Faith and Immigration

 

February 2012

St. Paul, Detained 

This week I finished teaching a five week course on the “Acts of the Apostles,” a book in the Christian New Testament.

Acts of the Apostles, or more simply, Acts tells the story of the growth of early Christian communities throughout the ancient Mediterraen world and the inclusion of non-Jews/Gentiles into the Jesus movement.

One of the central characters in Acts is Paul – a Pharisee and one-time-persecutor of Christians who comes to faith in Jesus and become a key leader in the Gentile mission.  In the final chapters of Acts, Paul is arrested in Jerusalem and imprisoned for at least two years by the Roman authorities. While imprisoned Paul relied on his Roman citizenship to escape cruel and unusual punishment and eventually exercised his right to appeal before the Roman Emperor.

Reading this chapters immediately brought to mind the men, women, and children who undergo mandatory detention prior to their deportation.  According to the Detention Watch Network,  the U.S. government detained approximately 380,000 people in immigration custody in 2009 in a hodgepodge of about 350 facilities at an annual cost of more than $1.7 billion. Here are a few facts from the website:

  • Immigrants in detention include families, both undocumented and documented immigrants, many who have been in the US for years and are now facing exile, survivors of torture, asylum seekers and other vulnerable groups including pregnant women, children, and individuals who are seriously ill without proper medication or care.
  • Being in violation of immigration laws is not a crime. It is a civil violation for which immigrants go through a process to see whether they have a right to stay in the United States. Immigrants detained during this process are in non-criminal custody. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is the agency responsible for detaining immigrants.
  • The average cost of detaining an immigrant is approximately $122 per person/ per day. Alternatives to detention, which generally include a combination of reporting and electronic monitoring, are effective and significantly cheaper, with some programs costing as little as $12 per day. These alternatives to detention still yield an estimated 93% appearance rate before the immigration courts.
  • Although DHS owns and operates its own detention centers, it also “buys” bed space from over 312 county and city prisons nationwide to hold the majority of those who are detained (over 67%). Immigrants detained in these local jails are mixed in with the local prison population who is serving time for crimes.
  • About half of all immigrants held in detention have no criminal record at all. The rest may have committed some crime in their past, but they have already paid their debt to society. They are being detained for immigration purposes only.
  • Torture survivors, victims of human trafficking, and other vulnerable groups can be detained for months or even years, further aggravating their isolation, depression, and other mental health problems associated with their past trauma.
  • As a result of this surge in detention and deportation, immigrants are suffering poor conditions and abuse in detention facilities across the country and families are being separated often for life while the private prison industry and county jailers are reaping huge profits.(http://detentionwatchnetwork.org/aboutdetention, Feb. 9, 2012)

Paul faced indefinite detention for holding “unpopular” or “controversial” religious beliefs that were of no harm to others.  At least Paul had Roman citizenship that guaranteed some level of humane treatment and access to an appeal process. Immigrants who are non-criminal offenders and who are detained have no guarantee to humane treatment and access to due process. This is a central human rights issue for our nation. To learn more about U.S. detention policy, alternatives to detention, and what you can do to stand up for the rights of all people living within U.S. borders please visit detentionwatchnetwork.org.

 

November 2011

 

My service with JFON-SEMI has caused me to look at Scripture with different eyes. This is particularly true when it comes to the “classical” biblical stories of the Christian tradition. And there is no more familiar story then the birth of Christ – Christmas.

This past week I engaged in that essential Christian practice of “searching the scriptures” with a bible study group at Community United Methodist Church in Romulus. Together we unpacked the Christmas stories in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke looking for connections that could be made with the issue of immigration.

Here are two insights that emerged:

The Christmas story is about families –

The Gospel of Matthew opens with a geneology. Not necessarily the most riveting reading, but it serves as a particular way to tell the story of the people of Israel and to situate Jesus, and his family, within that story. Of note is the inclusion of three women among a rather long list of men: Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth. All three of these women are non-Israelites. The story of Ruth, which portrays two women Naomi and Ruth building lives in each other’s homelands, is especially moving. It reminded us that the concept of “family” in all its messiness, crosses the borders of race, ethnicity, and nationality. And we were reminded that it is through these family relationships that God is shown to act for the common good of the entire human family.

The Christmas story is about journey –

In the Gospel of Matthew we see Mary, Joseph, and Jesus fleeing from Bethlehem to Egypt in order to escape King Herod’s order to kill first born males age two and under. The Gospel of Luke tells us that Caesar Augustus’ census forces Mary and Joseph to migrate from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Drawing on this theme of journey we talked about how, throughout the scriptures, God gracious and loving action is set against the backdrop of human migration. Abraham, Joseph, Moses and the Israelites, Ruth and Naomi, Jonah, Jeremiah, Joseph and Mary, Jesus and his disciples, and Paul were all on the move. We reflected that on the times in our lives when we put down roots, and when we pulled up roots to move and remembered the different moving stories of our ancestors.

I left the bible study with new insights into a familiar story. I am pretty sure that we all still had questions about our nation’s set of opportunities and challenges around immigration. But my hope is that within that old, old story of Christ’s birth we begin to see the universal human phenomena of families and movement in fresh ways.

 

October 2011

 

Last week the clip replayed over and over from the Las Vegas GOP Presidential Debate depicted the two front runners, Mitt Romney and Rick Perry, engaged in a rather heated bit of verbal sparring.  Many saw it as a foreshadowing of the tough competition ahead.  What was overlooked by most was the context of the raised voices and tensions – Rick Perry’s accusation that Romney had hired undocumented immigrants, a tacit devised, no doubt, by Perry’s camp to make him appear tough on immigration after taking heat for Texas’ move to allow undocumented immigrants to pay in-state college tuition.

For me it is a foreshadowing of how the issue of immigration will be used as a wedge issue in the upcoming election.  How real-life struggles and hopes of immigrant families will be displaced by a rhetoric of fear and how the root causes of immigration, it’s links to economic globalization, will not be addressed in favor of focusing on the “solutions” of building walls and more deportations.

The Obama administration has already positioned itself to engage in this fight. While trying to court its base with rhetoric of comprehensive immigration reform, the administrations must profound action on immigration has been increased enforcement — close to a million undocumented immigrants have been deported under the current administration with a goal of 400,000 deportations in the 2011. For more information on these stats, see Frontline’s documentary Lost in Detention.

So while the Republicans fight over who is tougher on immigration and the Democratic incumbent is making the case that he is the toughest –immigrant families (which are often a combination of naturalized citizens and documented and undocumented immigrants) are living in fear and grieving the deportation of fathers, mothers, sons and daughters.

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There is a reason why the Old Testament tests the moral integrity of biblical Israel by its treatment of widows, orphans, and resident aliens – the most vulnerable members of human society. Treatment of these vulnerable members served as a barometer of the rest of society;  it revealed the true place of justice and compassion within that society.

How would the U.S. fair on such a barometer test?  What is this nation’s commitment to compassion and justice?

 

 

September 2011

Roots and Routes: A Few Brief Reflections on Human Movement and Faith

Roots and Routes – these are the two terms Susan Stanford Friedman uses in her book Mappings, to describe what she calls “the dialogical relationship” between  “identity based on stable cores and continuities” (roots) and  “identity based on change, travel, and disruption.” (routes).  Friedman’s insight affirms the essentially migratory nature of human existence. Humans are constantly on the move putting down roots and following routes – engaged in cycles of settlement, displacement, and re-settlement.

My work with Justice for Our Neighbors-Southeastern Michigan (JFON-SEMI) has caused me to begin reflecting on the meaning of this migratory dimension of human life.  Through my work with JFON-SEMI, I have encountered many different people who have moved to the US for a variety of reasons:  Many in search of economic opportunity for themselves and their children; others to escape violence and abuse in their home country; some out of no choice of their own, coming as infants or children with their parents, have little or no memory of the “native” country. No matter the circumstance, all are negotiating their lives and their identities at the intersection; the boarder-land between a homeland and a new land, between putting down roots and following routes. JFON-SEMI helps with a small portion of that task, offering assistance to navigate a set the complexity of the US immigration system.

As a faith leader, these encounters, relationships, and experiences have challenged me to attend to the migratory dimension of human existence and religious practice – to take seriously the migratory stories that shape the narratives of our personal and communal lives. The following are a few initial reflections and theological trajectories on the intersection between faith and human migration.

First, I think it means that our ethical and moral reflection on immigration must be grounded in the real migratory stories that are present in our lives and our communities. Many religious communities were and continue to be the primary location for immigrants to remember their migratory stories and to forge new identities in the tension between roots and routes. The remembering of migratory stories – whether these involve ancient crossings over a land bridge, human trafficking across oceans or boarders, a search for religious or political freedom, or escape of poverty, famine, and violence. Especially important within our American context is the understanding of how the cultural construction of whiteness led to the erasure of these migratory stories from the memories of many European-American groups. The forgetting of migratory stories in order to assimilate to the dominate group has lead to insensitivity to life stories of contemporary migrants who move and resettle for many of the same reasons that motivated early immigrants.

Second, the creative tension between roots and routes finds resonance in the foundational issues of religious life. In a recent essay on the future of religion, local religious journalist David Crumm uses the biological metaphor of DNA’s double helix shape to explain the two constantly spinning and interacting strands of religion: “authoritative revelation to be accepted and spiritual quest to be pursued .” As religious communities move into the 21st century, these strands – the roots and routes of religious and spiritual life – will become increasingly important. Here striking a balance will also be essential. So will be remembering the stories of individuals and communities that have successful navigated that balance for their historical moment. In the Christian tradition this would include in varied contextual experiments to realize love of God and love of neighbor in concrete, real ways across time and space: the desert fathers and mothers of the fourth century, the Franciscans of the fourteenth, the Mennonites of the sixteenth, the Wesleyans of the eighteenth, and, perhaps, the New Monasticism of our era.

And finally, specifically, for my religious tradition, Christianity, it will mean employing a hermeneutic of migration that privileges the dialogical relationship between roots and routes found within the biblical narrative. The narratives of Abraham leaving Ur, Jacob returning to the ancestral land, Joseph sold into slavery in Egypt, the exodus of the Hebrews under the leadership of Moses, the journey into the promised the land, the Babylonian exile, the refugee movement of Joseph and the expectant Mary, the itinerant ministry of Jesus across Palestine, and the trans-imperial mission of Paul reveal the biblical witness to the migratory nature of humanity and the migratory nature of the God who is ever present in this movement.

I believe, as a Christian, that attention to our personal and communal stories of migration, embracing both the rooted traditions and creative spiritual routes of the Christian faith, and embracing migrant reading of the Bible and a theology of a migrant God will offer a wellspring of spiritual vitality to Christianity as it moves into the 21st century.

What do you think? Does this resonate with your experience? With your faith community?

 

 

August 2011

 

I must admit that sometimes I am cynically about the American Dream.

Sometimes, alright most of the time, it seems to me that the American Dream has come to represent simply the quest to find ever new experiences of fleeting pleasure, to be entertained, to seize one’s 15 minutes of instant celebrity, or to accumulate possessions that are out of date the second we purchase them.

As a person of faith I fear that The American Dream has lost its foundation in the search for the common good and forgotten what the true definition of the “good life.” In the Christian tradition the good life is defined by love of God and love of neighbor. Love made concrete in the biblical patterns of justice that favor the most vulnerable of society — the poor, the widow, the orphan, the resident alien.

And then my cynicism is broken by my work with JFON-SEMI.

At last week’s staff meeting Ellie, our JFON-SEMI attorney, shared one of our latest legal victories.One of our clients – a new mother who had married a U.S. citizen abroad and moved to the U.S. only to face abuse and exploitation at the hands of her new husband and his family – was granted a green card through the Violence Against Women Act which creates a pathway to citizenship for survivors of domestic violence.

This, for me, is what the American Dream is all about – people passionate about justice coming together to fight violence and oppression in its most intimate and pernicious form; struggling with a courageous mother who is seeking to free her and her child from fear and to create a home where she and her child can do more than survive, but can thrive and flourish.

This is what it means for people to join together for the common good, this is what the freedom of truly living and pursuing happiness is all about. I may still harbor some cynicism about the American Dream, but I must admit that there are moments when I see the best of what it represents alive today. And because of that I am thankful and inspired to dream myself.