Message 124, “What’s on YOUR Mind? I’m an Immigrant.  You’re an Immigrant!”, 3-10-13immigrants

(c) Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering UCC, All Rights Reserved


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What do the following people all have in common?  Elizabeth Arden, James Audubon, Irving Berlin, Sergey Brin – the founder of Google, Andrew Carnegie, Albert Einstein, Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn, David Hockney – a gay painter and artist, Aldous Huxley, John Lennon, Art Linkleiter, Joni Mitchell, Rupert Murdock – the owner of Fox News, John Muir, Joseph Pulitzer, Man Ray – an esteemed gay photographer, Knute Rockne, Igor Stravinsky, Lee Strasburg, Alex Trebek, Rudolph Valentino, Dr. Ruth Westheimer, Bruce Willis and Neil Young…………to name just a few.

Since you know the subject of this message, you have likely guessed that all of these individuals were immigrants to the U.S.  It is unimaginable how different our nation would be had they not been able to immigrate here and become citizens.  Indeed, most of us would be very, very different – if we had been born at all – were it not for our own immigrant ancestors.  I have a prized Bible owned and signed by my maternal great, great, great grandfather who immigrated here from England in 1832.  On my father’s side, I’m descended from a long line of German stock.  It’s assumed some distant ancestor changed his name from the Germanic Schlegel to a more simple Slagle – perhaps persuaded to do so by Ellis Island immigration officials who often did not like complicated last names.   Like most of you, I am an All-American mutt – an amalgamation of many immigrant strains.  While I am native born, the DNA of foreign peoples and distant cultures make up who I am.  I’m an immigrant.  You are too.

While many immigrants and most likely those whom I just cited came here or entered the U.S. with the permission of our government, a larger question remains why historically there has existed a distrust and dislike of immigrants.  Today, the question is posed about what our nation should do with the approximately 12 million undocumented immigrants – those who are not here with official permission.

Our topic today, as suggested by Don Fritz as a part of this month’s message theme “What’s on YOUR Mind?”, asks us to consider why our attitude as a nation regarding race, religion or immigrant status is often based on a fear of the other.   People who are different from the majority population, people who believe, look or act contrary to what is perceived to be a white, protestant and often male identity are often mistreated, shunned and excluded.  Many of those who decry the number of undocumented people in our nation sincerely see them as a national threat – those who take jobs and use the benefits of our schools, hospitals and social welfare systems.  But underlying such honest attitudes is a subconscious fear.  As Bertrand Russell, a famous author, once said, “Collective fear stimulates herd instinct, and tends to produce ferocity toward those who are not regarded as members of the herd.”  We perceive safety in those who are most like us and danger in those who are different.  Our fears then ignite angry and vindictive passions against the other.

Indeed, this fear of the other is a human phenomenon and not just one of some Americans.  We all tend to fear and thereby distrust and mistreat the other.  Working class people disdain senior management as “suits” who never get their hands dirty.  Many condemn people with wealth as thieves who prey on the poor and have run amok with greed.  Managers look down on laborers as those with dirty fingernails.  Urban elites consider those who live in rural areas as “trailer trash” or, even worse, “white trash.”  Gays label straight people as breeders while straights call homosexuals fags, dykes or worse.  Northerners scorn those in the south and vice versa.  Residents of the two coasts – in California and New England – look down on people in the mid-west.  Middle America is called flyover territory and its people are rubes and culturally primitive.  The Japanese often depict monsters in their children’s books with round, blue eyes.  Our children’s monsters often have slant eyes.  Liberals see conservatives as heartless, dull and dim-witted.  Conservatives label progressives as elitists who pander to laziness and only want to spend other people’s hard earned money.  Muslims are all wild eyed terrorists.  Jews are money hungry.  Catholics have too many children and are under the sway of the Vatican.  Evangelicals are religious zealots and Atheists are simply evil.  Immigrants are lazy, dumb, dirty and brown skinned.  Far too often we tell jokes at the expense of other groups.  We distrust, stereotype and dislike anyone who is not like us – the other.

There is a story of two villages in Ireland that are only six miles apart.  And yet the residents of each village despise those in the other.  They do not mingle and the depths of their feelings border on hate.  The trivial reason for their animosity dates back to the year 1066 when William the Conqueror came through Ireland.  His forces attacked one village and burned it to the ground.  That village did not warn the other.  And so these two villages, over a thousand years later, still deeply hate the other.

We see the same in India where the Dalits, or untouchables, are relegated to the lowest caste or class level.  They are permitted to work only in the worst of jobs – cleaning sewers, collecting garbage, spreading animal waste as fertilizer.  Socially, they are excluded from the rest of society.  They are among the poorest of the poor in our world and yet there is no outward or rational reason for their mistreatment other than they were born to parents also of the untouchable caste.

As likely as I am to react in horror when I hear of racism or intolerance, I must quickly realize I am often no better.  I too can be suspicious of people who are different from me.  I too can fear them.  I too fall far short of what my heart yearns for me to be – a person who always shows respect and compassion to anyone and everyone.

The tragedy of our attitudes towards immigrants and especially undocumented immigrants is that we know better.  As a so-called Christian nation, we know we are called to have compassion for the poor, the outcast, the weak.  Sadly, too much of the antipathy towards undocumented immigrants comes from people of faith.  Ralph Reed, a well known evangelical leader, echoed the thoughts of many conservative Christians.  According to him, undocumented immigrants are criminals.  As he interprets the Bible, only the so-called law abiding immigrants deserve our understanding, empathy and compassion.  Sadly, in a Pew research poll, a majority of African-American church members hold similar views.  The undocumented immigrant should be deported.  Ironically, this is the result of how our nation has pit people at the low end of our economy against each other.

As a nation that has prided itself for its spiritual beliefs, we’re called to have empathy and understanding for the immigrant.  Not only are we asked to understand their desperate situation, Americans above all people should understand and embrace any immigrant.  We each have immigrant blood in us.  Most Americans are descendants of people who arrived on these shores desperate, poor, and hungry.  Our forebears indeed saw America as a promised land – a place of freedom and economic vitality.  They came not with material wealth but with an abundance of courage and diligence.  The undocumented immigrants of today are just like them and, as a result, just like us.  The hopes that compel someone to risk their lives to take long treks across barren deserts or cross hundreds of miles over open ocean to live in the U.S. are the same hopes that compelled my English and German ancestors to come here.  Had they not had that inner bravery and drive, I would not be here.  If we are the progeny of huddled masses yearning to breathe free and reap the opportunity of a vibrant economy, then we are essentially no different from ANY immigrant today.    We have NO reason to fear them.  Indeed, we have every reason to empathize and celebrate them.  They are us and we are them.  I’m an immigrant and so are you.

While that is figuratively true, it is also literally true.  Immigrants to our nation are in many ways just like most Americans.  Over 74% of all immigrants to the U.S. – documented and undocumented – are Christian.  They are what is driving whatever growth there is in American churches.  They are also sustaining our national birth rate by helping to keep it at a level where the U.S. is replacing those who die.  Without their numbers, our population would be in decline, depriving our nation of future workers and taxpayers to support an aging demographic.

And, contrary to popular belief, undocumented immigrants pay taxes.  Over thirteen billion dollars were paid by undocumented workers into the Social Security and Medicare funds in 2009, the last year when figures are available.  Those wage earners will never see that money.  Such payments continue today as most undocumented workers are able to obtain fake Social Security cards since they are necessary in order to find work.  Billions of additional taxes are also paid by undocumented immigrants in the form of gas, sales, income and indirect property taxes.

Undocumented immigrants also help keep many of our product costs low.  By working in low pay jobs in agriculture and food service, we each reap the benefit of far reduced prices for agricultural produce and restaurant meals.  If anything, our nation takes advantage of the undocumented instead of the other way around.

Another persistent myth is that immigrant populations don’t assimilate by learning English or adopting American cultural practices.  While adults who immigrate often prefer many of the cultural practices they remember from home, it is their children and grandchildren who rapidly acculturate.  Such has been shown throughout American immigration history.  By the second or third generations in immigrant families, a vibrant blending of cultures takes place.  Some practices of the old culture are still practiced but language, attitudes, dress and even social views quickly become Americanized.  Most second and third generation immigrant populations hold social and political views nearly identical to the majority population.  Attitudes toward gays and women among Muslim and hispanic immigrants under the age of 30 largely reflects their native born peers.  Far from being locked into the conservatism from which they came, they identify and empathize with other people on the margins of life.

That is what is unique about our nation.  It’s why we’re called a melting pot.  Since we are ALL essentially immigrants, we are not tied to old world ways and traditions.  We innovate.  We think outside the box.  Our vibrant diversity is a strength.  It’s never been a weakness.

Despite the many facts about why we should embrace undocumented immigrants, our attitude towards them indicates a poverty in our souls.  In Jewish, Christian and Muslim Scriptures, treatment of the outsider, the stranger, the visitor and the alien is considered a benchmark of goodness.  Hospitality is a virtue.  Muhammad was a migrant himself who sought kindness in new cities.  He implored the faithful to “do good unto the neighbor from among your own people, and the neighbor who is a stranger and to the wayfarer…”  The Jewish book of Leviticus commands, “When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born.  Love him or her as yourself.”  Indeed, the Jewish faith ought to have a special affinity for immigrants since Jews, according to their religious history, were mistreated strangers in Egypt.  As a people, they were without a homeland for two millennia.  They suffered the scorn of host countries and the holocaust all due to a hatred of their perceived otherness.  American antipathy toward Jews even played a role in the holocaust.  Congress in 1929 shut the door on immigration – particularly Jewish immigration.  Indeed it was the National Origins Act of 1929 that coined the nasty phrase “illegal immigrant” – one that brands someone a criminal for the mere desire to live free and survive.  While Americans did not know it at that time, our anti-semitism in 1929 echoed a more hateful strain in Europe.  American closed doors to immigration prevented thousands of Jews from coming to the U.S. during the 1930’s when escape from Germany was still possible.  In one infamous episode in 1939, the MS St Louis, full of Jewish exiles, was forbidden from docking and forced to turn around even as it was in sight of the Statue of Liberty.

Like the Jewish people, Christians have no Biblical excuse for their anti-immigrant attitudes.  In the book of Matthew, Jesus tells his followers that those who hope to enjoy the approval of God should act in this way: “I was a stranger and you invited me in…Whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”    

Indeed, the Christian New Testament tells us that our citizenship is not of this world.  As a vision for a perfect earth, according to the Biblical book of Revelation, people from all over the earth, of every tribe, nation and language will one day unite together as one body for all eternity.

The implied lesson from world religions is that we are not to shun the immigrant.  Ethics of compassion, respect and tolerance for the migrant are taught.   When Jesus declared that the kingdom of God is here on earth, he encouraged a kingdom of goodness, compassion, and kindness.  We all belong to this kingdom.  We are to help build a kingdom of goodness.  We’re not American, Mexican or Chinese as much as we are simply people.  We’re not to be divided by our differences but celebrated for them.  We are of the same human family, children of God, each person wonderfully and beautifully made.

I do not expect our nation or any other to be so naive as to throw open their borders.  Poverty, discrimination and oppression exist in far too many places around the world thus making us a beacon for would-be immigrants.  But, there are practical ways to address immigration problems.  Solutions are too complicated to discuss at length.  But we can start with empathy and compassion towards those who are here now.  We can start by demanding employers pay living wages for low-skilled, physically demanding jobs.  That will encourage more native born citizens to seek such work and thus reduce the incentive for employers to hire and lure undocumented workers as a source of cheap labor.  This will require sacrifice on everyone’s part.  No longer can we expect cheap labor and the resulting cheap product costs.  No longer can we expect to pay low prices for agricultural goods.

Many who have studied this issue propose we establish an effective guest worker program whereby people of other nations can enter the U.S. legally, work legally, pay taxes and enjoy the benefits our nation.  The number of guest worker permits can be limited to an amount necessary to fill jobs native born citizens don’t fill.  For those guest workers who faithfully work under this program, they can then earn citizenship for themselves and their families.

So too can we help encourage greater development in other nations.  Indeed, when Mexico’s economy does well, immigration from that nation dramatically declines.  Investment and assistance to other nations must not be seen as charity.  Foreign aid offers direct benefits to us.

Most of all, we might all change our attitudes and thoughts about those who are different from us.  We might also change our thoughts about economic resources in our nation and see them not as limited but, instead, as expansive.  This leads me to my subject for next Sunday – how by reorienting our thinking about wealth, we can help build our dream of a more just and economically vital nation for everyone.  We need not think that if a few are well-off, others must naturally be poor.  That is a mindset of limited resources that leads to greed.  Instead, we can find ways for everyone to do better – not just a few.  That vision of wealth for everyone through cooperation instead of competition is moral imagination at work.  When I help you do better, I in turn do better too.  This attitude prevents the “us versus them” competitive mindset.  It will allow us to open our hearts and our borders to more and more immigrants.

That, my friends, is a vision we can aspire to realize.  We need not fear the other.  We need not separate ourselves by our differences.  We can, instead, come together in cooperation not just in America but around the world – people who live together in a paradise of our own making, shaped not by fear but by love.  I’m an immigrant.  You’re an immigrant.  Together, let us venture to a new land of tolerance and opportunity for all.