflect deeply upon the implications of his this theology.
Earlier this service we all read King’s “Network of Mutuality” in which he describes us as being inescapably bound together. He didn’t always hold this understanding but it came to him gradually, deepening with time.
As the civil rights movement began, King’s goal was to desegregate the city buses in Montgomery. That was 1956. Shortly thereafter the movement expanded its efforts against segregation in all public accommodations—water fountains, bathrooms, interstate commerce, and lunch counters. That was Birmingham in 1963.
Within the next two years, the movement enlarged its view to seek the rights of everyone of any color to vote—North and South. From 1965 to 1967, King’s focus expanded again to include underpaid workers in the U.S. and the children of Vietnam.
By the end of his life, King recognized that his God loved the poor as much as the wealthy, the poor white as much as the poor black, the poor African as much as the poor American, the poor of Hanoi as much as the poor of Atlanta. That was 1968 in Memphis and Washington, D.C., shortly before he was assassinated.
I find it interesting that If you follow King’s writings over this period of time, you will see that there was a link between King’s expanding realm of activism and his expanding understanding of God. You may remember that King’s understanding of the Divine was so expansive that he seriously considered becoming Unitarian Universalist. Sadly, he did not. Another thing that was sad was that this ever-expanding understanding of the Divine was lost on many of his supporters and they began to abandon him. Their God was not as big as King’s God, not as inclusive, not as troublesome, not as dangerous, not as demanding. They said to King, “If God’s that big, it will destroy the civil rights movement.”
People couldn’t understand him; they thought he had gotten off the track, that he was overtired and emotionally drained and his thinking was fuzzy. Well, King WAS overtired and exhausted; but he was never clearer than at the end of his life. King understood where his God was leading him, and he was not going anywhere else.
King put it this way: “We have inherited a big house, a world house in which we have to live together—black and white, Easterners and Westerners, Gentiles and Jews, Catholics and Protestants, Muslim and Hindu. [We are] a family unduly separated in ideas, culture, and interests who, because we can never again live without each other must learn somehow in this one big world to live with each other.”
As Unitarian Universalists, we affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person. We promote the goal of world community, with peace, liberty, and justice for all. We agree with Dr. King that our lives are interwoven in a single garment of destiny, that we are created to live in one world and to be one people. But how can we apply these rather big ideas to the specific problems associated with immigration—especially illegal immigration from our neighbors to the south. Should we tighten our border controls or loosen them? Should illegal immigrants be given the chance to become U.S. citizens? To go to our schools and our hospitals? What are our obligations—if any—to undocumented workers and their families?
These are tough questions to ponder, especially in these times of rhetoric and hyperbole. So I want to take a little time this morning to unpack some of the most troubling aspects of this debate.
Let’s start with the wall that President Bush is erecting along our border with Mexico. Our Congress has put up an initial $1.2 billion to start the construction of this wall. It is projected to cost up to $60 billion over the next 25 years to build and maintain it. This wall is gigantic, involving two or three 40-foot-high rows of reinforced fencing. It will require a swath of land 150 feet wide and will stretch for 700 miles.
The Mexican government and people are insulted and appalled by this wall project. Ranchers, mayors, and families living on either side of the border hate it. Environmentalists are aghast at its destructive impact on the ecology of the area. Still it is being built—and a lot of untrained and undisciplined people are eager to patrol it.
All this for something that will not work. As Gov. Janet Napolitano of Arizona put it, “Show me a 50-foot wall and I’ll show you a 51-foot ladder.” People have literally been dying to cross into the U.S., and it’s not possible to build a wall tall enough to stop them. They will keep coming.
The question that policymakers have not faced honestly is this one: Why do these immigrants come? The answer is not that they are pulled by our jobs and government benefits. But that they are pushed by the abject poverty that their families face in Mexico. That might seem like a mere semantic difference, but it’s huge if you’re trying to develop a policy to stop the human flood across our border.
Although you never hear it mentioned in the debates on this issue, most Mexican people would really rather stay in their own country. Pedro Martin, who has seen most of the young men and women in his small village move to the U.S—and who was quoted in the last issue of Jim Hightower’s newsletter—put it this way: “Up north, even though they pay more, you’re not necessarily living as well. You feel out of place. Here [in Mexico] you can walk around the whole town and it’s comfortable. Life is easier.”
The language, culture, identity, and happiness of these immigrants is tied to Mexico—yet sheer economic survival requires scores of them to abandon the place they love. Why? Because in the last 15 years, Mexico’s longstanding system of sustaining its huge population of poor citizens has been scuttled at the insistence of U.S. banks, corporations, government officials, and “free market” ideologues. In the name of “modernizing” the Mexican economy, such giants as Citigroup, Wal-Mart, Tyson Foods, and GE have laid waste to Mexico’s grassroots economy, destroying the already-meager livelihoods of millions of people. People who previously worked on small, self-sufficient farms, or at jobs in state-owned industries, or in small shops that marketed such essentials as tortillas, beans, meats and cheeses.
You remember NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, which was supposed to help boost the Mexican economy and lift its citizens out of poverty? Well, since it was ratified in 1994:
• Economic growth in Mexico has been anemic. Average factory wages in Mexico have not increased but have dropped.
• Similarly, employment has not jumped as predicted but has plummeted, and unskilled workers are paid only $5 per day.
• IN fact, 19 million more Mexicans live in poverty today than when NAFTA was passed.
• At the same time—and this is important—at the same time U.S. agribusiness corporations have more than doubled their shipment of subsidized crops into Mexico. Because the volume is so high, these agribusinesses can under cut the prices that indigenous farmers got for their production. This has resulted in the displacement of some two million peasant farmers from their land.
• U.S. corporations, in fact, now control 40 percent of the formal jobs in Mexico, with Wal-Mart reigning as the #1 employer.
So here’s the situation: Thanks to Mexico’s newly modernized (i.e., corporatized) economy, wage earners there get poverty pay of $5 a day while a few hundred miles north, they might draw that much in an hour. What would YOU do—especially if your kids were chronically hungry?
You see, I think that instead of putting all of our energy into coming down on the workers who illegally cross our borders, we should shift our gaze upward and start looking at all of the businesses on both sides of the borders that are profiting so hugely from NAFTA. For these are the people who are causing the increase of undocumented Mexican workers.
These corporations are the profiteering few who have rigged all of our trade and labor policies to exploit workers and destroy small farms—not just in Mexico but everywhere.
So, do we have reason to fear for our jobs and our financial future? Yes, but it is not because of the immigrants crossing our borders. It is because the Middle Class is indeed shrinking. And it’s this economic fragility that anti-immigrant zealots are feeding upon. But it is extremely important to note that even if there were no illegal workers in this country—none—the fragility would remain. You see, it’s not the impoverished Mexican workers who downsized and off-shored our middle class jobs; it’s not our undocumented workers who reclassified millions of employees as “independent contractors,” leaving them with no benefits or labor rights. They are not the ones who subverted the right of workers to organize. Or who made good health care a luxury item. Or who let rich campaign donors take over our political process. Powerless immigrants did not do these things. But powerless immigrants are being used as scapegoats.
So if we were able to turn to Dr. King today and ask his advice on what to do about this situation, I believe he would encourage us to walk in solidarity with the poor and disenfranchised people who have little power in this system.
Does that mean that this controversy is now settled and that we’re all of the same mind on this complicated issue? Of course not. But as a nation and a people, let us address legitimate issues of immigration with open minds and open hearts. Let it begin with a fair appreciation for the humanity of undocumented workers and acknowledge that if they benefit from being here, they also contribute mightily, often heroically.
Richard Rodriguez puts it this way:
In the noisy argument over what to do with illegal immigrants, the common assumption is that America has done a great deal for them already. The question now is: What more should we give them? Should we give them green cards? Grant them amnesty? Or stop all this generosity and send them packing?
No one speaks of what illegal immigrants have done for us.
It occurs to me that I have not heard two relevant words spoken. If you will allow me, I will speak them: “Thank you.”
Thank you for caring for our dying parents.
Thank you for bending your bodies over our fields.
Thank you for scraping and painting and roofing, and cleaning out the asbestos and the mold.
Thank you for your stoicism and your eager hands.
Thank you for your humor and the singing.
Thank you for cleaning the toilets and kitchens and schools and office buildings and airports and malls.
Thank you for your parents who died young and had nothing to bequeath to their children but the memory of work.
Thank you for giving us your youth.
Thank you for the commemorative altars.
Yes, thank you, immigrants—especially the poor and desperate. Thank you, you bottom-of-the-totem-pole, take-nothing-for-granted, work-like-a-dog pillars of this affluent society. I know that you have risked danger, faced hardships, and endured indignities in hopes of a better life for your family.
So, my friends, our challenge now is to understand more broadly our relationship to the immigration issue—how we benefit, how we acquiesce to these unhealthy patterns of oppression and economic exchange.
Being in community with one another as we explore this hot button issue can help us focus on the systems at play rather than blaming the victims of the system. No, we won’t necessarily agree upon all the details of immigration reform—but we don’t all have to think the same to love the same. There should always be room for healthy debate. But as we struggle with this controversy, we do need to remember that whatever affects one of us directly, affects all of us indirectly. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation.
If you’d like a chance to deepen your own understanding of community, I invite you to participate in the MLK celebration tomorrow. There will be people of all kinds there. I’d also like to encourage any of you who might be interested in starting a group on this issue, to contact me in the coming week. This issue is not going away anytime soon. We needn’t figure it all out alone.
 The Hightower Lowdown, Vol. 10, No. 1, page 1, January 2008
 Ibid., page 2
Wednesday, January 23, 2008
by Rev. Kate Lore