“Report from the Front Lines of the Immigration Crisis”

“Report from the Front Lines of the Immigration Crisis”
A Sermon by Rev. John Gibbons
Delivered on December 6, 2015



A Thought to Ponder at the Beginning:

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light,
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.

—Wendell Berry


The Sermon

So we’re all greened up and muralled and over there is an Advent wreath, and up there are those homeless Nativity migrants inching forward along that ledge, and our first song acknowledged that Hannukkah begins tomorrow and there’s a menorah, and we’ve cheered our civilly disobedient and defiant climate justice activists, and now…let’s hear about the immigration crisis!  You know, there is just no mistaking that this is a Unitarian Universalist church!

You’re hearing about immigration today because this is a sermon that went unpreached last month when a very good homily by Josh went a little long (Josh being a good disciple of the John Gibbons’ What-Me-Worry-About-Time School of Windbaggery and Pontification!)  As your cover indicates, this is Take Two.

And so it was three weeks ago that I returned from a week on the Arizona/Mexico border with a delegation of UU ministers and seminarians.  We participated in an intensive immersion experience on issues of immigration, sponsored by the UU College of Social Justice, a joint effort of the UUA and UUSC.   Over the years, First Parish has offered parishioners diverse opportunities to encounter the world – Unitarians in Transylvania and India, peacebuilders in Israel and Palestine, environmental activists in Haiti, civil rights tours of the South as well as diverse domestic opportunities.  Just this week our Partner Church Committee made plans for a biennial pilgrimage to Transylvania next August, to coincide with a youth pilgrimage for which we hope to recruit five high school youth from this congregation.  I am hopeful as well that more of us will enroll in the College of Social Justice which sponsors regular immersion experiences to the border, and also to Washington State where they engage with indigenous members of the Lummi Nation, to Haiti and to Guatemala.

Internationalism is one of the most important expressions of patriotism, and we owe it to one another and, especially to our youth to expand our horizons.

Last month, Josh framed migration and immigration as a global and eternal – not a new – phenomena, but a phenomena made more acute and urgent by war, and climate change, and economic dislocation, disruptions too often exacerbated by the actions of our own government.

At first, immigration may seem like something distant but it is not.  There are today 12 million undocumented immigrants in this country; 4% of our population; 16.1% of our labor force.  It is important, by the way, to note that one’s immigration status is a social construct and not an identity; and thus no one is an “illegal alien” but many are undocumented.

And who are the undocumented?  Well, there’s a high probability they were some of the men who not long ago painted this sanctuary; the ones who refinished the floor I’m standing on; those who laid this carpet; the plumber’s helpers who were here recently; the janitors who perhaps clean your offices; the maids and housekeepers in our hotels and homes; the people who cook and wait on us in every fast food restaurant along this Great Road; the landscapers who tend our lawns; the manicurists and nannies; and – I’m pretty sure – the man who this morning delivered to my home my daily newspapers.  Our standard of living, in other words, is utterly dependent on a vast workforce of low-wage and often undocumented workers. One of the largest raids on undocumented workers took place a few years ago here in Massachusetts.  A few years ago, one of our parishioners was roused from her bed in the middle of the night by ICE (immigration control and enforcement) agents and threatened with deportation.

Well, why don’t these people just follow the rules, you ask?  Immigration rules are an ever-changing obscure maze and nightmare.  If a Mexican has a brother or sister who is a citizen of the US, for example, the official waiting time is 18 years.  US immigration law still significantly favors Europeans.  Oh, a Mexican with $500,000 can come here, no problem.  But a campesino cannot.  Period.  In much the same way as white privilege blinds so many of us to racism, we Americans come and go around the world pretty much as we please, a privilege we do not reciprocate to others.

Revelation, opening our eyes to that which is right under our noses, is one of the things that religion is all about and if there is a word that rings in my ears it is the word intersectionality – for we live at the intersection of justice issues of race, class, poverty, homelessness, climate change, and immigration: I’m coming to see that they’re all related.  We have, in large measure, criminalized black and brown and poor and homeless people; we assault the environment with impunity; and instead of welcoming the wretched refuse of our teeming shore, we lift not our lamp but bring down our gavel so as to send the homeless and tempest-tossed behind – not the golden door – but the steel-gray doors of our prison-industrial complex.

The day after I arrived in Tucson, 16 of us hiked in the nearby Sonoran desert.  (The cover of your order of service is a photo I took that day).  In the desert heat, we stood in prayer at places where lately the dead bodies of migrants have been found.  Each day, more than four hundred migrants cross the Arizona border (that’s down from 12-1500 per day). They are seeking work; they are escaping wars and gangs and drug cartels that US interventions in Central America have exacerbated; they are escaping starvation that, as a result of NAFTA, has devastated agricultural production in southern Mexico.  Thousands die and thus far this year, 139 bodies have been found in the desert and who knows how many more are never found, desconocido, unknown.

Our guide in the desert was a craggy Anglo writer named Ed Lord whose comfortable retirement home is at the desert’s edge.  One day some years ago there was a knock at his window and two migrants appeared, lost, thirsty, and desperate. Ed and his wife did what they could to help.  Now, while many of their fellow retirees spend their time on the golf course or drinking in the clubhouse, Ed and his wife – along with many people of all ages and all political stripes – provide humanitarian aid: they put jugs of water out in the desert, they seek lost and imperiled migrants, and they pick up what the migrants, living and dead, leave behind. On his kitchen counter, Ed laid before us a collection of abandoned clothes, baby shoes and shoes with worn-out soles, prayer cards, bibles, rosaries, and beautiful embroideries, sometimes found with tortillas folded within them…the kinds of things that people carry when they know they may not return to their own homes for years or for ever.

Leaving one’s home is not a capricious thing, not an attempt to evade the law.  Like leaving a burning house, it is itself an act of desperation.

At the most basic, current immigration policies cause untold deaths and suffering.  No Mas Muertes – No More Deaths- is one of the ministries of the UU Church of Tucson.  New white socks are one of the things they’re always in need of; and starting today you’re welcome to bring socks to church which I will send to No Mas Muertes .

On our second day, we crossed the border to Nogales, Mexico.  Especially since 9/11, the border has been militarized, bristling with checkpoints, guard towers, surveillance drones, helicopters, ATV and border patrol and for many miles there is an imposing high-tech wall (built, you should know, by the same Israeli company that built the wall that isolates the West Bank). Spray-painted across the wall is “Chinga la migra!”  (“—- the border patrol!”).  All across the borderlands, military contractors are making a fortune, and a killing.

The wall, however, has not stemmed border-crossings. “Show me a 50 foot wall,” Janet Napolitano once said, “and I’ll show you a 51 foot ladder.” The US/Mexico border extends for 2000 miles; the wall extends only for 344 miles…thus it is intended to divert migrants from more-accessible crossing-points to less-accessible, more remote and more deadly trails through the desert.  There, in temperatures as high as 120 degrees and as cold as freezing, amidst rattlesnakes and vultures, cacti and jumping cholla, migrants are regularly subject to exploitation by corrupt coyote-guides, by robbers and drug-gangs.  Border-crossers risk their lives.  Whatever our policy may be, say the human rights activists, let’s stop the cruelty!  No mas muertes!  No more deaths!

Outside an aid station in Mexico, we met a man slumped in a chair.  Assuming he spoke no English, we addressed him in Spanish, only to discover his English was fluent.  Undocumented, he had lived 42 years in Arizona with his wife and college-age daughters. Arrested for a minor violation, he was deported to Mexico where now his chances of reunification with his family are slim.  (He wore a Patriots hat and professed his loyalty to the Red Sox.)  He asked us to pray with him, and we do for what else could we do?  We can have policies that reunite families and stop the cruelty!

On another day, we visited the federal building in Tucson where we witnessed the bizarre courtroom proceeding known as Operation Streamline.  Picked up by the Border Patrol, as many as a hundred migrants – shackled at their wrists and ankles, still wearing the clothes they wore in the desert, limping and hobbled by blisters – are brought 6 or 8 at a time – before a magistrate who offers them a hasty plea deal: if they waive their rights, a felony charge is dismissed and instead they are sentenced to 30-180 days in prison, after which they will be deported. Despite Spanish translation and because some speak indigenous languages, many migrants utterly fail to comprehend what is happening until cajoled by their court-appointed easy-money-earning public defenders to give the right answers. “Yes or no, do you waive your rights?” the judge asks. Not understanding, they say “Culpable” (guilty).  “Are you guilty or innocent?” the judge asks.  “Si,” they say.

These are kangaroo courts – and there is something unethical and wrong with huddled masses of brown people being processed by play-acting judges and lawyers who shuffle them off to prison.  Across the borderlands (and across the country) there are now dozens of private prisons built by our taxes with the devil’s bargain that we agree to keep them fully occupied.  The borderlands reek of money made by the military/industrial/prison complex.

At court, we were accompanied by another retiree, a transplanted Salem State social work professor named Lois, who with a cadre of observers monitors these sorry proceedings daily.

Outside the court we gathered in a circle to sing and to pray, to seethe, to lament, and to hope.

Throughout the week, we met with heroic activists, educators, human rights attorneys, students, and retired people.  They work with migrants to learn English, advocate for their rights, get meaningful work, fight deportations, secure ID’s and drivers licenses, protest checkpoints and streamlining, lobby, reunite families, help the helpless and empower migrants in their courageous struggle for human dignity.

Again, these issues are not at all irrelevant to Massachusetts. Before our legislature is a Safe Driving bill to ensure that all drivers will be trained, licensed and insured – regardless of immigration status.  Our governor, however, is advocating for something different called a Real ID bill that adds “lawful status” to the list of requirements and excludes people who have applied for special visas given to the victims of certain crimes, such as human trafficking.  With other clergy, I’ll soon be meeting about this with our representative Ken Gordon, a member of the Transportation Committee.

I’ll end with one story about Ed Lord, our craggy retired guide in the desert.

Ed recalled being visited recently by an old friend who is now dying of pancreatic cancer.  Together they went out to the desert where they found migrants in distress.  The law lets people give humanitarian aid, food, water, medical care, but the law forbids that anyone should aid or abet border-crossers – no maps or rides.  The law threatens such accomplices with stiff fines and jail.  But this day all that one desperate exhausted migrant wanted was a ride to a nearby bus stop.  Ed hesitated but his sick friend said, “What the hell do I care, Ed?  I’m dying!”  And so they gave him a ride.  More civil disobedience by senior citizens, corrupting our youth!

In the desert with Ed, we visited the places where separately the bodies of a man, a woman, and a teenager were found.  Were they one family?  No one knows.  There are white crosses with the painted words “Presente” (“I am here.”) And “Desconocido” (“Unknown”).  There are flowers and the strewn remains of backpacks, a pair of sunglasses, ruined shoes, and in a jar we found notes left by mourners.

Gathered in a circle around the cross, we found this note left in the jar:

To Those Who Have Died in the Desert.

In memory of those who went to look for a better life, yet only encountered death;
In memory of those who risked everything and lost everything;
Of those who went with hope in their eyes and challenge in their souls

The sun burned them and the desert devoured them.  And the dust erased their names and faces.
In memory of those who never returned

We offer these flowers and say with the deepest respect

Your thirst is our thirst,
Your hunger is our hunger,
Your pain is our pain,

Your anguish, bitterness, and agony
Are also ours.
We are a cry for justice that no one would ever have to leave their land, their beliefs,
their dead,
their children,
their parents,
their family,
their roots,
their culture,
their identity.

From out of the silence comes a voice that speaks
So that no one will ever have to look for their dream in other lands,
So that no one would ever have to go to the desert and be consumed by loneliness.
A voice in the desert cries out

Education for all!
Opportunity for all!
Jobs for all!
Bread for all!
Freedom for all!
Justice for all!

We are a voice that will not be lost on the desert
That insists that the nation give equal opportunity to a dignified and fruitful life to all its children.
(Orthon Perez)

I have experienced a revelation.  Would that we all will also.  No more cruelty.  No mas muertes.  No more deaths.  Amen.  May it be so.


Closing Words

by Martin Luther King, Jr., read responsively

This is where we are.

Where do we go from here?

First, we must massively assert our dignity and worth.

We must stand up amidst a system that still oppresses
and develop an unassailable and majestic sense of values …

What is needed is a realization that power without love
is reckless and abusive,

and that love without power is sentimental and anemic.

Power at its best is love implementing
the demands of justice,

And justice at its best is power correcting everything
that stands against love.

And this is what we must see as we move on.