The Reverend Kathleen Damewood Korb

Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater Naples 


We are, we are often reminded, a nation of immigrants. This is entirely true. Even the first settlers, the ones who came thousands of years ago, whom we term indigenous, were not truly indigenous. They, too, came originally from somewhere else. Humankind did not evolve in the western hemisphere, but in North Africa, from which they spread throughout the world. There are still those who question this, but the evidence appears to be irrefutable that we are all ultimately traceable to the same origins. Even if we disregard this truth and concentrate only on the later migrations that swelled and influenced what is our contemporary United States, it was never as straightforward as that makes it sound. The people who have come here came for many different reasons, with many different goals, in many different ways, and, I am sure, only some of them with the intent of becoming citizens of this country. Every time large populations enter, the issue becomes divisive, emotions rise, and we invoke history not so much for understanding why things are as they are as to buttress our own arguments on whichever side of the issue we support.

One of the things about myself that I find makes life rather difficult, particularly in an occupation that requires me to first discern and then proclaim justice, is that I too often find it almost impossible to discover quite where justice lies. In the present issue of large populations coming to this country in spite of the legal barriers to their entrance, it seems to me that most people are reacting either from sentimentality or from fear, and I am not quite sure how to react at all. It is particularly urgent since we are being asked by our association to stand — now — on the side of love in this matter, choosing it as our study/action issue and dedicating our 2012 General Assembly in Phoenix to it. I suspect that I am not entirely alone in my confusion, so I thought that Columbus Day, the celebration of Christopher Columbus’ inadvertent landing in a place that discovered two huge new continents to the people of Europe and began this huge change in the way the world was organized would be a good time to see if I can figure this out a little more clearly.

We are all aware by now that Columbus was not the first European to visit and even begin settlement of the Americas. Five hundred years before Columbus, Leif Ericson, a Norse citizen born in Iceland came to a place he called Vinland and established a colony there. It did not survive, and the news of it did not spread to the rest of Europe. It was Columbus, landing on the twelfth of October in 1492, and claiming the entire western hemisphere for Spain who started it all. Therefore, despite those who look eagerly for ways to erase the importance of that event, it is appropriate to give Columbus all the credit or blame that he deserves. Having my fair share of self-love, I would not reverse or even decry the irreversible events of history. After all, had Europeans not become aware of, and begun to settle, the Americas, I would not exist. My ancestors would never have met. A little celebration, if only from the point of view of ego, is not entirely out of place.

The first Europeans to come to the Americas did not have to think about their national loyalties. There was no question of citizenship or non-citizenship. They remained a part of the countries from which they came, and mostly what they came for was land or other kinds of wealth. Although it is fashionable and mildly amusing to say that all of our ancestors who came to America were illegal immigrants, of course it isn’t true at all. If there are no laws, you can’t break them. Although they were mostly unwelcome to those who preceded them, they were not breaking a nonexistent law. Nor did they come with the intention of breaking off past loyalties. They did not sever their ties to the countries from which they came and continued to consider themselves Spanish or French or English or Portuguese. Or any of a long list of other nationalities. Whether they had any right to come and simply take over land that did not belong to them is another question, one that must clearly be answered in the negative, particularly given the inhuman cruelties they practiced in doing so, but for them, except for a few bleeding-heart eccentrics, the question did not even arise. We need to understand that, too. They were not villains in their time and their cultures. To vilify them because we have learned a different morality seems rather silly to me, but it, too, is fashionable. We should consider, when we are doing it, whether, if we could, we would change that history. I suspect that we would not. We would not, for example, give up our homes or our goods or return to Europe in order to attempt to redress the deeds of our forebears. However, the point I’m trying to make is that immigration wasn’t even something people thought about until less than three hundred years ago. There was movement and intermingling of peoples, but it was through conquest or just showing up without anyone’s paying a whole lot of attention. Immigration, legal or illegal is pretty much a modern construct.

America is a nation of immigrants. The ideal is the last few lines of the poem, “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus which are inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor. We have never even come close to living up to that ideal. What we imagine is that people, poor, hungry, oppressed and suffering in their native land come to America, learn its language, adopt its values and become loyal, patriotic citizens. Some of them do. Some of them have other motivations and other values. It’s always complex, never easy and often scary. Take as a first example, the Irish who came in large numbers during the potato famine. They came because they were starving, and what they had heard of the United States gave them hope. They would come and make their home here and survive. They were not welcomed with open arms. It wasn’t language that separated them from the wider culture but religion. The United States was almost unrelievedly Protestant. Oh, there were a few Catholics in Maryland, and scattered about here and there, and a pretty old Jewish synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, but they were in small enough numbers to pose no threat. We could be tolerant. These people, it was argued, would answer not to the laws of their new country, but to the pope. It was interesting to see that argument surface when John F. Kennedy ran for president. Our spiritual forebears, the Brahmins of Boston, good Unitarians all, were in the forefront of the resistance to the Irish influx.

Immigration became an issue and laws began to be passed defining eligibility to come to this country and to become a citizen. The Irish assimilated pretty well at last, though even into the early years of the twentieth century there was lingering prejudice and discrimination particularly in employment, but they gained political power and at last were almost invisible in our ideal melting pot. They kept their identity, too, not always in positive ways, as people of Irish Catholic extraction were the primary funding source for the terrorist Irish Republican Army up until their demise in the 1970s. But then the Italians came, and they were not only Catholic, but they didn’t speak English, and then the Poles and other Eastern Europeans, and their language wasn’t even based on Latin, and on the west coast, there were the Chinese and the Japanese who bore the brunt of our xenophobia. I mean, they didn’t even look like Americans. And that’s not over, either. I heard a wonderful exchange between a couple of strangers being introduced. In an attempt to be gracious, the first, clearly the descendent of European (probably western European) ancestors said graciously, “And where are you from originally?” The answer from the Asian-American, in all innocence (I know because I checked, no malice intended at all) was, “Biloxi, Mississippi.” She was, too. Born and raised. Anyway, every time there’s a new influx, the laws are changed, usually for flagrantly political reasons, and new rules are placed on top of old ones until they begin to make no sense at all. There are laws about who can come in at all for more than a short visit, laws about children of non-citizens who weren’t born here, laws about almost any contingency you can imagine and they are conflicting and irrational.

Part of the issue, of course, is the different motivations of those who come here from elsewhere. Some do fit the stereotype of those who wish to become American citizens, to buy into the American dream or at least the American culture, to become new patriots. Some come merely out of necessity, hoping to return when the conditions in their native country improve. Some come reluctantly and bitterly only to avoid being separated from their families. Some come for one reason and stay for another. Probably the true illegal immigrants are the ones who entered the country legally and just didn’t leave when their time was up. From what I hear there are a lot more of those than we have any idea of. Some who are actually getting some sympathy lately have organized themselves into a movement they call DREAM. They are the children of legal immigrants who came here with their parents and lived here all there lives, and at the age of twenty-one are no longer eligible to stay. Well, they have my sympathy.

The ones who are causing all the furor at the moment, of course, are the ones who do enter the country illegally, to work, and in many cases live in unbelievably degrading conditions in order to send money back to their families. For many of them their intent is not to stay here, not to become citizens, but to make enough money to feed their families at home, and perhaps to return. And, very likely, come back. That money is a very large percent of Mexico’s income, and accounts for the Mexican government’s overt support for such migrants, even producing pamphlets to explain how best to cross the border without being caught. Because of their vulnerability as offenders against United States law, they are often hideously exploited and even enslaved — even brought in as slaves in the first place, in their misplaced trust of those who transport them. Some do want to stay, to become citizens, but our laws make it almost impossible to come here as our ideals imagine.

How are we — how am I — to think about all this? Do borders matter? Does the preservation of the culture of this country matter? After all, that is the fear. Here are people who, we think, expect us to accommodate our culture to them, rather than their accommodating to ours. It has always seemed odd to me that given that one has to know sufficient English to pass a test for citizenship that it is the law that states with a significant minority language population must print ballots in both languages. Should language matter? It does, of course. Even in Switzerland, which is held up as an example of how people speaking different languages can live together in harmony, in fact live separately in their language enclaves, and the national government, I understand, is carried on primarily in German. I may not know what I am talking about here, but it is what I have been told by my Swiss acquaintances. Nevertheless, language does divide us. To share power, to share a culture, we must also share a language. And justice requires that all citizens have equal access to the corridors of power.

Justice also requires that we do not exploit people, that we reward them fairly for honest labor and that we do not, above all, enslave them. Our ideals demand that we welcome the stranger, that we say to the world, “Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore; send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me…” And they have, and in successive waves have enriched our lives, diversified our culture, made tacos and spaghetti and goulash as American as apple pie.

Perhaps we need to look at some aspects of it a little differently. One issue is, and the reason that the Arizona law made such a furor, that we are trying to turn a civil offense, illegal entry into this country, into a criminal one. It is not. Although illegal entry breaks the law, it is not a criminal act. The recourse is not incarceration but deportation. Another thing I think we need to do is distinguish between true immigrants and those who are essentially migrant workers. True immigrants come to become permanent, or at least long-term residents of the United States. Migrant workers come to work and then return home. Our laws, I think, need to reflect the difference, but before even that we need to make sure that no one, whatever his or her origin is enslaved or exploited, whether they came legally or illegally.

If we really look at the economic and cultural consequences of open borders, honestly, with neither fear nor sentimentality; if we look at what we have gained and can gain from immigrants to this country; if we look beyond politics and how many votes we will get for which political party, and think about what kinds of people we need and how much they can offer us, perhaps we can begin again to lift our lamp beside the golden door.