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A Sense of Justice: The Illegal Immigrant Challenge

By Rev. Dr. David Alicea, UCC of Paradise Hills

     I recently enjoyed Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, an accurate portrayal of the president’s struggles during the Civil War.  The skillfully acted story and its message tug at the heart, capturing with vivid color both slavery and Congress’ efforts to abolish it by passing Lincoln’s bill amending the constitution of the United States.  It was a time for change, a time to give “certain inalienable rights” to all without regard for their ethnic background.

     Another challenge to our country – the struggle for citizenship and societal rights for undocumented aliens – is constantly in the news as we move into 2013.  The latest US census shows 17 million Latinos living legally in this country.  In most of their families, however, at least one undocumented immigrant can be found. About 4.5 million kids who hold U.S. citizenship have at least one undocumented parent.  (Statistics from the PEW Hispanic Center, http://www.pewhispanic.org/)

     The Latino population, legal and illegal, is growing and will continue to grow in this great nation of ours. Latinos are, as a result, both an economic force and, as seen in the recent election, a political power. In addition, they serve in the military and enrich us with their unique folklore and cultural traditions. They are, in a word, a social group which has come to stay!  Fifty percent of them will become citizens by 2030, with 40% able to vote, as compared to the present 23%  (http://www.pewhispanic.org).

     The “illegal immigration” debate is increasingly vociferous and cries out to be addressed from a social justice standpoint.   Illegal immigration needs to be demythologized, analyzed from a realistic point of view.  Too many Latino families, whether legal or undocumented, suffer bias and injustice.  These injustices are reflected in acculturation issues, language barriers and lack of cultural knowledge which results in social misunderstandings, limited relationships and work ethic and religious bias.  A discriminatory immigration process tears families apart, separating parents and children, husbands and wives.   Even those who have spent many years in this country and are waiting for a green card are subjected to the indignity of deportation.  There is, for all, an immediate need for jobs, health benefits and educational opportunities.  While this is not just a Latino problem, it is for them a particularly difficult one where opportunities are more limited due to forced deportation, immigration fatalities and bias profiling.

     I, for example, have been stopped many times at the LA/SD Customs Center, though I’ve lived in California for almost 25 years and have been a U.S. Navy Chaplain and pastor of several churches.  A woman at the DMV even asked me recently if I were there to get an “illegal driver’s license!”  I explained, with love and compassion, that DMV licenses are legal, whether or not the recipient is documented.   They are also needed – kids have to be taken to school and parents must go to work! 

     For those of us in the United Church of Christ a particularly important concern is what our church is going to do.  A first step, I believe, is to clarify some justice issues in order to put the challenges of illegal immigration into perspective.

     Many myths abound about illegal immigration.  “Illegal immigrant,” for example, is seen as synonymous with “Mexican,” the “solution to the problem” one of driving them back into their own country.   The facts present a different picture:  although roughly 59% of the estimated 11.5 million undocumented immigrants in the US are from Mexico, the rest are not (2012 Census figures). About 1 million come from Asia and the Pacific Islands, about 800,000 from South America and about 300.000 from Europe.  Still others are from Central America, Nigeria, Israel and pretty much everywhere. 

     Why this misperception?  

     Contributing to it is Hollywood’s representation of Latinos as lazy and/or dumb, with no sense of commitment.   Think not?  Check out such movies as Jurassic Park, A Day without Mexicans and Traffic.  According to these and other movies, all Latinos bring drugs into the country, are a National Defense threat and have low IQs and zero commitment to country and flag.  They fail to mention that Latinos have been in the forefront of all American Wars and have shared the country’s social and financial challenges.  There were also Latinos among the slaughtered in the Twin Towers on 9/11.

     Many TV shows portray Latinos jumping over walls and running for their lives.  Cops, for example, too often features minorities breaking the law and challenging the system in a negative way.  As does the daily news.  One would think only Latinos get drunk, get divorced, break the rules, have car accidents and deplete the system.  The Enron debacle and its disastrous impact on our economy was good for approximately two weeks of news coverage; illegal immigration, on the other hand, is featured, with varying degrees of accuracy, almost nightly.

     The second myth is that Latinos deplete the system by overcrowding schools, hospitals and social programs.  Jobs, it is said, are being given to Latinos because they accept low income and have no need for job benefits.  According to the nonpartisan institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, however, households headed by undocumented workers collectively paid $11.2 billion in state and local taxes in 2010 – $1.2 billion in income taxes. $1.6 billion in property taxes (undocumented immigrants do own property) and $8.4 billion in consumption taxes.  They also pay into Social Security. Illegal immigrants may be non-people to the TSA and NDS (Transportation Security Administration and National Defense System) but not to the IRS! (Time Magazine, June 24, 2012. “We are Americans.”)

Another myth: Mexicans are straight!   Gay illegal immigrants encounter, as a result, a double standard in our US system. The ways to become a US citizen are 1) by getting a green card, 2) by having a specialized field of work or 3) by marrying a US citizen. That last is not as easy as it used to be.  And, if the immigrant happens to be gay, his or her marriage may not be recognized by the Federal Government.  Such a policy is out of sync with reality.  We need to re-evaluate our political and religious groups in order to provide a relevant pastoral ministry to those in need of social justice.

     Another myth is that illegal immigration can be curbed, detained or controlled by a bigger wall, tougher laws and such political policies as “self-deportation.”  This is a huge challenge, one which must be addressed with an in-depth knowledge of what is at stake and how it affects our undocumented immigrants and their families, something too few Americans comprehend.  Let’s look at some policies that could work – and at some shaped by bias.

     A few bills that were not passed could have dealt effectively with illegal immigration, the “Dream Act,” for example, which was designed to provide opportunities to specialize in a field and to find jobs.   It also could have made it easier for many illegal immigrants to possess green cards – and therein lay the challenge.  Many revisions and much political partisanship later, the bill was defeated. 

     Counterpoints to the Dream Act are the infamous SB 1070,  Arizona’s “Show me your papers bill,”  which allows law enforcement to profile and require suspect immigrants to produce official documents, and Alabama’s HB 56, which requires schools to document the immigration status of new students (and their parents) and makes it a felony to transport or house an undocumented immigrant.  The basis for such laws is the myth that they will “fix the problem.”  Reality is quite another matter.

     What is left for illegal immigrants?  I believe that instead of pushing prevention and deportation, we should utilize this “human force” to strengthen our economy.  Offer them work in small businesses, marketing, agriculture and construction.  Encourage them to reinforce our military and assist in our scientific programs.  We need to be more creative, to develop an embracing attitude, one true to our nation’s founding.  We are, after all, a nation of immigrants, a nation formed and created by people who dared – and still dare – to pursue a better life!

     The United Church of Christ must embrace this truth and continue its legacy of fighting for those who cannot fight for themselves.  Something must be done as this human tsunami continues to grow…and grow…and grow….


One Response to “A Sense of Justice: The Illegal Immigrant Challenge”
  1. As Global Ministries long term volunteers assigned to work with Congregational and Disciples churches in central Mexico, we provide a different perspective on the “illegal” immigrant experience. Our blog postings will at times refer to those such as Pastor Jesus Robledo (see http://erasingborders.wordpress.com/2012/11/29/he-had-a-vision/ ) whose dreams for their church here and their family can only be realized through another “illegal” border crossing. We pray that our two denominations’ long history of ministry with the people and churches of Mexico will strengthen our voices in helping shape a new U.S. immigration policy informed by our vision of justice and by our unity through Christ with all peoples.

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