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.