The Reverend Kathleen Damewood Korb
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater Naples
Every couple of years the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly adopts a study/action issue. It is an involved process, and as part of the continuing effort of the board and planning committee to avoid allowing anything of interest to happen in the plenary sessions, no negative discussion or vote is in order, only advocacy, so that the year only two issues were offered, one futile, the other embarrassing, there was no way to say neither, thanks. I suppose if some year only one came before the assembly, and it happened to be opposed to everything we have stood for for generations, we would still have to adopt it if anybody voted for it at all. I don’t know what would happen if everyone abstained, but it’s an interesting speculation. However, it’s not likely to happen. We love our statements of conscience, even when they have the actual effectiveness of a burned-out light bulb. However, last year several excellent ones were offered, and the one that won was, unusually, the one I voted for, on the topic of immigration. This issue, becoming more and more volatile, and even dangerous, seemed to me to be one that we could really use, to educate ourselves and perhaps even do some serious and effective advocacy. I searched mightily on the Unitarian Universalist web page for the original text without success. Perhaps one of you with more patience might be able to find it, but it probably doesn’t really matter. The final version of these statements often has only the remotest relationship to the original. There were, however, plenty of resources, as there are plenty right here in our own Collier County, since we are at the center of the maelstrom ourselves. Just over a week ago I participated in a service whose purpose was to bless the Immokalee workers bike pilgrimage to the Publix headquarters in Lakeland. I would love to see a group formed in this congregation that would like to dig deeply into the issue and perhaps find ways for the congregation to do more to seek justice on the whole immigration question. If you are interested, let me know, and we’ll try to start working on it.
Actually, I find that for me there are many questions. So much of our rhetoric is based on examples, single issues of injustice and oppression, but we seldom talk about the larger goals. What do we really want? Besides an end to injustice and oppression, of course. Do we want completely open borders? In a perfect world, of course we do. The movement of peaceful, free, equal peoples should be unrestrained, shouldn’t it? National borders are arbitrary, anyway, and government and language should not divide us from our sisters and brothers. They shouldn’t, but they do, along with religion, customs and a whole lot of other things.
I think that’s where the fear lies, the fear that causes us to treat one another unjustly, without compassion or respect. The argument is framed in terms of economics, but it is not loss of jobs we really fear. They are not entirely wrong when they say that these are jobs that anyone with any other recourse would not take. We are afraid that our own culture and thus our identity will be overwhelmed by another, that our language, our festivals, our government will be so profoundly changed by the influx of so many whose culture is different it will be drowned and disappear. It is the same fear as that of the terrorists who ten years ago next Sunday flew their planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon causing the loss of so many innocent lives. Our response has too often and too long been anger and a thirst for revenge rather than a recognition that we share the same fear that created such violence. What we want to preserve they wished to destroy, but it is still about protecting what we most cherish, the sense of who we are and where we fit comfortably into the world in which we live. We have not yet responded with such murderous intent, but there are calls for protection of our borders that fall little short of it.
One liberal response has been a call for multiculturalism, celebrating rather than suppressing our differences. It is a lovely, romantic notion that breaks up in the shoals of harsh reality. Although the stories of calls for sharia law in Muslim enclaves is more a fear tactic by the xenophobes than a reality it is certainly true that the archbishop of Canterbury called for such a solution to Muslim unrest. I have not heard that he retracted his statement, though surely after ten seconds reflection he must have done so. It is impossible to live under a government in which some people are legally exempted from its laws. The law must apply to everyone or no one. The exceptions to this are many, but they are outside the law when they occur. Although there will always be people who flout or evade the law, it must be perceived to be universal. In a society there must be universal law, the individuals must be able on some level to communicate with one another, and they must share the same basic values of honesty, justice, promise-keeping, and civility. Otherwise they cannot live together on equal terms. These are the basic building blocks of culture. There can be an infinite number of delightful differences: of dress, of religion, of color, of custom, that keep things interesting and keep us from melting into a tasteless blandness, but the basic requirements of a single culture must be held in common for a society to work in the best interests of everyone in it. Luckily, since it can’t really work, a lot of people think they’re being multicultural when they love and respect people of a different background, but volunteer to teach them English anyway.
Another thing people say as if it is the answer to every argument on the subject is, “American is a nation of immigrants.” That’s absolutely true, even to the first settlers who came thousands and thousands of years ago. Every single one of my ancestors who came to this continent was undocumented, from the Dutch fur trader who married the half-Mohawk daughter of a French-Canadian trapper to some of the English ones who set foot on Plymouth Rock in 1620 to the Germans in Pennsylvania and the Scotch-Irish who first settled in the Carolinas, not to mention others from various countries in other areas. Not one of them had a passport, a visa, any kind of immigration documents, green card, or even a government-issued photo ID. They just came. We have a certain amount of evidence that if the people already living here had been in a position to do so they would have passed and enforced laws to keep it from happening. And probably rightly so. Their culture was destroyed. They came for a lot of reasons, some more reluctantly than others, some with the intention of returning home some day after they’d picked up the gold lying on the ground for anybody to take, some to build a new life and a new country in freedom. Some were heroes, some criminals, some dreamers, some practical, some merely desperate.
So it is today. The rhetoric says that they come to become part of the American dream of freedom and democracy, Some do. The immigrants from Indonesia that my former husband and I sponsored were lovely people, but they came for the American dream of stuff — houses, cars, clothes…. Many who come, documented or undocumented, aren’t immigrants at all, which creates a large part of the confusion in our understanding of the issue. An immigrant comes to stay, either to become a citizen or a permanent resident. Others come either as refugees from oppression (and that may be legal or illegal depending on whether our government has recognized the oppression as worth fleeing from) or to work and to save enough or send money home until they have enough to go back home themselves. Somewhere I read — and I don’t know how true it is, but it must be a hefty chunk— that one-third of Mexico’s income is from that source. Whatever, they neither need nor want the easier path to citizenship that is sometimes touted as the answer to our problems. Someone who is deeply involved in this told me that neither do many of them want a guest worker program, which I had thought would at the least relieve the problem of always looking over their shoulders for an INS agent, and there wasn’t time to discover what the downside of that would be.
All this has been as jumbled and incoherent as the situation itself. I’m not sure there’s really any other way to talk about it. When you start looking at it you think you can understand and make some sense out of what is happening, and the more you look at it the less sense it seems to make. During the Second World War we turned away a ship full of Jewish children escaping from Hitler’s gas chambers, and twenty years later we let in anyone at all who said he or she was escaping from Castro, whatever their role had been in the oppressive Battista regime that preceded him, and whatever the likelihood of Castro’s retaliation. It forever changed the face of Miami. That generation, of course, intended to return to Cuba in the event, fully expected, of Castro’s fall. Their children, brought up in the United States, often born here, have far other hopes and dreams. Just as well. They are the lucky ones. Others, brought here as children from other countries, however long they have lived here, however tenuous, even nonexistent, their ties with the place they were born, face immediate deportation at the age of twenty-one. That is the subject of the DREAM act which Congress rejected last session. That one seems so open and shut to me, such an obvious piece of injustice, that I can’t even imagine what Congress must have been thinking to reject the opportunity to so easily right an egregious wrong. I guess they just didn’t want to appear to agree about anything. And all that jumble doesn’t even go into the slavery that exists right here in Collier County as we were so graphically shown last year with the slavery trailer, the human trafficking, the deputizing of our Collier deputies for immigration investigation, the individual human tragedies, the trail of death in the Arizona desert, our own wants, needs and fears, and our own complicity in it all.