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[Chalice] Institutionalized Xenophobia [Chalice]
in our Melting Pot

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Presented October 26, 2008, by Ellen Taylor

Opening Words

The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus

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-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"


Excerpts from position statements on immigration reform from various denominations:

Episcopal Church - As Christians, we are called to remember the Gospel mandate to extend hospitality to the stranger .

United Methodist Church - [we] actively oppose anti-immigrant legislative action and support legislative action that protects the poor and oppressed in their quest for survival and peace.

Roman Catholic Church - We oppose efforts to stem migration that do not adequately address its root causes and that permit the continuation of the political, social, and economic inequalities that contribute to it.

American Baptist - because we have a sense of Christian responsibility to serve human needs we shall continue to raise the consciousness of the church and society regarding the needs of refugees, their contribution to American society and the Biblical trust that we are all God's children.

Institutionalized Xenophobia in our Melting Pot

Quincy is proud of its German heritage; St Louis touts the Italian neighborhood on The Hill. Chicago's Greektown is home to great restaurants, and Chinatown is a popular San Francisco tourist attraction. When I was in school, all social studies curriculum included references to America as the melting pot, and no American history class was complete without recognition of the fact that America was built by immigrants. So why do so many Americans complain about immigration? We are a land of immigrants historically. No one in this room would be here if at least one of our ancestors hadn't immigrated here. (Well, except for Dana, Roman, Nayer & Kaz)

When I hear people bemoan immigration, especially if they're people who claim to be religious, I wonder why they choose to ignore those scriptural lines that tell us to love our neighbors as ourselves or, as God instructs the Hebrews in Deuteronomy and Exodus to "love those who are aliens for you were aliens in Egypt." While I may not have been an alien in Egypt, my ancestors were aliens here, so it seems only right that I welcome those who choose to come here now. Apparently there are Americans who see it differently. And so, we debate the issues related to immigration - a debate that festers with hypocrisy. How can we be so proud of our melting pot and yet be so hostile to the ingredients that go into that pot? How can a land of immigrants also be a land of xenophobes? For years, this has puzzled me as a strange, intellectual argument. But recently, immigration has become personal to my family. Personal, frustrating, and painful.

My mom's brother John is four years older than I, so we grew up together. He was more like an older brother to me than an uncle, and of course he was my hero. When we were young, we played together and occasionally got each other into trouble - as siblings do. As we got older, we enjoyed hanging out and became friends - as siblings do. In fact, it was through John that I met my husband, Joe.

John is a fireman in Austin, Texas and has, for years, enjoyed spending much of his off-time in Mexico, particularly the small village of Yelapa. He loves the people, the climate, the food, and the culture. And he loved Pilar, whom he met as he was going through Puerto Vallarta on his way to Yelapa. After a while, he stopped going through Puerto Vallarta and started going to Puerto Vallarta, and he and Pilar were married there in January of this year. Almost a year ago, John sought the services of an immigration lawyer and filed the necessary papers to bring Pilar and her two daughters, who were 17 and 5 at the time, to the US as permanent legal residents. He was told the process would take approximately 13 months.

So he waited .and waited, spending as much time in Mexico as he could, and time in Austin getting ready for his newly acquired family. In August, less than 7 months after John and Pilar were married, she was diagnosed with cancer. John went immediately to Mexico to be with her. We took on the project of trying to get the visa requests - which were languishing in an immigration office in Vermont - expedited so Pilar could come to the States right away for medical treatment her doctors recommended. Treatment that was not available in Mexico. And when I say "we" took on this project, I really mean my mother. Mom contacted Senator Richard Durbin's office, and one of his aides, Tim Sullivan, was incredibly helpful. The only way in which we were able to communicate with immigration was through Mr Sullivan. We were elated when, fairly early in the process, the immigration center agreed to expedite. We said, "thank you; please hurry." They said, "It's in process, but we need ." We would provide what they needed, a long silence would follow, Tim Sullivan would contact them and they'd say, "Now we need . . . " All the while we were saying "please hurry," John was going back and forth between a hospital in Guadalajara to see Pilar, and Austin to make arrangements for her eventual treatment stateside.

After one frustratingly long silence from immigration, we, through Mr Sullivan, contacted them and were told they could not proceed with the expedite because they didn't have Pilar's divorce papers. Pilar had never been divorced; her first husband had died, and his death certificate was in the packet of materials they had. A few days later, they acknowledged that they did have the death certificate but it was in Spanish and they wanted it in English. Once they had a copy of the death certificate in English, they told Mr Sullivan that they no longer planned to expedite our request because they had not had everything they needed at the beginning of the process. At that point, someone in Senator Durbin's Washington office contacted someone in the State Department who called the manager of the Vermont office. On September 19, we received a message that the expedite had been approved; the visas would be sent to a consulate in Mexico. On September 20, Pilar died.

What about this story prompts a 20-minute talk from this pulpit? All families have been or will be heartbroken by the death of someone they love. Most will know the panic, the frustration, and the feeling of powerlessness when efforts to help that person have failed. And some will experience the devastating reality that someone who might have helped refused to do so. Should we expect immigration services to be helpful? In contrast to my image of the Statue of Liberty welcoming the tired, poor, huddled masses, my image of Ellis Island is one in which those huddled masses are herded into interminable lines and "processed" by people who sometimes found names too difficult to pronounce, so arbitrarily changed them to something more "American."

Xenophobia is not new. Even in our fabled melting pot, one need not dig too deeply to find horror stories of the treatment of Chinese and Japanese immigrants, even of the anglo European immigrants. Hispanics are only the most recent immigrant group that right wingers love to blame for all of our social ills. The reason that we don't like them, of course, is that they're "illegal." Even Lou Dobbs says he approves of legal immigrants, but how does one immigrate legally? If the wife of an American citizen who has paid more than $1000 in processing fees, and who has the help of immigration lawyers and the office of a powerful senator gets stonewalled, what would you give for the chances of someone who plans to come here to pick tomatoes or bus tables?

There are, I think, problems with our immigration services which go beyond the legendary inefficiency and lack of caring, beyond the current anti-Hispanic sentiment. And though places like the Vermont center with which we were dealing are probably woefully understaffed to process the thousands of applications they receive, they are now a part of an agency that has a lot of money and almost unlimited power. Immigration is now a part of Homeland Security, and that does not bode well for democratic process.

Many of the projects undertaken by Homeland Security, from a security standpoint, seem pointless. Another place in which John has spent a lot of time is Big Bend National Park in southwestern Texas. He, like other visitors to the park, would go to the river's edge, wave to the man across the river who would then come pick him up and, for a couple dollars, row him across the river to the village of Boquillas, where he'd buy beer, tacos, and trinkets. He often took children's clothing to them and enjoyed spending a few hours with the villagers, who always welcomed him as "El Bombero" the fireman. The 200 or so residents of Boquillas depended upon visitors like John for their livelihoods. After September 11, 2001, that crossing was closed. Border patrol agents now ply the river and a trip that used to take about 5 minutes by boat now takes 7 hours by road. About half the village population is gone and it is reported that drug dealers have moved in to fill the vacuum. Communities on both sides of the river report feeling much less secure these days. Homeland Security's big project is the construction of a border fence - or parts of a border fence - along the Rio Grande. In late 2006 Congress overwhelmingly approved (with the support of Senators McCain and Obama) about 700 miles of fence at a cost of $3.5 million per mile. The cost has now risen to about $7.5 million per mile, but it is unlikely that the full 700 miles will ever be completed. People who live in the area have businesses along the river; farmers use water from the river; there are wildlife refuges there on which our government has spent thousands if not millions of dollars.

There are also people who live along the Rio Grande who object to having a big ugly fence or wall running through their yards. Homeland Security has agreed not to build the fence through the property of the River Bend Resort and Golf Course where snowbirds from the north come to golf during the winter. And the 6000 acre property of Dallas billionaire Ray Hunt of the HL Hunt and Lamar Hunt family has also been given a pass. Not so lucky is Eloise Tamez, whose family has been on the same land for generations. She is one of the last of the Spanish land grant heirs in the area. The 18-foot steel and concrete wall will run right through her yard, stop at the edge of the golf course, then resume again on the other side of the resort.

Then there's the story of Postville, Iowa. Immigration and Customs Enforcement raided a kosher meatpacking plant in the little town, arresting approximately 390 workers, mostly from Guatemala. A few were from Mexico and the Ukraine, and two were Israeli. The stories of this raid are heartbreaking. One of the government translators tells the story of a Guatemalan peasant who spent most of the time weeping in the corner of the jailhouse visiting room. The interpreter asked the man how he'd gotten to the US. "I walked." Walked? From Guatemala? "I walked for a month and ten days until I crossed the river." These people came here looking for work and for a better life. Women arrested in the raid who had small children were released from jail to care for their children, but are wearing ankle bracelets, so they are unable to work and unable to leave Postville. Neither they nor the people who remain in custody are able to support their families. I might also point out that that means they're no longer able to pay taxes, which they had been doing while working. With those in custody and those deported, Postville has lost about 1/3 of its population. Stores have closed, and the city has recently asked for funds to hire more policemen because of an increase in crime. Surely, even those unmoved by the humanitarian crisis can at least see the economic stupidity of this operation.

"Well," you may say, "yes, it's sad. But if they were here illegally, they should be arrested and even deported," as many were. Let's give this some perspective. This plant, where 390 undocumented laborers worked in conditions that none of us would put up with, was raided by 900 ICE agents who swarmed in in helicopters and buses. The workers were charged with identity theft and told that if they didn't plead guilty, they could wait in jail 6-8 months to go to trial and that even if they won at trial, they'd still be deported. The charge of identity theft is supposed to include the intent to commit an unlawful activity. Seeking employment is not an unlawful activity, and the papers giving false social security numbers were filled out for them at the plant. False use of a social security number carries a discretionary sentence of up to 6 months. But the inflated charges reduced judiciary discretion, meaning that "justice" in this case was determined by a federal agency - part of the executive branch of government. This represents yet another example of the concentration of power in the executive branch to the detriment of the constitutional separation of powers. An interesting side note .the two Israeli workers never appeared in court.

As Unitarian Universalists, we affirm seven basic principles, four of which I find especially pertinent to this issue:

If we indeed live by these principles, then we must be concerned about the humanitarian issues, the economic issues, and the political issues that arise from the larger immigration issue. As part of Homeland Security, Immigration is part of the war on terror. Personally, I'm not much threatened by a Guatemalan peasant who walks almost 1000 miles to work in a meatpacking plant. But many Americans - acting out of fear, out of prejudice, or out of ignorance - view every immigrant (even one who is here legally) as some kind of threat, either as a terrorist, or as a job-stealer. Funny, though, that I don't see these Americans lining up for the jobs in meatpacking plants or farm fields that immigrant workers tend to have. So what can we do to live these principles here in Quincy - where there aren't many immigrants? Several things, actually.

One. Remember and remind others that the word "illegal" is not a noun. It has become for many, the new "n-word" (as in racial epithet, not trendy jargon). We haven't eliminated use of the n-word, but we have sensitized people to its use, so let's do the same with "illegal." We shouldn't even use it as an adjective with "immigrant." I agree with Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel that no human is illegal. There are people who enter the country illegally. There are undocumented workers, those who, in the words of John and his Mexican family are "no tienen papeles" - without papers. But there are no illegal people.

Two. Don't let biased information go unchallenged. Mainstream media often cite "research" on immigration from the Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR. The founder of FAIR, John Tanton, has for years been involved in white supremacy organizations and has compared immigrants to bacteria. So I question the objectivity and validity of his organization's research. He boasts that FAIR has been called upon to testify about immigration more often than any other group. He's probably right; the group is frequently quoted. When you hear immigration "news" attributed to FAIR, call or write the network or publication asking them not to present information from an anti-immigration group without identifying it as such.

Three. Remember and remind your friends that most people who come here illegally, do so to find work. Be aware that sometimes US policies contribute to the poor economics of the countries from which people are fleeing. For example, since NAFTA, large agribusinesses have put many small Mexican farmers out of business. And a few years ago, an estimated 150,000 Mayans were killed by Guatemalan government death squads that we actively supported and helped arm. Many of those arrested in Postville might have qualified for amnesty. Support political candidates who recognize these factors and who recognize that there are family values other than abortion and gay marriage. Deporting a woman whose husband and six children are US citizens is a position which does not appear to place much value on that family. Which leads me to Number Four.

Support meaningful immigration reform which provides a path to citizenship for those who have been here many years, and which makes legal immigration more reasonably attained. See the UU position on immigration included in today's order of service.

And five. Support one or more of the hundreds of organizations providing humanitarian assistance to immigrants. Both Christian Peacemakers and Border Angels, among others, provide food and water for those crossing the desert. The Southern Poverty Law Center provides legal help to immigrants and follows and alerts the public to activities of hate groups. And St Brigit's Hispanic Ministry Fund, established by a catholic priest in Postville, Iowa, helps feed and house those affected by the ICE raid. Are there people who have fared better at the hands of immigration services than those I've described? Of course. But immigration has, for years, been characterized by a culture of arrogance, incompetence, and disregard for the humanity of those it is supposed to serve, particularly since September 2001.

I want to share one more piece of my family's story. When Mom was working on getting the visas expedited, she received a phone call one day from a woman in Springfield, Illinois. She said she was trying to find a person with Mom's name who had a brother named John because she had, by mistake, received a fax containing Pilar's medical information. The fax was intended for Mr Sullivan in Senator Durbin's office, but she had no way of knowing that. The cover letter with the fax included Mom's name. She went to the internet to locate Mom so that the fax could be appropriately directed. She said to Mom, "I looked at this and knew that it was very important to someone, so I had to see that it got to the right place." We have no way of knowing her views on immigration; we've never met her. But she knew that someone needed help and she went out of her way to provide it.

The contrast between her response and the response of those working in immigration was striking. It almost makes me sympathetic to the conservative position that only individuals, not government, should be expected to provide help to others. Can we turn immigration policy and procedures over to individuals? I don't see how. But our government was established by people for people. Our governmental agencies are staffed by individuals. We should expect our government agencies to operate in ways that respect the worth and dignity of every human being - citizen or non-citizen, immigrant or native-born. In fact, we shouldn't just expect it, we should demand it. I would remind everyone that our Declaration of Independence does not say "all men are created equal as long as they're American citizens." And I would remind those who shout that our nation was built on biblical principle that there's no biblical record of God instructing the Hebrews to love the aliens IF they have proper documentation. Nor is there biblical record of Jesus saying "love thy neighbor, but only if he speaks thy language."

A few weeks ago, Rob mentioned the Fox News anchors' claim that America is the greatest country God ever blessed the earth with. That struck me. To claim we are the greatest when we don't want to let others in reminds me of an old Eddie Murphy stand-up routine in which he gets an ice cream cone from the ice cream truck cruising the neighborhood. As he eats his cone he taunts the other kids. "I got some ice cream. You cannot have some." That kind of behavior isn't even good, much less great. So I caution the anchors at Fox News and urge all of you to remember Alexis de Toqueville's words. "America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, she will cease to be great."

Closing Words

I can't believe I'm saying this, but I would love to see us prove the anchors at Fox News at least partially right. I don't need the competitive "greatest" but I'd like "great." So let's concentrate on "good." Institutionalized xenophobia has no place in the American melting pot. As long as we act out of a sense of American exceptionalism, we are not the country we claim to be. And as long as we act out of fear, out of arrogance, or out of ignorance, we are not the people we are meant to be.

©2008 Ellen Taylor

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Taylor, Ellen. 2008. Institutionalized Xenophobia in our Melting Pot, /talks/20081026.shtml (accessed July 9, 2020).

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