Blog Pic

Blog Pic

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Where Do We Go From Here for Just and Humane Immigration Reform

Before we look to how we must respond to the current situation facing our immigrant sisters and brothers, let us look briefly at where we are in the struggle to pass just and humane immigration reform. Looking at the role of the faith community, and specifically the United Methodist Church, there has been increasing strength and movement to support immigrants and their families, and to advocate for justice on their behalf. The creation of the Rapid Response Team, under the direction of Bishop CarcaƱo and the Interagency Task Force on Immigration, started in July of 2009 with two annual conferences. Annual conferences join as they create task forces that are charged with mobilizing their conference to advocate for just and humane immigration reform.

The most effective method of organizing has been to bring together all churches and ministries within an annual conference that have incarnational relationships among immigrant communities. Often times, these incarnational relationships are achieved through churches serving immigrant communities, but the difference has been these relationships are mutual and reciprocal in nature. From this position of incarnation, United Methodists advocate for:

* A pathway to legal status for undocumented immigrants;
* The reunification of families separated by migration and detention; and
* The protection of rights of all workers.

In the year and a half the Rapid Response Team has been coordinating the work of United Methodists incarnated among immigrant communities, there have been close to three hundred events in over 40 states to show lawmakers and we now have 30 participating conferences. The strength and movement of United Methodists continues to grow and we will continue to struggle against retributive and harsh legislation until the rights of immigrants are respected and protected.

Unfortunately, the movement of United Methodists in mission has not been matched by positive movement by the federal government. The Administration and Congress is largely beset with poor leadership and a lack of commitment to respecting and protecting the rights of our immigrant brothers and sisters. They failed to pass what has been called “comprehensive immigration reform” and then failed again in trying get the DREAM Act passed, which would have benefitted children who came to the U.S. early on in their lives. These failures have been bipartisan in nature – neither Democrats nor Republicans have appropriately led on this issue.

Moreover, the Obama Administration has been one of the harshest administrations on immigrant rights in recent memory. In less than two years, President Obama deported more immigrants than President Bush did in 8 years.

In addition, programs like Secure Communities and what is called 287g (because this is the section of the 1996 Immigration and Nationality Act from which it originates), continue to grow exponentially. In both of these programs, the Department of Homeland Security recruit local law enforcement to act as federal immigration agents. These programs have resulted in hundreds of thousands of detentions and deportations. These programs also dramatically lessen the trust among immigrant communities in local law enforcement and there is little to no oversight once local law enforcement is trained. Sadly, these programs are being expanded even though President Obama still maintains the (meaningless) rhetoric of supporting immigration reform.

What we are up against is formidable. The question now is, what is it we must do? I believe we must do two things.

I. We must deepen our love and commitment to the purpose of defending the basic human rights of immigrants and their families. We must obliterate the notion that we can do this through the passage of one piece of legislation. The world has changed – is changing – and there is not one bill that can fix the U.S. immigration system once and for all so we can just walk away. Comprehensive immigration reform has made us lazy in many respects and we can’t afford to be so. Comprehensive immigration reform will not fix what is challenging immigrant communities. In its current constructs, it does not go far enough. Yes, undocumented people need a pathway to legal status, and yes, immigrant families definitely need to be reunited through eliminating backlogs. Those must be high up on our list – they must be our priorities.
But if we are serious in our defense of the basic human rights of immigrants we must also:
1. Redefine this issue as a human rights issue first and foremost and not a border or national security issue. Since 1996 we have spent $139 billion on border security and it has largely been a grab bag for corporate welfare. Michelle Alexander, in The New Jim Crow, details just a little bit of one of the fastest growing industries in the US: the private prison industry. It has been pointed out that several advisors to Governor Brewer were very recently lobbyists for the private prison industry and have close ties to that industry.

As the prophets did with those who made profits at the expense of the vulnerable, we should name names. Here is who is benefitting at the expense of our immigrant brothers and sisters:

* SBInet was designed to be a “virtual fence” along the border by utilizing infrared sensors, motion detectors, etc. and was launched in 2005 with a completion date of 2009, but currently, only a 28-mile long prototype has been completed near Tucson, AZ, which itself has gotten very mixed reviews. The lead contractor on SBInet – which has had enormous cost overruns – is Boeing, Co., which has thus far earned $615 million from the project. In 2009, this project needed to be corrected and so $100 million of stimulus funds were used. Guess who was awarded this contract? Yes, Boeing again.

* In 2006, the Halliburton subsidiary company Kellogg, Brown and Root (KBR) was awarded a $385 million contingency contract by the Department of Homeland Security to build “temporary immigration detention centers” mainly in the Southwestern United States.

* In 2009, defense giant Northrop-Grumman was awarded a $33.7 million contract to design and deploy full surveillance systems at 40 official entry points on the Southwest border, and will include “not only surveillance, but video analytics, IT communications and data archiving capabilities.”

* In 2009, Lockheed-Martin was awarded a contract worth $821 million for maintenance, repair and overhaul of the CBP’s P-3 Orion fleet, a plane that was originally developed and deployed in the early 1960’s as an anti-submarine aircraft but which has evolved into a maritime surveillance aircraft.

* In 2009, ICE awarded a contract to the Winchester Ammunition Company to supply a maximum of 200 million 40 caliber rounds over five years, the dollar amount of this contract was undisclosed.

All of these groups have benefitted through the continued mistaken belief that the focus of immigration reform should be border security.

Though the highest expert on border security in this country, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano, has testified that the border is as secure as it has ever been, we must realize this will never satisfy border security zealots in the Congress. For some, there will never be enough focus on border security: there will never be enough military, there will never be enough drones or sensors or personnel or guns, etc. And, as we see above, we cannot forget that there are immense interests, powers that want this kind of messaging to remain hegemonic. No one challenges the basic premise of secure borders even when it is shown that without a measured and appropriate change in our immigration policy that will allow undocumented people to attain legal status and families to be reunited, this effort will only result in more deaths of immigrants in the desert. We must ask our elected leaders what they mean when they say we must secure our borders first – no one knows what that means and they should.

2. Secondly, in defending the rights of immigrants, we must urge the President to no longer expand and in fact, scale down 287g and Secure Communities. They have become means of terror in immigrant communities and public safety and trust in governmental institutions is at an all-time low and continues to sink.

3. We must press the US government for better trade policies so that the economies in sending countries can be strengthened and there is less need for immigration, for families to be separated in the first place.

4. We must insist on foreign policies which do not hold US interests so high that we make unstable the economies of other nations. We need greater transparency of what in the past has been held as national security interests and we must realize that a stronger Latin America or Africa does not have to mean a weaker United States. In fact, if a strong US implies a weak world, that is a definition of strength that the Church cannot condone or submit to.

All of this points to a 10, 15, 20 year commitment to this issue, but it is more than that. This is a commitment to people most directly affected by this issue: immigrants and their families. Thus, the only force that can sustain this length of commitment, with as many challenges to true protection of human rights that this entails, is incarnational presence among immigrants and their families. Their hopes, their fears, their concerns, their joys, their passions must become our own. It is only from the position of incarnation that our commitment can last and be strengthened and it is only from a position of incarnation can we truly be persuasive; not just for the passage of legislation – which we certainly need and must have – but in order to change a culture and society that is in danger to losing its soul to its own pursuit of security. If maintaining security has come to mean detachment and rampant individualism, then authentic community must means a community based on people from all different ethnic, racial, socio-economic backgrounds, coming together, led by the Holy Spirit, modeling the life of Jesus and loving one another to the point where when one member suffers, we all suffer.

And today we have members suffering, but too many of us are numb with the anesthetic of comfort and routine. Incarnation obliterates both. Incarnation is the way of Jesus and it is not something we can easily pick up and put down. Once we choose to live incarnationally, we have no taste for anything else – we are ruined for church and life as usual. Incarnation among immigrant communities is our calling and is the only thing that will result in a society more welcoming and just for immigrants and their families.

II. The second task we have before us is from the position of incarnation, we must utilize our access to resources to gain that same access to those same resources for those whose access has been restricted or denied. This is the essence of justice and advocacy. This is hard for middle-class white people and perhaps for church people as a whole. Loving people, caring for their needs, even sacrificially at times, is something church folks know how to do. Advocating for others is a foreign concept and often thought, best left for the experts. Incarnation without advocacy though is sentimentality at best, or perhaps not incarnation at all. If someone we share life with is suffering and we have opportunities to help stop that suffering and we refuse to take advantage of them to do so, then are we really living incarnated?
But even more than that, there seems to be somewhat of a disdain for those who engage in advocacy efforts precisely because advocates create, or perhaps uncover, conflict.

“One cannot be neutral about the question of power in human society. It is what is behind oppression; it is what has to be used to overcome oppression. Christians cannot do their theological work away from, apart from, the struggle for power” (Wogaman 2000:84). Advocacy represents one way of both understanding and addressing implicit conflict in the political realm.

Conflict avoidance is a middle-class value, and one that is all too pervasive in our churches. “It is an occupational characteristic of white-collar people, whose lives are spent in situations where promotions and even holding a job depend upon ‘getting along’ with others. The sanctification of ‘getting along’ is . . . particularly pronounced in the white collar world” (Winter 1961:59). The failure of Christians to recognize and engage in the work of advocacy as a way to avoid conflicts often results in continued oppression. John Howard Yoder writes that “to process conflict is not merely a palliative strategy for tolerable survival or psychic hygiene, but a mode of truth-finding and community-building” (1992:13). Therefore, conflict not only can heal the broken past, but also can build new worlds for the future that are characterized by justice and equality.

For far too long we have been the pleasant faith communities, committed to immigrants, sure, but all too willing to accept the current political status quo. We have too easily accepted a society where immigrant families are split up at the whim of government agents. Immigrants are daily dehumanized by media – even the so-called liberal media – and by elected leaders. We have too easily accepted a church where loyalties to the Kingdom of God – a Kingdom in which God identifies personally with the most vulnerable in society – are not only equaled, but in many cases surpassed by loyalties to the United States. We have too often opted for maintaining our position in the church hierarchy rather than meet these misplaced loyalties head-on. We allow loyalties to the US and this bizarre understanding of security to supersede our commitment to immigrants and their basic human rights so that we do not rock the boat. But let me warn you, we have idolatry in the church.

And it is so strange that we should have such idolatry in the church, since clinging to orthodox doctrine has become so vitally important to so many. I have to confess, I am probably orthodox in my Christian beliefs, though I don’t know for sure because there are so many answers to the question of what is Christian orthodoxy. But I believe the words, the stories, the transformative power of Scripture. I believe it must be the norm for us. But what I see in Scripture so clearly is that classical doctrine without a relentless pursuit of missiological public engagement from the position of incarnation among society’s most scorned and vulnerable is simply pharisaical. It is a banging gong or clanging cymbal. I am tired of the endless number of groups – groups like Good News or the Confessing Movement t name just a couple, calling the church to orthodox beliefs, but then largely ignoring the absolutely necessary accompanying missiological and incarnational engagement. I have heard their calls for a return to orthodox belief all my life, and it has all too often been absent the concern for justice for immigrants and their families. Until justice – one of the most classic of our Christian beliefs, accompanies that call for orthodoxy, then their sounds are merely banging gongs and clanging cymbals. And please stop, it is hurting my ears.

And so today, when I ask where we are, when I look at all that we have done and where we are politically, there is only one place I can be: I am angry. I am mad as hell. I am angry:

* Because too many people, especially Congress and the Administration take the church for granted and ignore the cries of our immigrant brothers and sisters. Families are broken apart daily, children are left wondering why the government hates them so much, workers who have sweated to build this country are thrown away like a worn out shirt. Where is the justice in this?

* I am angry because the church has allowed our voice to be silenced too often. We all too often have looked for balance instead of righteousness and justice. We have tried too hard to be careful not to offend, instead of confronting directly those who carelessly mimic the racism and hate and then bring that into the church.

* I am angry because I watched DREAM Act students for weeks on end lobby the Congress in December – people like Senator Hagan in NC and McCain in AZ and Collins and Snowe in Maine – only to see their hard work, their dreams crushed by a soulless Senate.

* I am angry because we have done almost everything we should have done these last couple of years and still here we are; no solutions in sight, and the repression continues.

And so, I believe we must be angry. We cannot allow our anger to be out of control or reckless. We also cannot keep waiting for happy endings, ignoring the realities around us and the voices of prophets that we so often skip over.
Practically, we must:

1. Continue to build, we must build teams in our conferences among United Methodists, with other faith partners, with business, with unusual allies – all the while holding true to defend the human rights of immigrants and their families. Too often we organize around our own comfort zones. We must reach out and leave our comfort zones, yet while refusing to back down from what we know and believe.

2. We must be more intentional about reaching out to press. Our message is not getting out. This is still a border security issue. We must ensure every time we talk to the press we say this is first and foremost a human rights issue. Immigration is about immigrants and their families and the United Methodist Church is committed to fight for the human rights of immigrants until we have a system in place that uphold those rights and recognizes their basic integrity as children of God.

3. We must target our allies, those who vote with us, and make them champions – congratulate them on voting with us, but also push them to look for ways to make immigration a priority issue. We saw too many Democrats speak in favor of DREAM without knowing anything about the bill.

4. We must call out and shame those who refuse to defend the rights of immigrants and their families. We must write op-ed’s denouncing their cowardly and mistaken statements and votes. We must speak straightforwardly with their staffs – respectfully, always keeping open the invitation for redemption, but also directly pointing out where they are wrong. And we should start with those wh dashed the hopes of DREAM Act students: Senator Hagan (D-NC), Senator Snowe (R-ME), Senator Collins (R-ME) and Senator McCain (R-AZ) to name a few.

5. We must go deeper in our relationships with immigrants and their families. We must resist the temptations of colonialism and paternalism and ensure our relationships are mutual and reciprocal in nature. This is their movement.

6. We must stay in communication with one another, strengthen one another for the long haul and not give up. We must plan and work together. We must pray together, and we must encourage, encourage, encourage one another. We must get angry, not mourn, and organize, organize, organize. We must never, never give up.