Immigration Old And New

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Immigration and arguments about it are nothing new in this land where all of us are immigrants or descendants of immigrants.   Questions of policy and economics are important, but beyond questions of policy there are questions of religious principle.

I am going to begin this morning by sharing with you the fact that when it comes to unauthorized immigration, I am torn between contradictory feelings and beliefs. 

I do not think we want wide open borders.  Others may disagree, but I believe it is perfectly acceptable to set limits on immigration.  On the other hand, I am not xenophobic, and I think at least some of the people upset about immigration are allowing race and class issues to set their agenda.

I know how much we have benefitted from immigrants.

Also, this is a big topic.  People will approach me later and say “you left out important points”.  That is correct; time does not allow me to cover everything.

In speaking of immigration issues today I intend to focus on Religious Principles rather than economic and social issues; but I do want to review a bit of history and point out that economic and social questions are important, but also that they change over time depending upon circumstances. 

It is people at the lower end of the economic scale who most fear immigration because they have the most to lose, especially their jobs but also the chance of increasing their incomes.  The larger the supply of the labor pool, the greater the likelihood wages will stay low. 

Middle and upper income people often benefit from immigration precisely because it helps to avoid increases in the cost of labor and therefore of goods and services. 

An aside: One of the problems we face with both Social Security and Medicare is that the baby boomers are going to be retiring in large numbers and are moving into the period of time when many of them will need greater health care services.  Projections are that there will be too few workers to support the retired population.  But that is only true if we assume that the population numbers will maintain the current path and that the number of jobs will decline to match the population decline.  But what if the number of jobs stays the same or even increases?  We can fill them by ensuring that we have large numbers of immigrants and they will take the jobs and they will pay taxes and they will support the baby boomers.  Could it be that today’s problem is tomorrow’s solution?

Immigration issues in what is today the Commonwealth of Massachusetts go back to at least 1620 and the arrival of the Pilgrims as settlers.  On this Indigenous People’s Day weekend I ask: How should the Wampanoag people have responded to this arrival?  Should they have reacted with fear and rejection, or with openness and welcome?  In the early years they helped the settlers to survive even though there had been prior history with Europeans that was not always positive.  Kidnappings and the spread of deadly disease had been the result.  Should the Wampanoag people have said, “No, no help; let them starve”?

What is now calledBelmontwas populated by the Massachusett tribe.  They were largely wiped out by disease brought by Europeans.  We benefit from the fact that the Massachusett people no longer live here, that they died or were driven from their lands. 

In our Declaration of independence, one of the complaints against King George was that, “He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands”.

According to a 2006 report by the Congressional Budget Office, it was only in 1875 that the United States imposed “qualitative” restrictions on immigration; these prohibited “criminals and prostitutes” from entering the country. 

My maternal grandmother used to proudly proclaim that her side of the family landed in the Carolinas before the Mayflower landed in Massachusetts.  And my father used to enjoy irking his mother-in-law by responding that they then must have come over on prison ships. 

In the mid 1800’s, especially as the poor Irish began coming to the United States in large numbers, some people who were resentful or fearful of that which is foreign began attacking immigrants both politically and physically.

The American Party, also called the Know Nothings, wanted to saveAmericafrom the strange people coming into our country.  At that time the strange people were Irish and German and were heavily Catholic. 

Catholicism was seen as a threat toAmerica.  There was a political cartoon about the Irish and Germans which claimed that they were bring “rum, riot and Romanism” into theUnited States. 

There were anti-immigrant riots and in 1844 inPhiladelphia, Nativists burned twoCatholicChurchesand a Catholic school and twenty people died in the mayhem.  We are ever fearful of the foreigner, the stranger, the alien.  Today few people fear their fellow Americans who are of Irish or German ancestry and few fear their neighbors who are Catholic.  But what was not known or was known only in stereotypes was both feared and fought.

It was only after World War I that “quantitative”, that is numerical limits, were placed on Immigration.  These were based upon national origin and were biased in favor of people from Western European nations. 

My paternal grandparents were processed through Ellis Island on May 15, 1920 having arrived from Glasgow, Scotland on the ship Columbia.  They had an advantage over many other immigrants in that they spoke English—of a kind.  They arrived with several children in tow.  Those children were ages 17, 15, 13, 11, 9, 7, 5, 3 and 1.  They would have three more children here in theUnited States.  They arrived at a time when immigrants were being welcomed by most Americans, and coming from the British Isles they were more acceptable than some others.  Their twelve children, by the way, attended public schools and no one complained about them receiving “a free education at taxpayer expense”.  And there is no way in which they paid enough in taxes to cover the cost of educating their children.

In 1965 immigration largely shifted from national origin to categories: does the applicant have family members here; does the applicant have job skills we seek, etc.   Some numerical limits are still in place.

In 1986, with the Immigration Reform and Control Act, the federal government began to focus attention on unauthorized immigration.     

        So our past pattern on immigration issues has been varied.  At the level of government we had relatively liberal rules for much of our history and at least some of those rules that did exist were related to race and culture.

        I began by saying that I am not yet settled in my thoughts about immigration.  I also recognize that my immediate response is to jump to issues of social policy.  I want to set that aside and think in terms of religious principles.

        What are some of the Jewish, Christian and Unitarian Universalist religious claims about immigration and how we should treat people?

From the book of Leviticus, 19:33-34:

33When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. 34The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in theland ofEgypt: I am the Lord your God.

The word translated as “alien” is ger, which can be either a temporary inhabitant or a foreigner.

        This is in the Torah, in Judaism that is the word of God.  Remember, says God, that you, too, were once foreigners.  Each of us is either an immigrant or the descendant of immigrants.  Remember that, and love the alien as yourself. 

The book of Mathew, Ch 25

‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” 37Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 40And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,* you did it to me.” 41

The word translated “stranger” there is the Greek word Xenos, foreigner or alien. 

However we treat the immigrant among us, whether authorized immigrant or not, Mathew claims that this is how we are also treating Jesus, right now; today.

Selections from our Unitarian Universalist principles:

“We…covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person;

Justice, Equity and Compassion in human relations;

…The goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all…”

I believe that every person is a person of worth and dignity, and that neither national origin nor legal status changes that; and I believe in the ultimate goal of world community, where all are free, where everyone is my neighbor, where all are within our circle of compassion and care and where anyone can travel anywhere. 

I have concerns about our nation’s present economic circumstances; I have fears for our future.  But religion calls me to think beyond my fears and beyond the concerns of a single country at a particular moment in time.  Setting aside economic fears, setting aside social issues, what do these religious principles call upon us to do?  What should we do when we know that people crossing the desert from Mexico into the United States are dying from lack of water?  What should we say about children in this country who need an education?  What should we say about individuals who are sick and in need of medical care?  What do religion and morality call upon us to do in these cases?

“…I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”…37 “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,* you did it to me.”

Religion calls me to strive to see the earth from the viewpoint of the divine.  If there is a Divine being looking down upon us and upon the Earth from some distant vantage point, does that being see our national borders and boundaries; or does that being see instead how we treat our fellow human beings, our siblings on this planet?

Whatever social policies we wish to support, whatever approach to economics we may take, may we always remember that each person is a brother, a sister a child of the universe.

Let love always be our response.