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Yes, I've read the bill. It stinks.

We must respond with love to the fear that drives the debate about immigration.
By James Ishmael Ford
6.1.10

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Unitarian Universalist ministers gather in Arizona

Unitarian Universalist ministers gathered in Arizona May 29 and 30 to march with approximately 50,000 opponents of the state's strict new anti-immigration law. 500 Unitarian Universalists joined the march May 29, many wearing "Standing on the Side of Love" T-shirts or carrying signs and banners with the slogan. (©Standing on the Side of Love/UUA)

Whatever else may be true about the questions of illegal immigration to our country, there is one aspect that most compels me to stand with those who have taken the dangerous and illegal initiative to come to this country. And that is this: They see us as the golden door, the bright light of possibility, the city on the hill that our religious ancestors dreamed of being. They are the American dream. I’m particularly drawn to the poor who long to come here. I have no doubt that ocean of longing is for themselves, but even more it is for their children, who they dream will be Americans.

I’m not saying there aren’t problems that must be addressed. But both the American dream and our own liberal faith call us to stand with these people and to help to find the way through for all of us.

Let me illustrate the actual face of illegal immigration. In November 2007, Manuel Jesus Cordova Soberanes crossed that most dangerous and unforgiving border in Arizona in search of work, for a chance to lift his family out of grinding poverty. A bricklayer, he believed he could get work in Tucson. It was evening and the desert heat was turning bitter cold. He had been walking for two days and was some fifty miles from the city when he came across a van that had crashed off a cliff alongside a forest service road. Dawn Tomko, the driver, was dead. Her nine-year-old child, Christopher, however, was still alive. Manuel pulled him out of the wreck, took the worn sweater off his back, covered the boy, and then built a fire—something he had not dared to do before for fear of discovery, something he now desperately wanted. The man and the boy huddled through the night. The next day Manuel waved down some hunters who called for help. The day after that he was deported back to Mexico.

Under Senate Bill 1070, Arizona’s harsh anti-immigrant law, he would have been charged as a criminal for not having documents. A jail sentence is mandatory.

Fear is the common denominator

Fear has been the common denominator of the immigrant debate. The American-born are afraid of many things: threats to jobs, the drain on social services, national security, what feels like the disintegration of the Mexican nation, and certainly the drug wars, which to date have only barely tumbled across the border, but loom large in the imagination, particularly for those near the border. For the immigrants, fear of discovery and deportation, or having some members of their families deported while others remain. Or many things even worse. Fear runs deep.

Last weekend, I flew back to Arizona, where I had served as a minister in the late nineties, to protest that law. I heard stories of families torn apart, of children weeping for their mothers handcuffed and driven away. I heard stories of desperation, but I also heard stories of hope. I saw their faces. I heard their voices. They reached out and grabbed my heart.

We’ve always been a nation of immigrants. And we’ve always been uncomfortable with it. Benjamin Franklin was deeply worried about German immigration. When their turn came, my Irish ancestors were objects of fear and loathing. Later people worried about and tried to stop Italians, Jews, Middle Easterners, Asians, and now Hispanic immigrants. We’re a nation built upon change. And we tend not to like it.

Today, in addition to the fear that immigrants, and particularly undocumented immigrants, take jobs and drain strapped public service budgets, there are those worries about drug trafficking. Many are particularly fearful of the impact of Mexico’s raging drug wars, human smugglers, gang violence, and identity theft. There is also a concern, sometimes whispered and sometimes expressed full-throated, about color and language and the changing face of America.

Pick your concern. There are plenty of options. Me, I’m worried about what happens to people in this country living without documentation, particularly those with the least formal education. They are subject to terrible exploitation, trafficking, and violence, while working hard and trying to do something for families living in terrible conditions in their native countries.

So, what to do? Well, that part just isn’t clear. In response to that lack of clarity, Arizona has been caught up with a terrible law that criminalizes being here without documents. It imposes mandatory jail time for not having documents, and charges local police officers to pursue if they have a “reasonable suspicion” that an individual has no documents. There has been a lot of attention given to how to keep this “reasonable suspicion” from being racial profiling. But, frankly, no matter how much lipstick is slathered on that pig, it is racial profiling.

A sea of people demonstrating

Right after the Arizona legislature passed SB 1070, a protest demonstration was organized for Saturday, May 29. The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Phoenix, the Standing on the Side of Love campaign, and the Unitarian Universalist Association called upon UUs from around the country to join in to protest the law and promote comprehensive immigration reform. Five hundred of us responded. Buses from all over the West brought members from many congregations. Individuals drove and flew in from around the country.

On Friday evening, May 28, several hundred UUs gathered at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Phoenix to discuss the march on Saturday. Possibly fifty clergy were present; another dozen were still on their way. We were treated to a lovely potluck dinner before the program, visiting with old friends and new.

On Saturday morning, I joined what would quickly become somewhere in the neighborhood of fifty thousand people, a sea of people demonstrating against the cruelty of SB 1070 and calling for federal immigration reform. We UUs tried to gather together. The Rev. Walt Wieder, minister of the UU Church of Surprise, Arizona, brought a huge red balloon, which floated about twenty feet in the air. Getting UUs together is a formidable task, but most of us, including UUA Moderator Gini Courter and UUA President Peter Morales, found our way to the general vicinity of the balloon. We marched and sang and prayed. The line “si se puede,” “yes we can,” echoed across the throng.

And slowly we made our way to the capitol. Among the many placards and signs one particularly caught my eye. It was handmade and carried by an elderly woman. It simply read “the face of an illegal immigrant.” Beneath were pasted photographs of a brown-faced U.S. Marine. I wondered, was this her child? Was he okay? So many stories wound together on that march, their stories, our stories.

Led by Valley Unitarian Universalist Church’s director of music ministries, Kellie Walker, we UUs sang “Standing on the Side of Love.” Our fellow marchers quickly joined in the chorus. I felt optimism. I felt hope. For me the experience of this march—of seeing all these people who fled terrible things for a chance at the American dream, of seeing who they were, of who they are—confirmed for me they are the people we need to embrace.

We are already intertwined in ways that can never be unraveled. The questions are really only these: How do we bring love to the mix? How do we find ourselves looking at the immigrant and know we are looking at ourselves, at our best selves, as dreamers of a dream of possibility?

I saw the children who were such a central part of the demonstration and how they took it, and I saw how we can do it. It’s easy enough. Look bigger than the fear. Don’t constrict, look wide. Remember that Marine serving a country that could in a heartbeat deport his mother. And remember how a child takes in a great demonstration. Be curious, be wide-eyed. Be heartful.

Choose to stand on the side of love.


Adapted in part from the sermon “What Part of Illegal Don’t You Understand?” delivered at Bell Street Chapel in Providence, Rhode Island, May 30, 2010.

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