Reflections on Immigration as a Moral Issue

I have just returned from several weeks in Europe (lucky me, I know).  Not surprising to anyone who reads the international news or understands power dynamics of Haves and Have-Nots, concerns about fair and unfair practices regarding immigration policy and practice exist beyond the borders of the United States.

Our challenge as religious people is to distinguish the moral from the immoral, supporting the former and opposing the latter. Moral immigration laws that are just and humane contribute to the public good, define the parameters of legal immigration, and restrict harmful influences such as criminal intent, epidemics, and contraband. Unfortunately, not all immigration laws are moral; some use race, class, religion, ethnicity, ability, or sexual orientation to dictate who belongs and who does not.

As I wrote in an earlier post, I was thrilled to see evidence of social justice activism on this topic as soon as I arrived at the Frankfurt Airport, or as some politically-minded graffiti artist had renamed it, “Deportation Airport.”  Here was a clue, as my German friends later confirmed, that there are voices (on the left) which resist xenophobic national policies and speak out on behalf of those whose presence is often demonized and whose voices are often quashed.

Who migrates, how they migrate, where they migrate to, and when they migrate are central to immigration policies worldwide. While immigrants find jobs, build community, fall in love, have children, and in other ways enrich a country with new ways of thinking and being, some people declare them unwelcome and label them—not just their status—illegal.

On our trip, we experienced an abundance of generosity, over and over again.  Out of the nineteen days I was out of the country, only three nights were spent where we had to pay – the rest was with family or friends.  I still feel washed in the hospitality and munificence extended to us.

In Britain, five different sets of family or friends had us out to dinner.  One dinner was home-cooked (and exquisite, cooked by the new-ish Italian partner of my husband’s nephew).  Of the four that were had out at restaurants, three were held at “curry houses,” always described by our bighearted hosts as the best in _______________ (wherever we were at the time: Turvy, Huddersfield – both in England – and Glasgow, Scotland).

I found it revealing that all these folks, white by race, and many generations long a part of England or Scotland, wanted to show off to their culture to their new American sister-in-law/cousin-ish/wife-of-friend-from-school-days/etc. by taking me to the best available: food cooked by other British folk, but usually of Indian or Pakistani heritage.

Who can blame them?  The other option, the so-called traditional British food is nothing to write home about (though I did post on Facebook when I ate vegetarian Haggis).

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I mean, Bangers and Mash? Bubbles and SqueakBlack PuddingPloughman’s Lunch?  At one restaurant in Scotland (that my husband kept telling me was really authentic; he grew up in England and his mother was Scottish, so I’m trusting him on this) they offered chips with lasagna, chips with macaroni and cheese, chips with nearly every possible combination of another starchy food.  Really, nothing to write home about unless one has assumed a David Sedaris accent and has gotten their snark on.

The evening after Unitarian Universalists adopted this Statement of Conscience (excerpts of which are interspersed throughout this post), at General Assembly on June 21, 2013, we were in the small city of Turvy, which is in the central part of England.  My husband and I had been invited out by his sister and her husband to a “curry house,” which I came to understand is how (at least white English) people refer to any restaurant that serves Indian food.

Documented and undocumented immigrants alike are often denied the civil rights protections of citizens, paid less than citizens, labor in unsafe and unhealthy conditions, and/or are forced to work and live without pay under the threat of violence.

As we pulled up in our car to the restaurant that our hosts had booked for dinner, we saw three local police officers standing in front, chatting with each other.  It caught our attention, but nothing ominous, and I think I made a joke about donuts and police in England having different tastes than those in America (it did not go over well).  As the car pulled into the parking lot in back, there were three police cars and more officers standing near the back door of the restaurant.  We knew something was up and to my mind, it would likely not be good.

Our host approached the officers, talked with them (it’s a small town and they knew each other), and returned to the car, letting us know that not only were there local police officers, but also border patrol agents in the restaurant, interviewing all the workers and assessing their legal status in the country.

Many undocumented immigrants and their families live in constant fear of deportation. This fear affects their use of educational opportunities and health care services, and their willingness to interact with local police officers.  Enlisting local law enforcement agencies in immigration enforcement violates accepted practices of community policing and erodes trust between police and the communities they serve, sometimes resulting in racial profiling of those who appear to be foreign.

This is not a story about heroic intervention, spiritual witness, or even ineffective resistance.  Our hosts drove the car to a different curry house, telling us it was owned by the same people and was just as good (though clearly they were disappointed and felt inconvenienced).  My husband held his breath and pleaded with his silent eyes, hoping that nothing would get said to prompt any righteous ranting from me.

He was not the only one: I, too, hoped that nothing too offensive would be said so that I could just keep quiet, could sit with my own sense of helplessness and lack of agency in a country that is not mine.  In hindsight, I wish I had it together enough to speak, if not against the dangerous mixture of local police and border agents, then to speak on behalf of that great enriching quality that immigration has brought not only to my own nation, but clearly to Britain.  Instead, I kept (mostly) quiet and ate some really tasty food.

Clearly, moral immigration policy is an issue of international bounds.  Given our depletion of the planet’s resources and subsequent climate change, it will continue to result in tension and violence; scarcity and hardship.

Yet as is true with all crises, it provides opportunities for exquisite appreciation of the richness the diversity of the human family offers and possibilities for us to embrace, rather than bar, that which is supposedly foreign.

I feel thankful to return home to be reminded of what my faith has calls each of us – calls me — to do in the face of immoral immigration policies and actions.  At the end of the Statement of Conscience, it says,

Affirming the inherent worth and dignity of every person, we take up this call with joy and commitment, celebrating the creative and life-giving diversity of our world’s peoples.

I hope to do my part.

Our Unitarian Universalist (UU) Principles and Sources compel us to affirm that all immigrants, regardless of legal status, should be treated justly and humanely.  At a minimum, a moral immigration policy would include the following elements:

  • A path to legal permanent residency and citizenship
  • Work visas that
    • Require the same worker protections applicable to citizens including fair wages, safe and healthful environments, and receipt of benefits
    • Do not depend on a single employer
    • Allow multiple entries
    • Permit entry into the path for legal permanent residency and citizenship
    • Provide parity between the number of visas and the work available in the receiving nation
  • Timely processing of applications for visas and timely deportation decisions
  • Access to the same medical care and education available to citizens
  • Evaluation of human and environmental costs and benefits of proposed barriers to immigration or other changes in immigration policy
  • Due process under the law, including legal representation, rights of appeal, and the right to initiate suits
  • Alternatives to detention for those not considered a threat to society and humane treatment for those being detained
  • Preservation of family unity, including same-sex and transgender couples and families
  • Provision of asylum for refugees and others living in fear of violence or retribution
  • Collaboration with source countries to address underlying issues that contribute to immigration, including trade policies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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