Archive for the ‘Americalmosts’ Category

Speech for an Education Club at UT-Brownsville

February 25, 2008

    I was asked to come speak here tonight on the No Border Wall Walk, issues of immigration, and my occupation educating high-school ESL students. As an English teacher, it is always heartening to find a common theme, and there most certainly is a vein running through all of these somewhat disparate topics. Martin Luther King, Jr. put it this way in his essay “Loving your Enemies”:

An element of goodness may be found even in our worst enemy. Each of us has something of a schizophrenic personality, tragically divided against ourselves. A persistent civil war rages within all of our lives…This simply means that there is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies. When we look beneath the surface, beneath. the impulsive evil deed, we see within our enemy-neighbor a measure of goodness and know that the viciousness and evilness of his acts are not quite representative of all that he is. We see him in a new light. We recognize that his hate grows out of fear, pride, ignorance, prejudice, and misunderstanding…”

The concept that man is innately good and will do good if educated, encouraged, and allowed to do so by law – this concept shapes my hopes and my dreams and demands my participation in immigration, education, and nonviolent demonstrations such as the No Border Wall Walk.

 

    Unlike many teachers, I had not always dreamed of being a teacher. True, I had excellent teachers and mentors who shaped my young life, but I always thought they had shaped me to be a writer, an artist. It wasn’t until I actually set out to be a freelance writer in New York City that I realized the hard truth – not only was it next to impossible to get a job without first having a job, it also would bore me to death to stare only at words all day long. So, I applied to Teach For America and was accepted to teach English in the Rio Grande Valley.

    At this point, my audience must know that one of my favorite verses comes in Esther 4:14, “…And who knows but that you have come to [this] position for such a time as this?” That is precisely how I felt, coming to Brownsville, Texas, the poorest city in the United States, just as the Secure Fence Act of 2006 was passed. Teaching English-as-a-Second-Language students caused me to experience firsthand the immigration process, the excruciatingly slow wait of approved immigrants awaiting their lottery number, the pained reality that for some families, to leave Brownsville would be to leave their loved ones, huddled just across the river.

    ESL education is my job, and I try hard to equip my students with the skills they need to be literate. My goal is for them to be able to mean what the write and write what they mean, but also to be discerning of any message they encounter. However, I also realize my job as a teacher is only one part educator. The role of mentor has been paramount to my students and to my job satisfaction.

    In an effort to impart the ideas of social activism and nonviolence, while also readying my students for college, we spent a 6-week grading period reading inspiring documents by King, Chavez, Gandhi, Thoreau. Every 6-week marking period, students are required to internalize this spirit of volunteerism and community service. Because I feel most people are just waiting for an excuse to do good, it is easy for me to ask this of my students. And most of them have responded with impressive results. Many students attended school-sponsored service outings to the Gladys Porter Zoo, Sabal Palms Audobon Sanctuary, Boca Chica Beach, and Vermillion Elementary School. Some students even invented their own good turns, from mowing lawns and babysitting to cutting hair and painting a house.

 

    Teaching also excited my passion for immigration issues. Over the years teaching ESL students and other recent immigrants, I have become a staunch advocate of compassionate, comprehensive immigration reform. Instead of a border wall of any thickness or design, our nation and the globalized world need the United States to lead with progressive immigration legislation which decriminalizes immigrants, vastly remodels or replaces the current quota system, and which allows current residents viable means to earned citizenship.

    This passion for immigration puts me at odds with the border wall, for moral issues as well as social, economic, and environmental ones. Because I feel that people are good but sometimes make wrong decisions, I feel that liberalizing immigration reform would allow both American citizens and the 12 million extralegal Americalmosts a chance to do “good” by immigration. Given the opportunity and the hope, would-be immigrants would try the legal means which have previously been denied or delayed them. Given the right laws, Americans could welcome immigrants and refugees with open arms into our diversifying communities, our flagging economy, and our cultural melange.

 

    And that is what finally brings me to espouse nonviolence as the proper and only means of advocating against the border wall and for immigrants and the border region. Nonviolent demonstrations, unlike any other form of protest or persuasion, allows both sides of a conflict the opportunity to live up to their absolute best. The nonviolent protester advocates in a way that encourages goodness, and the opposing groups are challenged to compromise and/or amend their thinking to the “more excellent way” (1 Corinthians 12:31 NIV).

    There are thousands of people in these United States simply waiting to speak out and leave behind the silent majority. Dr King wrote in his Autobiography that, “The ultimate tragedy of Birmingham was not the brutality of the bad people, but the silence of the good people,” and there are countless Americans stateside and abroad who are trying to end the tragedy. “There is no force more powerful than an idea whose time has come.” This Victor Hugo quotation which Dr. King riffed on many a speech sums up the importance of my life philosophy. The time for immigration reform has come, the need for nonviolent protests is readily apparent, and the necessity to educate our youth “in the ways they should go” (Psalm 32:8 NIV) – all these are upon us.

    Let us work diligently under the assumption that our brothers and sisters are simply waiting for the right opportunity to act on the good. Perfect love, the kind that drives out fear, is necessary to be successful in life’s meaningful endeavors. As former SNCC Chairman and current Congressman John Lewis writes in Walking with the Wind,

It is a love that accepts and embraces the hateful and the hurtful. It is a love that recognizes the spark of the divine in each of us, even in those who would raise their hand against us, those we might call our enemy. This sense of love realizes that emotions of the moment and constantly shifting circumstances can cloud that divine spark. Pain, ugliness, and fear can cover it over, turning a person toward anger and hate. It is the ability to see through those layers of ugliness, to see further into a person than perhaps that person can see into himself, that is essential to the practice of nonviolence. (76)

May “perfect love drive out fear” as in 1 John 4:18, and may everyone begin to work towards their ideals with the inspiring epiphany that all men are not only created equal, but also good. For extralegal immigrants and multi-generational citizens, Christians and agnostics, Republicans and Democrats, all we need is the chance.

People of Faith United For Immigrants- Mennonite Brethren

February 3, 2008

This Thursday, January 31, 2008, it was announced that the Latin American District of the Mennonite Brethren Church was being sued by U.S. Department of Homeland Security for refusal to allow government officials to survey their property for the border wall. This sort of civil disobedience is not unique to the Mennonite Brethren Church, however; Christian churches have long been counterbalances to politics. Immigration has long been an issue for the church, and of late a plethora of denominations have taken strong stances and bold mission statements both pro-immigrant and anti-border-wall.

 

The Mennonite Brethren Church’s refusal to allow government officials to step on their land is indeed a brave action of nonviolence, but it is entirely in keeping with their church statement on immigration. At the Mennonite Central Committee U.S. (MCC U.S.) Executive Committee Meeting in Akron, PA, in March of 2006, the Mennonite Brethren discussed their church’s doctrine on and commitment to immigration. MCC U.S. was responding to an outcry from parishioners, communities, and the Biblical passage in Leviticus 19:33-34 which states, “ “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do (the stranger) wrong. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love (the stranger) as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

MCC U.S. has a long history of civilly disobeying unjust laws and nonviolently working for just and compassionate legal reform. This church has had members be conscientious objectors long before the law made provisions for such people. In other cases, Mennonites have disobeyed laws to become sanctuaries for refugees and illegal immigrants. With this history in mind, the Mennonite Brethren drafted the following resolution.

“Therefore:

1. We commit ourselves to helping anyone who asks including the strangers/immigrants in our midst regardless of their legal status in this country.

2. We are committed to obeying God rather than human authority, especially when laws call us to harm others and block us from efforts to protect life.

3. We commit ourselves to support MCC workers who are working with immigrants by:

a. praying for them, their families and their work on a daily basis.

b. giving them our moral support as they continue in their work assignments.

c. providing the financial resources needed for any legal defense or penalties imposed because of the work we have asked them to do.

4. We will partner with denominations to provide financial resources to assist individuals and congregations with legal costs.

5. We encourage our constituent denominations to call on area conferences, districts and congregations to provide financial help and set aside monies in case pastors or other church workers would need any legal help.

We also:

1. Call the U.S. government to enact realistic, humane and just comprehensive immigration reform.

2. Ask that any immigration reform provide workers with sufficient labor protections, reunite separated families, end militarization of the U.S./Mexico border, allow workers to come and go safely across the border and create a path

to legalization for those undocumented immigrants who wish to stay.

3. Ask the government not to force church workers to choose between obeying the dictates of their faith and the dictates of their government.

4. Call the U.S. government to create economic policies that will assist developing countries and provide for fair trade. If people are able to provide a decent living for their families, many would choose to stay in their home countries.

5. Ask the U.S. government to make trade agreements and institutions more accountable.”

While detractors often point to the multitude of Christian denominations as a source of contention and “factionism,” the Christian stance on immigration is anything but fractured. If anything, the church is asking the questions that so far have not been making it into the political scene or the Presidential primaries. The Mennonite Brethren Church, along with numerous other Christian denominations, are civilly disobeying more restrictive immigration reform and nonviolently opposing a wall because they do not see it as a compassionate response nor a successful strategy. What these churches share in common is their desire to reshape the world so that there need not be illegal immigrants. Whether this is through U.S. investment in Central American countries, or earned amnesty legislation, or a phase-out of the quota system, or harsher penalties on employers perpetuating this sector of society, what is the same is their desire to target the laws which make such people criminals rather than the people who are being criminalized by current legislation.

 

 

*The Border Ambassadors are proud to partner with Mennonites throughout the Rio Grande Valley as part of their 120-mile No Border Wall Walk from Roma to Brownsville, Texas.*

Duty Free

January 14, 2008

        The border is a fascinating anomaly. Here, pesos and dollars can be spent on either side of the Rio Grande. Spanish and English are accepted at most places of business, and the schools teach countless students who cross a bridge every day for their education. Everyone knows medicines are cheaper in Mexico, and just a 90-cent toll to walk across. Animals cross in broad daylight unhindered by la migra.

Which brings us to the singular case of duty-free goods. A host of duty-free shops on either side of the border sell discounted liquor and tobacco products. The buyer gets a claims ticket, walks to the bridge, and as they are passing through the turnstile, their product is then handed to them. All that is left is to walk across to Matamoros, then turn around and head back through U.S. Customs. The very idea seems ludicrous, laughable, and yet thousands of people do it a week.

Duty-free stores highlight the absurdity of our current, unresponsive, dehumanized borders. They are set up to be impermeable for people (think the 2006 Secure Fence Act), and yet goods and products are encouraged to cross the border many times. When the United States moved many of its automobile and textile manufacturers over to Mexico, this free movement of products was surely brokered into the deal. Why then are people viewed so differently by the current immigration laws?

America’s immigration laws are being disobeyed covertly nationwide. Some 12 million illegal immigrants currently work and reside in the United States. The problem, is, that those businesses which lured them to the United States do not want to “declare them” to customs or fight for a real path to their citizenship. No, instead, American capitalism is content to keep them illegal (read exploitable).

In his publication Young India, Mohandas Gandhi worded it in the following way.

We have too long been mentally disobedient to the laws of the State and have too often surreptitiously evaded them, to be fit all of a sudden for civil disobedience. Disobedience to be civil has to be open and non-violent. (emphasis mine)

Gandhi clearly saw that the rules were being bent freely. He decried this form of evasive disobedience, though, because it merely bends the law and encourages lawlessness. The world is a different place because men like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. chose not to bend bad laws but instead break them, openly and fully intending to accept the state’s punishment. Only then can true change happen.

Starting with the Bracero Programs in 1942 which sponsored about 4.5 million migrant workers, the United States has uneasily bent its laws concerning immigrants it deems it needs economically but does not want socially. Countless restaurants and fields and factories across these United States currently employ Mexicans and other illegal immigrants at substandard wages and without benefits. This “duty-free” work force is capitalistic cowardice.

If we truly welcome immigrant labor, our immigration laws must be reformed immediately. For too many years, government policy has been “hard” on immigration and soft on enforcement. This sort of double-speak, this mental disobedience embodied by the border has allayed the conscience of Capitol Hill, has freed it of its duty to its citizens, those Americalmost immigrants, and those businesses valuing an economic edge above social welfare.

However, we are never free of our duty to any resident of these United States. Pretending that 12 million living and breathing and loving and working people are negligible simply because of they lack a classification that came to many of us freely at birth is to ignore our duty. For Americans, our borders have been “duty-free” places for decades. Our modern wars abroad do not touch us anymore with rationing, peace-gardens, and can drives and so cease to be real; in the same way, Americans are granted an international bill of rights at birth which enables them almost carte blanche access to the rest of the world. How different it is just a few hundred feet across a river!

There is no such thing as “duty-free” living, and it is our duty to speak out against border policies and immigration laws which are unjust and limit residents’ rights. As Gandhi famously wrote, “Noncooperation with evil is as much a duty as cooperation with good.”

We do not need illegal immigrants…

November 8, 2007

     Talk to any economist or realist, and they will assuredly agree that immigrant labor has made our country what it is and sustains our current economy. Controlling all other variables, if our nation were to cease all immigration or deport all 12 million illegal immigrants, our economy would plummet, our businesses bankrupt, our social security system crumple. We need immigrants; to deny this is to deny America.

     However, we do not need illegal immigrants. There are two ways to supply our businesses and nation with the necessary masses of low-skilled, low-paid workers. One way is our current system of hiring illegal immigrants at a fraction of the cost or employing those on worker visas. This works for us, but at the sake of suspending millions of people’s rights and welfare. Additionally, it perpetuates the influx of illegal immigrants into our nation.

      There is another way, however. If the United States opens up its doors to immigrants in a graduated fashion and allows its current extralegal immigrants to apply for citizenship, we will be inviting a replenishable, legal, documented workforce of higher caliber at still basement wages. Legal immigrants are still highly underpaid for their expertise, and their discounted labor costs will add to our economy; the prime difference, however, is that legal immigrants have the potential and the hope to progress. Contrary to illegal immigrants, newly immigrated citizens can one day hope to work out of low-paying jobs, to unionize, to receive education, to raise a family, to save money, to utilize health-care, to pay taxes and insurance.

Newly immigrated citizens are upwardly mobile individuals starting out on the bottom rung of capitalism; illegal immigrants, however, are locked in the basement of an America which espouses equality. To perpetuate our current stagnation on the immigration issue is to condemn millions of would-be Americans to an inescapable catch-22, caught between the economic necessity of American wages and the absence of human rights bestowed upon our legal citizens. Our nation does not need illegal immigrants, but it does need those people who are on the other side of our current immigration laws and quotas to possess the means for citizenship and become productive, publicly active citizens and workers. We must radically rethink and restructure our immigration laws to legalize hard-working Americalmosts.