The Common Good

White Flag Warriors at the Border: Recognizing Humanity on All Sides of the Immigration Debate

100504-white-flag-warriors-flobotsAbout a year ago, when we were writing our song "White Flag Warrior," my friend (and fellow frontman) Stephen and I had quite a conversation. We talked about Leonard Cohen's song "Story of Isaac" and about Kierkegaard's multiple interpretations of Genesis 22, about Malcolm X challenging MLK Jr. for subjecting young schoolgirls to fire hoses and calling it "nonviolence," about Gandhi's criticisms of the Jewish uprising in Warsaw, about the physical dangers of peaceful protesting, about military recruitment, about street gangs, about past innovations in war and future innovations in peacemaking. We talked about a lot of things. But one thing we didn't talk about is immigration.

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And yet, in the past week, I've come to realize that the conversation about immigration is probably one of the best indications of why the idea of a White Flag Warrior is important.

Let me back up a little bit and explain.

A "White Flag Warrior," as we define it, is "An individual who is committed to recognizing and affirming the humanity of all people, even in the most dire of circumstances." I thought of this on Saturday as I marched up 6th street toward Armory Park in Tucson with a crowd of thousands of families holding signs that said "We are human" and "Ningun Ser Humano Es Illegal" ("No Human Being is Illegal"). The outrage at Arizona's SB 1070, and the movement for comprehensive immigration reform, stems directly from a commitment to our common humanity.

But if this is our motivation, what is fueling those on the other side? Is it simply a desire to negate the humanity of certain people who are culturally, linguistically, and officially different than Americans' collective self-perceived identity? Without a doubt, we can see considerable evidence of this in some of the rhetoric and subtext of those supporting stricter immigration policy. But when I looked across the street in Tucson from the park filled with thousands of May Day marchers at the 30 or so SB 1070 supporters, I also saw signs designed to deflect such charges, slogans like "Illegal is a crime, not a race." Even my most cynical side must admit there is also something more nuanced at work.

I often talk about immigration with one of my relatives (he and I tend to have the sorts of conversations that make our family seat us at opposite ends of the table on Thanksgiving). He likes to point to a quote by Michael Gelvin: "To love is to select: to love all is to love none; if everyone is my brother than no one is my brother..." As far as humanity is concerned, he seems to be saying, it's not that some people are less human, it's just that we have to draw the line somewhere. And what better place to draw the line than, say, the border?

My same relative has also said that, if he were on the other side of the border, he'd most likely cross it too. Even in his eyes, the "crime" of illegal immigration does not reflect some ethical flaw in the motivation of people who engage in it, but instead is a reflection of the necessity of drawing boundaries around whose stories we can and can't factor into our policy. "Yes, you are human," he might say, "but that is not our problem."

For people without undocumented friends and relatives, or workers unfamiliar with the effect NAFTA had on Mexico's economy, or for politicians seeking a basis for public policy, the convenience and simplicity of such a sound byte might make it an especially attractive position to take. But as hundreds of thousands of mayday marchers made clear, that does not make it right.

So what is right? What does a white flag warrior do at the border? This is where it gets challenging. Even "comprehensive immigration reform" calls for a further militarization of the border, something several of the march organizers and other activists in Tucson pointed to as a reason they could not support that strategy. Only 60 miles from Mexico, they talked to me about the bodies discovered in the desert with increasingly frequency, and how "strengthening border security" will only serve to increase the death toll. As an activist searching for something to rally behind, this was disheartening. Now which policy was I supposed to rally behind?

Being a White Flag Warrior means wrestling with questions like this. It means that if someone is doing what any of us would do, we can't designate them as a criminal. It means that fair and humane immigration policy must take seriously the real needs of all people to provide for their families. Most of all, it means recognizing an inconvenient truth: Everyone is your brother.

Now deal with it.

portrait-johnny-5Jonny 5 is an emcee with Flobots and a board member of Flobots.org. He lives in Denver, Colorado, and attends Capitol Heights Presbyterian Church.

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