Unitarian Church of Harrisburg, September 26, 2010
On July 29th of this year I was sitting beside idyllic Kezar Lake in Maine. And I was pacing around like a caged animal. Many of my clergy colleagues and UU laypeople from all across the country were in scorchingly hot Phoenix, there to protest on the day that the new Arizona immigration law, SB 1070, was set to take effect. I knew that a number of them planned to engage in civil disobedience and get themselves arrested. I spent the day feeling very unsettled, compulsively checking the various sources on the web that were giving updates on what was happening there. As the day stretched into the night and the 29 UU’s who were arrested, remained in jail, I was worried. I felt very guilty for not being there with them.
Which led me to examine why the UUs and others were there. What exactly were they protesting? Did they think that there should be unrestrained immigration into our country? Were they in favor of blanket amnesty for approximately 12 million undocumented residents that are in our country now? What was in SB 1070 that was so bad? I decided I needed to do some research.
What I found was a great deal of confusing and contradictory information on every aspect of the immigration issue and a long history of controversy, discrimination, incrimination and finger pointing from every side. SB10170 is a bill that was passed in response to the frustration of many of the folks in Phoenix, a city which is, by nearly anyone’s account, awash in undocumented residents. More than 500,000, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
I also found that it was passed in the wake of many publicly stated half truths and blatant appeals to the racism that so often rears its ugly head when economic times turn difficult. I found that the two most cited reasons for its necessity were:
1. The rising crime rate in Phoenix, ostensibly perpetrated by the undocumented. The truth is that the violent crime rate in Phoenix has dropped 23% since 2004.
2. The rise in drug related kidnappings for ransom in recent years. What they don’t tell you is that they are almost exclusively of drug traffickers by others involved in the drug trade. And in 2009 the number was down 11%.
Now I don’t tell you these inconsistencies to get you to agree with me, I tell you because I want you to be wary of what you accept as truth. There is as much incorrect information out there as there is correct, so be careful what you believe!
One of those in Phoenix leading the war on the undocumented is the Sheriff of Maricopa County, "Joe" Arpaio. He is responsible for law enforcement in Maricopa County, as well as running the county jail, among other duties. He calls himself "America's Toughest Sheriff and is known for his outspoken stance against illegal immigrants and for running a jail that routinely sees the mistreatment of prisoners , especially those of color. He is the subject of FBI, Department of Justice and Federal Grand Jury investigations for civil rights violations and abuse of power, and is the defendant in a federal class-action suit for racial profiling. He is also the purveyor of the infamous pink socks and underwear that are required for all inmates in the Phoenix jail.
SB 1070, which was passed with anywhere from 66-77% of the public supporting it, includes among its provisions a requirement that an “official or agency of the state, county, city, town or political subdivision”:
make a reasonable attempt to determine the immigration status of a person during any legitimate contact made, if reasonable suspicion exists that the person is an alien who is unlawfully present in the U.S.
transfer an alien unlawfully present in the U.S. who is convicted of a violation of state or local law immediately to the custody of ICE or Customs and Border Protection, on discharge from imprisonment or assessment of any fine that is imposed.
Prohibits officials or agencies of the state and political subdivisions from being prevented or restricted from sending, receiving or maintaining an individual’s immigration status information or exchanging that information with any other governmental body
So why has this law become a focus for our Standing on the Side of Love campaign? Why were so many Unitarian Universalists willing to fly all the way to Phoenix and even get arrested protesting it? In reading what those who went wrote on that topic, I found the following reasons:
Because it targets immigrants who are of certain ethnic backgrounds and therefore sanctions or even requires racial profiling.
Because, it unfairly affects folks who have been in the US for years, law abiding in every way other than their immigration status.
Because it breaks up families and destabilizes the homes of children, many who are US citizens.
Because it dehumanizes and terrorizes people and encourages the spread of fear and hate.
Because we want those in Phoenix, no matter who they are or what their status, to know that they are not invisible and alone.
There are many different interpretations and opinions of this bill and immigration in general. There are many who would disagree vehemently with those characterizations of the bill. This is not a topic on which we UU’s are of one mind, I would guess that there are some in this congregation who do not agree with nearly any of what I just said.
But I hope you will at least consider the two reasons that I have for believing this bill is wrong.
Because, in its utter disregard for the basic humanity of those who are undocumented, it violates our first principle.
Because we all know that there has to be a better way
Many of you recognized the poem I read earlier. It is engraved on the base of the Statue of Liberty that stands in New York Harbor. I do not believe that those words speak to how most Americans feel today about the many immigrants who seek to come here. I actually don’t think most Americans felt that way when those words were first inscribed on the statue in 1903. A quick review of history tells us that in each generation, certain people from certain countries or ethnic groups have been discriminated against and reviled in this country. Since the first restrictions on immigration were passed in 1875, laws have been passed to keep “them” from coming here legally. The stated reasons have a familiar ring: they take our jobs, they are all on the dole, they commit crime. Chances are these things were said of our ancestors as new immigrants. The xenophobia and racism that cause us to scapegoat and revile one group or another always rises in a deafening chorus during hard economic times. But we do not have to stand by in silence and allow the same pattern to repeated yet again. Ultimately I think that is what many of those in Phoenix were saying.
In my reading I did not even begin to scratch the surface of this two hundred year old, mind bendingly complex issue, but I have reached a few conclusions for myself:
I believe that people should not be deliberately humiliated when they are detained.
I believe that our government bears some responsibility for creating the situation we now find ourselves in.
I believe that no one deserves to be called illegal. A person is not their status.
I believe we need to put criminals in jail, but that being undocumented does not make one a criminal
I believe we need to address our broken immigration policy in this country in a sane way that respects the humanity and dignity of all people,whatever their status. I know we can find a different way to approach this problem, a way that includes sane rational engagement with the actual facts and invites input from all affected parties. I believe we cannot adequately measure the effect of the undocumented immigrants on our employment or crime statistics due to the nature of the underground economy in which they function. I would suggest we stop with our dueling statistics and set about to try something completely different to deal with this problem.
I believe that unjust laws call for radical actions
I still believe that every person has inherent worth and dignity.
I invite you to become more informed on this issue for yourself. I invite you to engage in conversations with each other in a way that is respectful of the wide range of opinions that are held by kind and caring people.
Most of all, I invite you to remember that all of the statistics, be they about undocumented workers or their citizen children, law enforcement officers or protesters, involve and affect living breathing human beings. People who, for the most part, are just trying to feed their families, be they immigrants or law enforcement.
We will never all agree on this topic. And most of us will never go to a protest in Phoenix or anywhere else on this issue. But we can ALL stand and proclaim that the hate mongering and name calling is never acceptable. Never.
May we each, in whatever way we can, seek opportunities to speak for the voiceless and lend our power to the powerless.
May it be so.