Immigration from Law to Justice

Following is the text of an invited talk I gave at Foothills Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in 2012.

Immigration From Law to Justice

At the core of the Unitarian Universalist covenantal principles, we affirm the inherent worth and dignity of all people. By and large, we recognize that this includes people regardless of their gender identity, race, sexuality, and political ideology. Recently, the Unitarian Universalist Association and other faith traditions throughout the United States have also urged us to “Stand on the Side of Love” with immigrant communities, especially with those who are unauthorized immigrants. But what does it really mean to stand with immigrants, and to affirm their inherent worth and dignity, regardless of their immigration and citizenship status?

In a speech given the year before his death, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called us to shift from being a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. At the time, King was talking about the conflation of racism, materialism, and militarism that perpetuated the Vietnam War. Still, I see strong parallels to the UUA’s call for affirming the rights and dignity of immigrants. After all, what is a birth certificate, or an immigration visa, if not a thing? And what are these things if not stand-ins, or representations, for the circumstances of our birth? Are the circumstances of our birth, including our national origin, more important than who we are as people?

Let us not forget that national boundaries were drawn by the hands of humans, that our current immigration policies were conceived in human brains.   I say this not to suggest that some divine entity has another plan for the world, but to remind ourselves that we are responsible for creating the world as it is today.

We created these laws and these boundaries. In doing so, we created the condition of illegality. We created the unauthorized immigrant. A person does not become unauthorized because they traverse the desert or because they leave their homeland to look for work, to follow their family, to escape war. People become unauthorized when our government actively decides who has a right to be here and who does not.

If we think back on our history books, we see that the United States has a long and shameful history when it comes to deciding who has the right to be here. Remember, for example, how we treated Native Americans for most of our history, Mexican-Americans during the Great Depression, or Japanese-Americans during the Second World War. Remember how our laws once permitted that only white people could become citizens. Remember, most importantly, that all of this was perfectly legal.

The United States no longer uses racial characteristics to determine one’s eligibility for immigration and citizenship. Nonetheless, our past continues to shape the context of immigration laws today.

Currently, our laws dictate that one must obtain proper documents through the proper channels to enter and remain within the boundaries of what is now called the United States. We tend to believe that anyone can immigrate, provided they follow the rules and wait their turn in line. This process seems simple and straightforward, logical and meritocratic. However, most who have had any dealings with the US immigration system know that it is incredibly complex and bureaucratic, and often deeply regressive. In truth, our federal immigration laws have made it virtually impossible for the vast majority of people to immigrate legally to the United States.

At the same time, US trade policies promote the free migration of capital across borders, and our very own economic and political policies undermine the local economies of other nations. After the passage of NAFTA, for example, US corn grown cheaply with the help of subsidies from our government flooded the Mexican market in the name of free trade. Mexican farmers could not compete. Many were driven out of business and off the lands that their families had farmed for generations. All of this, of course, was perfectly legal.

Around the world, many are forced to confront a dilemma that most of us in the United States can scarcely imagine. To simply survive, they have little choice but to leave their homelands, their culture, their language, their families. However, many cannot migrate legally given our current immigration laws. They must decide whether it is more important to obey national boundaries and immigration policies, or whether it is more important to value the lives of their family members.

And so, many come to the United States without proper documentation, because there is simply no legal path that is accessible to them, or certainly no path that enables them to immigrate in a reasonable amount of time, in such a way that they can provide for their families and maintain their dignity. The very foundations of our immigration system and our economic policies thus ensure the existence of a large population of unauthorized immigrants. We should expect no less; the decision to prioritize national boundaries or one’s family is not a choice, after all.

So I can tell you that when it comes to immigration, as in most things, law and justice are not synonymous.

At best, our laws serve the interests of justice, they protect those with little power from those with much power, and they promote equity, peace, sustainability, and the worth and dignity of all beings. At worst, our laws actively produce injustice, they protect the powerful from the strongest power that the people have – the power of collectivity – and they sow the seeds of suspicion, fear, and hate.

I ask you, which interests do our immigration laws currently support?

Many have read about the legislation in Arizona and its copycat bills in Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina. Under the Alabama law, which is the most restrictive immigration law in the country today, unauthorized immigrants are prohibited from entering into state contracts, landlords cannot rent without proof of citizenship, children must provide their documentation status upon enrolling in school, and people who knowingly transport unauthorized immigrants can be charged with a criminal offense. Thankfully, the Alabama courts have enjoined many of these provisions.

What is less well known is that the Arizona law and its copycat versions were shaped by lobbyists for a private prison industry that stands to profit tremendously when these laws do go into effect. Jailing unauthorized immigrants is a lucrative industry for the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). The more restrictive laws we have on the books, the more money CCA stands to make.

Of course, CCA’s business model is profitable only if there is a guaranteed and steady supply of unauthorized immigrants who are apprehended on a daily basis. So in comes local law enforcement, which has been empowered only recently with the authority to question and detain individuals over their immigration status. While we wring our hands over copycat legislation at the state level, even more insidious policies are being quietly enacted at the local level throughout the United States and in spite of opposition from communities and local law enforcement. These are policies such as Secure Communities, 287(g), and other ICE ACCESS agreements, which promote collaboration between local law enforcement and Immigration and Customs Enforcement by increasing information sharing between the two groups or by deputizing police officers to serve as agents of immigration enforcement.

Over the last year, I have had the great privilege to travel all over the Southeast to hear testimony of the impact of these programs on people’s lives. I would like to share some of these stories with you today.

Last summer, I traveled to Atlanta with other Tennesseans to march and rally with thousands of people from across the nation against Georgia’s recently passed copycat legislation. It was one of the largest marches that downtown Atlanta had seen in 25 years. After the march, I walked to our van to get some water. Just ahead of me were two young Latino men. Their car was parked next to ours, and as they approached their car, I heard them start shouting. Someone had broken into their car – completely smashed the window and the entire passenger side, and stolen $500 in cash that was hidden inside.   They asked me, “What should we do? Should we report this to the police?” And I had to tell them, “I don’t know. It’s risky.” We consulted with a community organizer, then with a lawyer. The general consensus was: “You could report this to the police, but chances are that the officer would detain you and report you to ICE.” You see, the two men were unauthorized immigrants, and Atlanta is just one of an ever-increasing number of localities across the nation with cooperation agreements between local law enforcement and ICE.

When I tell this story, people often ask, “Why did those men have $500 cash in their car? Weren’t they asking to be robbed?” The answer is that since the passage of the PATRIOT Act and the REAL ID Act, it has become increasingly difficult for people without a valid social security number to open a bank account.   So, of course, unauthorized immigrants don’t open bank accounts, and they end up carrying significant amounts of cash on their person or storing it in their homes. And other people know this. During the 2005 “Night of Blood” in Georgia, three US-born citizens targeted immigrant farmworkers in a string of brutal attacks that resulted in the deaths of six immigrants, many more injured, and one immigrant sexually assaulted. I wish I could say that this was an anomaly; in fact, across the nation, we have seen an escalation in home invasions and assaults on Latinos. Today, any Latino who is assumed to be unauthorized is a target for assault and robbery. Of course, it doesn’t help that immigrants are often afraid to report these crimes to the police for fear that they themselves will be detained and deported.

Very often, women and children bear the brunt of the effects of Police-ICE collaboration.

In Memphis, I heard the story of a young woman who is regularly sexually harassed and assaulted by her employer. She is afraid to call the police, but she is also afraid to quit her job. As a single mother, she is solely responsible for the care and provision of her young children.

In Birmingham, I heard of a teenage girl who was sexually assaulted. She and her entire family are undocumented. Because of this, and because of the recent law in Alabama, they are afraid to go to the police to report the assault. To this day, her attacker walks around freely in their neighborhood.

In Montgomery, I heard the story of a woman who had the courage to confront her abusive partner in court. When she went before the court to request a restraining order, the clerk determined that she was unauthorized and threatened to have her deported if she did not withdraw the request.

This really shouldn’t come as a surprise. Domestic violence shelters have counseled that women who are unauthorized immigrants not seek support from law enforcement, except in the direst of emergencies. Victims of domestic violence who report their abuse have themselves ended up in removal proceedings.

And this is systematic. Despite the fact that ICE has stated, repeatedly, that they will target primarily dangerous criminals and threats to national security, their own data show that a significant number of those entered into removal proceedings through programs like Secure Communities are people who have committed only minor misdemeanors or no criminal act whatsoever; in fact, a distressing number are themselves victims of crime. Collaboration between local police and immigration authorities produces an impossible dilemma for unauthorized immigrants: should they trust local police and report their victimization, thereby risking detention and deportation, or should they endure their victimization in silence?

Our immigration policies have created a group of people who are incredibly vulnerable. And people know that they are vulnerable. Employers exploit them, expose them to harmful work conditions, pay them less than minimum wage or simply don’t pay them at all; after all, employers, too, know that unauthorized immigrants won’t go to the police. People assault unauthorized immigrants, sexually assault them, and traffic them as commodities. We have created a class of people whose purpose is to be victimized. Let me say that again: we have created this class of people. Our laws have created illegality. And our laws and economic policies are responsible for the condition of vulnerability that many find themselves in today.

Usually, when I discuss the impact of programs such as Secure Communities and 287(g), or our other immigration policies, I ask the audience whether these programs really serve to keep us safe. This is purely rhetorical, however, for I am quite certain that we can assume that none of us are safe when some people are afraid to go to the police.

Instead, I want to raise more fundamental questions that tug at the core of who we are as human beings: Are these laws in line with our values? Do they affirm the worth and dignity of all beings? Do they promote justice? And even more importantly, what is our obligation, as human beings, to create a world that recognizes our common humanity, that values people over things?

This is where we must start thinking about immigration and immigration policy. There is no other way to approach this issue. It is a long road from law to justice, but every journey must begin somewhere. I hope you will join us.

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