“Barring the Golden Door”

“Barring the Golden Door”
A Sermon by Joshua Leach
Delivered on November 8, 2015


A Thought to Ponder at the Beginning:
There are words like Liberty
That almost make me cry.
If you had known what I knew
You would know why.

—LANGSTON HUGHES, “Refugee in America”



I remember catching glimpses of it on the news this past summer, and the year before. Stories of boats capsized off the coast of Italy. Something from last Spring about “boat people” in the Pacific. Oh yes, and that “surge” of unaccompanied children at the US-Mexico border from two summers back. I saw the headlines but didn’t often pause to read the articles that followed. I was saddened the way I was by most stories of blind catastrophes in the world. I didn’t ask myself if there was a pattern to what I was seeing. I didn’t wonder where the people on those capsized vessels were coming from, why they had left home. I had a strainer in my mind through which all new information had to pass, and it tended to assume that if something really dire were going on, I would already have known about it by now.

By this point I was already working in the Rights at Risk program at the UU Service Committee, which is partly focused on the issue of forced migration, so I didn’t exactly have the excuse that I was too busy with other things to pay attention. But still it took me a long time to wake up to the magnitude of what was happening. I assumed what I was seeing in the news was simply a story of people on the move, rather than one of people being driven from home at the barrel if a gun.

That all had to change for me in a big hurry — literally overnight, in fact. On the Sunday of Labor Day in September, I got a call from my boss at UUSC saying that the organization had decided to take up an emergency appeal to respond to the Syrian refugee crisis in Europe, and that by the end of the weekend we needed to have a briefing ready for the department that covered the background on the refugee crisis, the extent of the humanitarian response so far, and recommendations for what UUSC could contribute. All of this somehow had to be done by Tuesday, but that wasn’t the only challenge we were up against. My supervisor also happened to be with family in Maine at the time this emergency appeal went out, without her computer, and had to somehow get back to Boston on Labor Day if she was going to work on the briefing. And, while we’re on the subject of human migration, it turns out that all of New England had the same idea that day — my supervisor was stuck in wall-to-wall traffic for twelve hours or more, while the clock ticked away on our deadline. That left me—an intern, it was true—but one with a computer.

In the work I did that weekend and after, I encountered for the first time some of the facts that have since become so familiar to us from the media coverage as to lose their capacity to shock. The fact, for instance, that we are living through the world’s largest refugee crisis since World War II—the largest one ever systemically recorded, since the United Nations was founded and began keeping track of displacement rates worldwide. 60 million people displaced around the world. That’s one in every 122 of the Earth’s people. That’s ten times the population of the State of Massachusetts.

How had I not heard about this earlier? None of it would have been breaking news in early September for the world’s refugees themselves, or for the humanitarian agencies charged with their protection. The statistics had been there for all to see in UN reports for the past year or more, and it should have come as no surprise to me that the brutal civil war in Syria, the depredations of organized crime in Central America, and ethnic persecution in Southeast Asia and elsewhere would have the consequence of driving people from their homes.

It wasn’t the situation that changed this past September, therefore — it was something in our collective minds– something that should have been apparent before had finally clicked into place. Even for people like me, who live behind the tightly patrolled borders of the world’s wealthiest powers, it was suddenly no longer possible to pretend that the global refugee crisis was distant — someone else’s concern. Ours is not a world where the suffering of others can be walled off from view.

For some, this growing awareness brought with it a new and urgent sense of compassion. One has only to think of the hundreds of Hungarian citizens who mobilized earlier this fall to provide food and other basic commodities to refugees arriving on trains in Budapest, the thousands of German families who have welcomed refugees into their own homes.

For others, however, the new awareness has been a source of fear. From one side of the world to the other, some of the richest and most powerful governments – the ones most equipped with resources and space to resettle refugees – have instead been pulling up the bridges and barring the gates.

In the Pacific, the Australian government has for much of the last decade had a policy of intercepting all boats carrying migrants before they can land. The people on these boats are never allowed to apply for asylum within Australia’s borders, even though unknown thousands of them are fleeing from direct threats to their lives and safety in Burma and elsewhere. Instead, they are towed to the tiny island nation of Nauru, about 2,000 miles from the Australian coast, where they held in what is euphemistically described as immigration detention, but is essentially a prison camp. They are kept there behind barbed wire without any criminal charge in conditions that numerous human rights observers have described as amounting to torture.

In Europe, far right parties with ties to the fascist past have gained votes in recent months in Germany; and in Hungary the authorities recently completed a fence along the entire span of their border with Serbia and Croatia, boxing out thousands of people in need of asylum. Those refugees who still manage to scale the fence in Hungary are met with criminal penalties in consequence, many bearing jail sentences. The same Hungarian government that claims not to have enough room for refugees in its society, that is to say, apparently does have room for them in its prisons.

Then there is our own country, which has also been known to turn away asylum seekers at its own border. To take one example, from the 1990s to the present, the United States Coast Guard has been intercepting and returning boats full of migrants and refugees who are coming from Haiti. Ten years ago, many of the people on these boats would likely have been trying to escape the abuses of Haiti’s post-coup government, which replaced the elected president Aristide and persecuted many of his followers. The U.S. authorities who interdicted these boats did not screen the Haitian migrants for plausible fears that they may be at risk of political violence if they were returned, possibly because the US supported Haiti’s post-coup regime.

By far the greatest and most long-standing moral failure of the United States with regard to refugees, however, is our government’s appalling treatment of the thousands of people who arrive at our Southern border each year from Mexico and Central America. Some are looking for work, for better pay, for better opportunities for their families – and they have as much a right to all these things as you or me. I don’t at all mean for an enriched conversation around forced migration to be used perversely as a way to stigmatize people who migrate for economic reasons. These are perfectly good reasons too to be on the move. But it is important to recognize that an increasing share of the people at the US Southern border are not coming here for reasons that could be described as voluntary in any sense – they are coming because to stay put might mean death. The issue of “undocumented immigration,” as it is still described in our media, is also a refugee issue.

For an ever larger number of people, conditions of life in Central America and Mexico in recent years have degenerated past the limits of human endurance. El Salvador and Honduras have vied with one another for the past five years for the highest homicide rate in the world. Last Spring, an average of 20 people a day were being murdered in El Salvador. Drug trafficking organizations and other criminal networks have taken over large parts of the country, forming a terrifying backdrop to ordinary life for nearly all citizens. It is almost impossible to maintain a business in the country without paying protection money to gangs, and it is estimated that 7 to 10 small enterprises close each day due to extortion. In Honduras, 90 out of every 100,000 people were murdered last year. As one journalist has pointed out, it was more dangerous to be a citizen of Honduras in 2012 than it was to be a person living in Iraq in 2007, at the height of the sectarian conflict.

Women, children, and sexual minorities are all at particular risk. Children are frequently threatened with forced recruitment into criminal networks. One family featured in a UNHCR report described how their ten year old son was recruited to sell drugs for a gang, with the whole family being threatened with death if they did not comply. (Source: UNHRC, Women on the Run Report, 2015).

Government responses in the region to these gangs, often undertaken with US support and funding, have often been heavily repressive and have only contributed to prolonging the cycle of violence. There is no a clear line demarcating criminal networks from their victims, when current gang members were themselves often forcibly recruited as young children.

At other times, police or government forces have colluded with the gangs directly, or have been bribed or threatened into silence. One woman who spoke to the UN refugee agency for a recent report lost her 13-year-old nephew to gangs who tried to coerce him into drug running. When her nephew refused to be inducted, they murdered him. When the woman, identified in the report as Nelly, tried to report the murder to the police, they passed this information along to gang members, who tried to kill Nelly as well. It was then that she made for the U.S. border. (Source: UNHCR, Women on the Run, 2015).

Such people are under direct and imminent threat of murder for standing up to gangs and corrupt authorities – they are refugees, and the foreign countries they manage to reach are obliged by law and morality alike to take them in and provide asylum.

But far from helping people like these to reach safety in the United States, the US government is doing everything it can to prevent them from escaping Central America. In Honduras last year, the US government funded a special force of Honduran police to prevent their own citizens from crossing the border. In Mexico, the U.S. has leaned on authorities and provided funding to ratchet up the number of migrants they deport at Mexico’s Southern Border.

And apparently it’s working. This year, for the first time in memory, Mexico apprehended and deported more Central American migrants than the United States did from its own borders. Few if any of these migrants are screened for protection needs in Mexico. Most are caught in Chiapas, Mexico’s Southernmost state, and are returned to Honduras or El Salvador in a matter of days, without ever being informed of their right to apply for asylum.

Those who make it past Mexico’s Southern Border still face the incredibly perilous journey through Mexico to the US – where they are often targeted for kidnapping by criminal networks trying to extort payments from their relatives.

And finally, after surviving all this, they are still at heavy risk of being summarily deported at the US Border if they are caught there. In theory, the US recognizes the right of new arrivals to apply for asylum, but it does not recognize the right to free legal representation in navigating this process, and there is solid evidence that people with extremely serious humanitarian protection needs are being sent back to the very dangers they are trying to escape. Social scientist Elizabeth Kennedy recently documented 83 cases of individuals who were killed in Central America shortly after being deported from the United States.

Most migrants and asylum entering the US Southern Border thus have to take extremely dangerous routes through the Arizona desert to avoid US border enforcement, and thousands have died in the desert in recent years – a foreseeable consequence of US border policies aimed purely at deterrence and not at all on providing humanitarian assistance to people in flight. From one end of the migration route to the other, therefore, traveling to the United States from Central America has become an obstacle course of dangers where any false step could mean death. It has been made this way as a matter of deliberate policy by the US government.

There are many reasons why the US government might be doing this. To take perhaps the least cynical of the possible explanations, one of the Obama administration’s long-term goals is to pass an immigration reform bill that would finally legalize the status of the 12 million undocumented people who are in this country already, and the administration may fear that this will be jeopardized further by large number of new arrivals. After all, the last time an immigration reform bill came close to a vote in 2014, it was derailed by lurid media accounts of the “surge” of Central Americans arriving that summer at the border, which shock jock radio hosts and cable newscasters described as a “border invasion.” The soldiers in this so-called invasion were of course mostly women traveling with their children and unaccompanied minors fleeing violence in Central America. It is possible that the White House has calculated that it needs to waylay or shut out new arrivals if it is going to make any progress on the status of undocumented people who are already here.

If that is the case, however, the U.S. government is effectively trading the lives and safety of one group of migrants against another. It is true that there is a crying need to protect undocumented people already living in the United States from deportation or the trauma of family separation. But in far too many cases, the compromise proffered in exchange is ever more draconian levels of enforcement along the Southern Border. That means more migrants diverted away from safe points of crossing, more people dying of exposure and dehydration in the Arizona desert, more asylum seekers apprehended at the border and sent back to face death, torture, or kidnapping in the countries they are trying to escape. These can’t be the only choices available to us. To pit the needs of undocumented immigrants already here against those of new arrivals is to create a false dilemma.

Why are we so afraid of simply letting people in? What is it about the arrival of refugees and immigrants that so rattles nerves and sets people on edge in Australia, in Hungary, in the United States, and elsewhere, that they feel they have to hide behind walls and patrol boats? If any walls should be built in this world, shouldn’t they be to provide protection for people fleeing violence, not to keep them from obtaining it? Why are the world’s most powerful so terrified of the world’s most vulnerable?

I wish I could say that to me these are just rhetorical questions, but they are not. I spoke earlier in this sermon about how we have seen two quite different responses around the world to the current refugee crisis – one informed by compassion, the other rooted in fear, and while I wish I could say that I’ve always instinctively been on the side of compassion, that wouldn’t exactly be true. I’ve also responded to this issue in fear. All of the usual anxieties have crossed my mind at various times: How many more can come? Would there be enough room? Would there be enough jobs? Would there be, in so many words, enough to go around?

I don’t mean to suggest that at some point in my past I was opposed to immigration. It’s more like I’ve often had multiple political selves in my mind at any given time. On the one hand, being the child of UU parents, from my adolescence on I was repeatedly clothed in bright yellow Standing on the Side of Love gear. Together we marched to promote the DREAM Act, to protest Sherriff Joe Arpaio’s Tent City Jail in Arizona, to demand comprehensive immigration reform, and more, with me as a slightly abstracted participant in each, but a participant nonetheless.

But then I remember a couple years later complaining that the UUA spent too much time advocating for immigration reform. What was this fixation they seemed to have? Weren’t there other more important issues? This was around the time that Peter Morales and other UUs were being arrested in mass acts of civil disobedience to protest deportations. If I had spent more time thinking about what it would mean to have a parent or child deported from the country, I might have better comprehended they viewed this as such a pressing moral issue. But I didn’t. I had never been forced to think about it. I was born with a US birth certificate to citizen parents, and growing up, I never had to wonder when my dad left for work in the morning if it was going to be the last time I’d ever see him, or that one day my mom might not be there when I got home from school. It wasn’t until much more recently, when my professional life confronted me with the fact that so many other people do have to worry about these things, that I was began to change. As it is said of one character in a George Eliot novel: “[I] had never seen behind the canvas with which [my] life was hung.” It was a very long time before it occurred to me to wonder if it was really just that I should be granted privileges that are denied to others, simply because of the random chance of having been born in this country.

But don’t we need to maintain those privileges? We can’t just throw open our borders entirely can we? Shouldn’t we focus first on looking after our own?

I have thought these thoughts and felt these fears as well. But, then, we ask, who do we mean by “our own”? It’s another way of asking, who is my neighbor? And our principles as a religious movement are pretty clear in reply: ours is the entire human family.

It may seem like a bit of a tall order, but looking back through history, it seems that every great advance for justice has been won when people were asked to be just a little bit more generous than we think is possible for us. To give just a little more than what the realists and the pragmatists think we can afford. And if we don’t make this change, it is not to ourselves that we must explain it, but to the people who will be banished from our borders as a result, exiled from their families and possibly sent back to their deaths. What can we say to them? Can we look them in the eye and explain: sorry, we couldn’t handle the culture shock. We looked around and we couldn’t find any space for you in this vast land, or in our hearts.

Here is what I would propose. Whatever limits we currently draw in our own minds around immigration or the welcoming of refugees, whether we’re comprehensive immigration reformers, or closed border hardliners, whatever it is– I would urge each of us to go just that one step further toward openness. Even on those days when we don’t feel very open. Wherever we draw the line on who and how many people should get in, let’s cross it together. I know that I have never so far regretted the times when I asked myself to view an issue a little more compassionately that I was perhaps inclined by instinct. But I have many times had cause to regret the times when I listened to fear. We don’t have to be forever the prisoners of our own privilege. We are being given a chance to welcome others to freedom, and by so doing to become more free ourselves. The stranger at the Golden Door is sending us an invitation. I suggest we accept it.

Closing Words, by Vachel Linday:

I am unjust, but I can strive for justice.
My life’s unkind, but I can vote for kindness.
I, the unloving, say life should be lovely.
I, that am blind, cry out against my blindness.

Man is a curious brute—he pets his fancies—
Fighting mankind, to win sweet luxury.
So he will be, though law be clear as crystal,
Tho’ all men plan to live in harmony.

But come, let us vote against our human nature,
Crying to God in all the polling places
To heal our everlasting sinfulness
And make us sages with transfigured faces.