Immigrants are a blessing, not a curse. They are assets, not deficits. I have learned this the hard way after seven years working with the New York City New Sanctuary Movement. We have accompanied 67 people on the verge of detention or deportation, and we have lost only three of them.
These people are restaurant owners — employers. Some run small high tech start-ups; others raise children on their own, grouping with other parents to take care of them. They live under the constant fear of disruption to their lives and constant trepidation about whether their children will be separated from them. Many have been picked up for small offenses, like traffic violations and gone to jail only to luckily be released. But they have still have shown resilient courage, that miracle of guts that keeps them going inside the constant fear and the constant harassment. Immigrants are spiritual and economic blessings, not curses. They are assets, not deficits.
In the New Sanctuary Movement, we choose to focus on a certain kind of immigrant, the one who has a family, the one under threat of detention or deportation. We have had some small victories: getting ICE out of Rikers so that people don’t have to sweat blood when they get traffic tickets.
We have also had large victories: keeping one man from being deported after he was detained during the Haitian crisis. Natural catastrophes in Haiti don’t seem to register with ICE. They still send people back to disaster-torn lands. The person we were able to save in extremis was on his way to Haiti after being here for dozens of years. A natural disaster intervened and we were able to interrupt his passage “home.” Because of this disruption of an unnatural, cursed, deficit-seeking process, he is still father to his four children and manager of his business.
We have also seen into the darkness of the immigration system, the way it double jeopardizes people who have done their time for previous offenses and now seeks to punish them again by detention or deportation. We have been forced to look into the stupidity of this system and see how one arm of the Federal Government, ICE, destroys the very economy that other parts are trying to build. Study after study shows that immigrants are the economic engines inside the great stagnation. Under President Barack Obama, as many immigrants have been deported as were deported under former President George W. Bush.
The question is: why? Why deport economic engines? Why deport people who show the rest of us how to have courage? Why deport people whose very difference from citizen Americans makes the stew we eat much more delicious as a nation?
Immigrants’ assets are not only spiritual and economic. They also provide the cultural diversity for which many of us still hope. They are part of the melting pot. Now it is time to melt the heart of this great nation and not just provide paths for citizenship, but do much more to welcome immigrants and say “thank you for coming.” We need not be just open, but welcoming to immigrants.
The news reports that ICE is releasing some detainees for “economic” reasons. They should be releasing detainees for moral reasons.
Don’t misunderstand me. I am not just arguing that we bring in the “good immigrants,” those who nurture our political and cultural economy. I am suggesting that we welcome all immigrants, and get over the fantasy that we citizen Americans are somehow all great people, never having sinned or committed a crime. That conceit leads to the unwelcome of people who are blessings. The “Host” imagines the guest inadequate when in fact it is the “Host” whose self-righteousness interferes with their own ability to be a blessing to the world.
The poem that follows shows another way we punish immigrants, by stealing from them and not protecting them. Mostly we punish with insults and name calling – illegal, undocumented, strangers, exiles – but we also punish with violence and force. We imitate the theft of the land from Native Americans, as though we were in a neurotic pattern of self-repetition. Your money must be mine. Your land must be mine. Why? Because I am obviously better than you: this is the darkest lie of all.
When citizen Americans wake up to how much we need the asset and blessing of immigrants, we will find our way to ourselves. Until then, we can count on walking wounded and going on to wound. There is no good reason for the way we treat immigrants. It is time to remember that we citizens are the strangers in the strange land – and that the only way we will find our way back home is to welcome others to our home.
The Walking ATM, a Meditation on an Immigrant
He worked easy 50 hours for the $300 in his pocket.
On his way home, on Friday night,
Tired but not exhausted,
The thieves chanted "Juanie, Juanie, Juanie,"
And then robbed him as if they had a right to his money.
And his name.
He had no cop, no wife, no country to call.
His children were waiting at the Western Union in Chiapas.
He trudged to the place he calls home, now exhausted
My country is the thief.
I am a part of the rip off.
First we steal dignity and them we take the money.
His name was Juan.
For a way to sing a strange song in a strange land, and not to care who is listening, I pray. Amen
Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper is Senior Minister at Judson Memorial Church in New York City.
Photo: Statue of Liberty, Joshua Haviv  / Shutterstock.com