Wednesday, October 25, 2006

up/rooted Immigration Forum update

Hey up/rooted friends!

Just wanted to let you know that the Faith & Politics Immigration Forum that we co-sponsored went very well this past Monday. About 40 of us gathered at St. Mark's Lutheran Church in Aurora for a panel discussion on "Christian Responses to the Immigration Crisis". The panel consisted of Reverend Wayne Miller of St. Marks, Reverend Roy Brown of Progressive Baptist in Aurora (a predominantly African American congregation), and Father David Engbarth of Our Lady of Good Counsel Catholic Church in Aurora. I functioned as moderator for the discussion (and also represented both up/rooted and my own faith community, Via Christus in Yorkville). We gave the panelists about 45 minutes to respond to a few opening questions about the immigration issue and then opened it up for questions or comments from the audience.

I began by asking the panelists to describe their church and how immigration directly affects them. Father Engbarth probably had the most direct exposure of the three, as a large majority of his church was Hispanic. He gets to hear first hand accounts of immigrant life, and understands their struggles. He asked us to realize that at its core the immigration issue is very simple - it's literally a matter of survival. These people are not coming here because they want to. They are coming because they have no other choice for the survival of their families. They are economic refugees.

Rev. Brown said that his congregation, as African Americans, were dealing with having to share their power and status with a new minority group. I was especially interested in what he said about how the Hispanic community, by allowing themselves to be exploited and mistreated over here (often because undocumented immigrants have no ability to fight back), is actually undermining a lot of the civil rights that the black community has fought so hard for over the past 50 years. For instance, blacks have fought hard for fair wages and discrimination free work environments; but if Hispanic immigrants are willing to work for sub-standard pay and allow themselves to be mistreated by their employers, then that essentially undoes a lot of what blacks have worked towards.

Rev. Miller, representing a mostly white, middle-class congregation said that there is a difficulty in getting his people to see this as a justice issue (in the sense of respecting the human dignity of immigrants) rather than just a compassion issue (i.e. just giving poor immigrants a handout while still thinking of them as unwanted guests). He said his church was far more eager to get involved in ministries of compassion than ministries of justice.

The discussion quickly moved into the economic realities that are the underlying cause of immigration, both legal and illegal. Father Engbarth encouraged us to consider why these immigrants are coming here in the first place? What is it about our international, economic, political, and social systems that causes this situation? What is it that creates what are essentially "expendable human beings" (which is how many immigrants tend to feel about themselves because of how our society treats them, according to Father Engbarth). He suggested that the solution to immigration was not simply to seal our borders, but to focus on fighting global poverty and the systems that contribute to it.

In a similar vein, Rev. Miller said the key question was "Who is being served by our current immigration policy?" And the answer is that wealthy corporations and wealthy Americans in general are the ones currently benefitting from cheap, easily exploitable immigrant labor. He asked why we aren't doing something to dry up the demand for immigrants as much as trying to stem the supply.

Rev. Brown pointed out that stealing cheap labor from Mexico is not compassion, and suggested that while we should not deport immigrants already living here, we should seal our borders so as to protect immigrants from further exploitation.

When we opened it up for questions from the audience, discussion turned to how we can help undocumented immigrants become legal and help them "assimilate" without being patronizing or assuming they need to fit into the mold of white, middle-class American culture. We also talked some about the political and economic situation in Mexico that was causing so much immigration, and pointed out how free trade agreeements like NAFTA have exacerbated the problems greatly (though a lot of the blame also falls on the deep-seated and long-standing corruption in the Mexican government).

At this point we heard some first-hand testimony from a Mexican immigrant in the audience who shared with us his motivations for coming (his concern for the welfare of his family), his appreciation for America, and yet also his desire to return to Mexico someday. (One of the more interesting points made this evening was that most immigrants dream of going home someday to their native lands. They don't want to stay here in America forever. However, for most of them, that dream is eventually crushed and they resign themselves to staying in America.)

We closed the evening by asking how we could continue conversations like this, and how we could put these concerns into practical action. It was suggested that churches need to lead the way both politically, by advocating on behalf of the poor and the foreigners, and in creating practical processes by which we can help undocumented immigrants go through the steps they need to become legal. It was also said that churches simply need to be deliberate about integrating races and cultures, and do whatever they can to get different groups talking.

Overall we all felt like the night was a great success and we were eager to sponsor more forums like this in the future - perhaps spreading the net wider and involving more churches in the future. John Laesch, the Democratic candidate for Congress out here in my district, was there (we invited him and his opponent, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, though Hastert wasn't able to attend), and he suggested that eventually we should think about hosting a really big, area-wide event with speakers like Jim Wallis and others. It'd be really exciting to see if we could make this a regular thing and work up to that over the new few years. If we do, you can be sure I'll let you all know.

Speaking of future events, our next up/rooted gathering will be Monday, November 13 from 7-9pm at Kristine Socall's home in Winfield with a discussion on alternative forms of church, intentional communities, and radical discipleship. It should be great!

See you there,

-Mike Clawson
up/rooted co-coordinator

1 comment:

Mark Pettigrew said...

For the past 14 years, I have lived at the Lawson House YMCA, at the corner of Chicago Avenue and Dearborn in downtown Chicago.

You're welcome to come visit me anytime. I'm in Room 1212. (As a Christian, I like to think that the first 12 represents the 12 tribes of Israel and the second 12 represents the 12 disciples. It's a fantasy, of course, but it's a nice fantasy.)

It would be ridiculous to describe any resident of Lawson House as wealthy or even "middle class". Consequently, I could hardly be accused of being unable to sympathize with the needs of the poor. I have gone through more than my share of money-related struggles since coming to live here.

During a couple of periods of time, my financial status was so dire that I was on the verge of being evicted from Lawson House, due to having fallen behind on the rent. Fortunately, the folks at Lawson House showed me a measure of forbearance, and I now have a part-time job as a telephone surveyor. My job pays the rent and keeps food in my stomach, but I am still just barely keeping my head above water.

Yet, despite the widely held belief that only the Democratic party speaks for the poor, and despite the fact that I was granted official status as a conscientious objector when I appeared before the (soon-to-be-dissolved) draft board in 1974, I am a committed Republican.

Go figure.

Why am I a Republican? Because I firmly believe that the Republican party is generally on the right side of pivotal social issues such as abortion and gay marriage (not withstanding the existence of unprincipled pseudo-Republicans such as Judy Baar Topinka, who has diluted the Republican party in this state so much that for all practical purposes, there is only one political party left in Illinois).

Frankly, I have yet to see any concrete evidence that the Democrats are much different than the Republicans when it comes to doing things which have improved my life in terms of my economic status. The one time I can ever remember directly getting any money from a political leader was when I got a check from the Federal government shortly after Bush enacted his tax cut. Clinton? Nada. (And I'd love to have just a small fraction of the money in the bank accounts of people like John Kerry and Ted Kennedy. Where's their alleged compassion for the poor? Where's their commitment to simple living and self-sacrifice?)

I mention those things about myself so that you can put the following comments into their proper perspective.

In your blog article, you summarize the views of Father Engbarth regarding illegal immigrants by saying, "They are coming because they have no other choice for the survival of their families. They are economic refugees."

Wow, there's a new idea I hadn't thought of before. I always thought I was supposed to obey the law like everyone else, but now I have to wonder. According to Father Engbarth, being poor makes one exempt from the responsibility to obey the laws of the land.

Imagine how much better my life might have been, from an economic point of view, if I'd lived according to Father Engbarth's teachings for the past 14 years. I'm poor, and I moved here from Missouri at a time in my life when I barely had enough gas money for the trip, so according to Father Engbarth, I could have described myself as an "economic refugee". I could have decided that laws against stealing and selling drugs and doing other blatantly illegal things which might have conceivably improved my economic condition just didn't apply to me.

As one comedian from Saturday Night Live used to say sarcastically: "Yeah, that's the ticket!"

I never cease to be amazed by the convoluted ways in which liberals (even liberal Christians) manage to regularly twist elementary logic and undermine respect for nonnegotiable principles of civilized behavior in the name of things such as compassion and justice.

The laws of our land are pretty meaningless if people are free to decide for themselves when and where and how to obey those laws.

Deciding that poverty constitutes a justification for lawbreaking opens a Pandora's box which leads to general disrespect for the law among people from all socioeconomic groups, not just the poor. As a society, we will pay the price, sooner or later, for such spineless moral relativism.

Do I feel empathy for Mexicans who feel that their only viable economic solution is to immigrate to the U.S., leaving family and friends behind, so that they can hope for a better life here in America? Of course I do! That's the American dream. I'm proud to live in a country where it's possible for people to improve their financial circumstances with hard work and determination.

I have nothing against Mexicans per se, although I do have a pet peeve concerning those who don't seem to feel any particular obligation to learn how to speak English when they move here.

However, I admit that I'm puzzled by claims to the effect that Mexicans are forced by their circumstances to sneak past our borders under cover of darkness.
It's not as if there aren't options for Mexicans and others who wish to immigrate here legally. If that were the case, then we wouldn't need to look at the particular circumstances of individual Mexican immigrants when deciding whether or not to deport them. We could just assume that all Mexicans living in this country were illegals.

I don't work for the INS, but I imagine that they'd tell you that that isn't how they operate.

The laws in this country are far from perfect, of course, but as a general rule, our laws are the result of the democratic process. As such, the laws in America are a reflection of the collective will of the American people. Therefore, to disrespect our laws is to disrespect us!

Only in rare cases involving genuine civil disobedience can it be said that Christians and others are justified in breaking the law.

I would dispute the contention that disobedience of our immigration laws falls into that category (with very rare exceptions, such as the Cambodian boat people who were literally fleeing for their lives, and who therefore were genuine refugees).

When Mexicans come to this country in a manner which indicates right from the get-go that they have no respect for our laws, then why shouldn't we rationally conclude that they have no respect for us, either? Why should we welcome such people with open arms?

Such immigrants are happy to benefit from the fact that we've done a much better job of running the economy of our country than their leaders have done in Mexico, but they don't seem to grasp the idea that they might have any particular obligations to us in return.

This is not about racism. I would feel the same way about illegal immigrants who came here from any country in open defiance of our immigration laws, and who then proceeded to demand special status in the form of things such as bilingual education which catered to their special needs. It just so happens that most illegal immigrants to this country seem to be from Mexico or other countries south of the border. But if I could be proved wrong about that, it would not change my firm and principled stand against illegal immigration.

As a Christian, I firmly believe in the need for compassion, but that doesn't mean discarding one's brain and abandoning one's principles.

If Mexicans want to be welcome in this country, there's a simple solution for them: Obey our laws, from the moment they step foot in our country. Take the time to show respect for their new American neighbors by learning to speak reasonably fluent English, preferably before they ever move here. If not in Mexico, then via ESL classes at places such as Truman College.

Your web site talks about the "emerging church". I would like to think that whatever changes take place in the church in the years ahead, one of those changes will be that we will deepen our commitment to solid principles of good citizenship, including respect for the rule of law.

Misguided liberal government policies which seek to grant immunity to entire classes of lawbreakers ultimately place all of us (including those who immigrate to America from other countries) in jeopardy.