Posts Tagged ‘residents’

An All-American Thanksgiving

November 30, 2008

Akmed and Dea were both at the Apache Mall for its 4 o’clock opening on Black Friday. Despite their fears of American malls from the numerous cinematic chase scenes set there, they both braved the cold and the crowds to witness this uniquely American phenomenon. Both were glad to find out that Iraqis were not the only ones to clamor for goods at market; both were equally contented to know that, unlike the movies, there are not “naked people running around everywhere.”

Though both left behind practically everything when they came to the United States as refugees through Catholic Charities and its Refugee Resettlement Program, they and their families are quickly acculturating and making Rochester, Minnesota, their home. Their children had seen snow in Iraq only once before and were amazed when I told them that in our cold winters your spit freezes before it hits the ground. These men and women are scrambling to get the necessary paperwork together for their driver’s licenses, scouring the classifieds for jobs and cheap furnishings they can afford, and studying late into the night to master English or to comprehend the material for the MCAT.

Last night, we celebrated a belated Thanksgiving with 3 of the 5 Iraqi families here in Rochester. My father-in-law has worked hard to help them get jobs and settle in to their new community, and as such they view him as a paternal figure. They are hard workers, evidenced by Pat’s newly tiled bathroom or Gassuon’s remodeled junker. All of them are trying to rebuild lives which had grown increasingly chaotic since the late 1980s conflict with Iran. The latest United States occupation has unsettled what little order there was, making it increasingly dangerous for businessmen and their families.

A few days before at our family Thanksgiving, a dear relative asked why the Iraqi refugees should have jobs ahead of all the laid-off “American” employees. When we responded that they were extremely talented and had earned the positions, this relative’s only answer was a huff and harrumph. In these times of economic uncertainty, some are calling for our borders to be closed indefinitely. Some might say that our problems are being caused by unauthorized working immigrants or these refugees.

In fact, we can look no further than our own devotion to devastation as we seek to uncover the root of the housing crisis or banking downturn. In the faces of these refugees and the 4 million displaced Iraqis they represent, one is instantly aware of the $720 million the United States spends on the Iraq War every day rather than healing its own or bringing true peace to international communities through positive relationship-building.

Eating turkey and sweet potatoes with these wonderful new Americans, I am reminded of that familiar line from the Christmas classic, “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.” When these refugees came into my life, my heart grew three sizes that day; when they came to be working residents of the U.S., our nation of immigrants grew by the size of five families that day. And they are already making plans to be at the mall for what they hear are the amazing closeouts on New Year’s Day…

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Good Friday’s Implications

March 21, 2008

    In Matamoros, Mexico, on this Good Friday, the plaza is full of people watching the Via Crucis enacted before our very eyes. This passion play has been reenacted annually for well over a thousand years, yet it is still charged with emotion and meaning. A young man is beaten and hung to a wooden cross directly in front of the giant Catholic church, while centurions with over-sized helmets look on and a voice recants the Gospel narrative. Offstage, a woman cries in the heat of the day. In the crowd, everyone of us has forgotten our sunglasses, the glare off the tops of police cars, the smell of elotes and raspas nearby – all of us are focused on this ultimate story of redemption.

    I enter the cool of the church, my mind filled with memories of Easters past. The palpable memory of gumming the bread and swirling the grape juice around in my mouth, newly cognizant that these elements of the Communion represented the body and blood of a man 2,000 years ago. These memories from almost 20 years ago come back to me, just as I am sure memories came to Mary as she stood at the foot of the cross. My eyes adjust to the lighting within this cathedral. Mary is at the front of the church, head down in mourning for her son lofted up on the cross. I bow my head and am overcome with the feeling of hopelessness that must have swept over the disciples. What if this were the end? What if the kingdom of God ended on Friday and was never followed by that joyous Sunday?

    Tears drying on my sunburned cheeks, I sit in the plaza reading Why We Can’t Wait by Dr. King under a gazebo. Tamale vendors, shoe-shiners, whistling chiflado kids, men selling sweet dulces. As I read these words I have read before in a new context, I am struck by its perspective on Jesus’ death that Friday so long ago. King writes,

    Suddenly the truth was revealed that hate is a contagion; that it grows and spreads as a disease; that no society is so healthy that it can automatically maintain its immunity…The words of Jesus ‘Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of my brethren, ye have done it unto me’ were more than a figurative expression; they were a literal prophecy…We were all involved in the death of [this man]. We tolerated hate; we tolerated the sick stimulation of violence in all walks of life; and we tolerated the differential application of law, which said that a man’s life was sacred only if we agreed with his views…We mourned a man who had become the pride of the nation, but we grieved as well for ourselves because we knew we were sick.” (145)

Fresh meaning to this Gospel story I’ve read hundreds of times. In Jesus’ day, just as in our own, the poor and the stranger were being exploited by those in power. To the extent that people of faith tolerate this immoral profiting from the pain of others, we are condoning hate and the hurt of the least of these. If Jesus is present in the least of these, we must recognize his face in every stranger, legal or extralegal, every person, regardless of race. When we give into the fear and hate of our fellow man, the passion of Christ happens once more.

    The best definition of sin that I’ve ever heard is an “absence of God.” For those 3 days while Jesus lay entombed, the whole world was stuck in this negative peace without the very Son of God. In this Plaza Mayor, it occurs to me that the word for without in Spanish is sin. Without. Without.

It must be a sin that so many of these men and women around me here in this border town of close to 500,000 are without basic necessities and without hope of fair wages. Without.

It is surely sin that when these people come looking for a better life in the United States they are refused legal means, repeatedly denied family reunification, and queued in a quota system that can take from 10 years to never. Without.

It cannot be anything but a sin that 12-20 million U.S. residents live without papers, without protection of law, without insurance, without welfare, without legal protection, without basic human rights, without a means to earned citizenship. Without.

It is a shameful sin that so many bright students of mine look at a bleak future, unsure of whether they will have the right documents to attend the best universities in this country, schools they have earned the academic right to attend. Without.

May we all use these 3 days leading up to that blessed Resurrection Sunday to think of those around us who are “without.” As James 4:17 so clearly states, “Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.” If we know the good which needs to be done, if we see the calling of God in the strangers around us, if we recognize the face of Jesus in our neighbor and do nothing, our lives are sin- sin meaning, sin purpose, sin faith, sin love, sin the chance to bring the hope of Sunday to the “least of these,” or ourselves.

The Power of Nomenclature

January 20, 2008

Willacy County Processing Center

Driving north on Highway 77 from the Rio Grande Valley, one passes through the town of Ramondville. Its motto is “City with a Smile,” but just to the east of the highway is visible the nation’s largest immigrant detention center. For this town of 10,000 people, the 2,000 detained immigrants would constitute 1/5 of their population and currently provides many jobs for their economy. This Willacy County Processing Center extends for miles – miles of barbed wire twisted against the horizon, miles of fences, miles of spotlights and long prison warehouses.

Currently, the United States has eight Service Processing Centers, offering no other service but that of detaining people who prayed the American dream was real. The U.S. also uses seven other contract detention facilities. These centers are a large part of the $1 billion budget of ICE, a large portion of the detention of some 27,500 immigrants each year. (http://www.bordc.org/threats/detention.php)

Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his Letter from Birmingham Jail that, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” These 27,500 extralegal residents are seen as not having any inherent rights. There can be no justice when one party has no rights; absolute power corrupts absolutely. Because of nomenclature, though, these Americalmosts are detained anywhere from a month to several years with little hope of political or judicial recourse.

The game of nomenclature has been around for centuries. During the long fight for civil rights, African-Americans had to overcome names such as “slave” and “stock” in order to demand equal rights; the same fight continues today with the “N” word. In terms of immigration, nomenclature has always been used by nativists as a means of keeping new immigrants voiceless and without rights. When the first Chinese immigrants came to these United States, they were met by the Naturalization Act of 1870 which naturalized only “white persons and persons of African descent” and left them as Asians and their brother Latinos without rights or hope of change for almost eight decades (Coming to America p.271). Throughout the years, people have used the rhetoric of sojourner to mean someone uninterested in assimilating but rather intent on sending all their money to their home country (a fact that is born more out of restrictive immigration policies than a desire to “milk” this country’s resources). The concept of guest worker has officially been around in the U.S. since the Bracero Programs of the 1950s, and since that time guest workers have been granted scant rights because they are seen as diametrically different than permanent citizens. Refugees and asylum seekers now account for a large portion of the annual immigration outside of the quota system; these immigrant hopefuls are taken on a case-by-case basis because our immigration laws have not been substantively overhauled since Kennedy. Even now, Somalis wait for years in Kenyan refugee camps, patiently waiting until their refugee card is called.

The idea of nomenclature granting or denying rights has a long, sad history in these United States. Now, the rhetoric has shifted to aliens, undesirables, and illegals. None of these names connote the human they seek to identify. With well over 12 million extralegal residents, we are terrifyingly complacent with the idea of so many living within our borders without basic human rights. Admittedly, a system which creates 12 million lawbreakers (and millions more who aid them) is a broken system. The United States must re-imagine its immigration laws so as not to ignore this pocket of people greater than the population of New York City. We must honestly confront our failed quota system and draft new immigration laws which behoove both our nation and those seeking to become citizens.

Until that day, every citizen of these United States is living with inflated rights. This past year our housing market plummeted because the sub-prime mortgage market was drastically inflated. What will happen when we and the rest of the world realize that our democratic rights are inflated as well, that they only apply to some of us, that some Americans are “more equal than others?”

Ellis Island is the symbol of immigration in the United States. Up until 1932, it was truly an “island of hope,” ushering in 12 million new citizens to America. After 1932, though, this island’s open hand of welcome became a closed fist as it morphed into a detention center and an “island of tears.” During WWII, it was even briefly used as an internment center for enemy aliens (Coming to America p.273). It is high time the United States sought to change the image of Ellis Island once more. By allowing every resident within our borders an honest chance at receiving rights through the all-powerful and elusive nomenclature of citizen (call it earned amnesty or gradual naturalization), Ellis Island can once again welcome the globalizing world to our shores.

Raymondville Detention Center