Facts not Fear: Re-thinking the Immigration “Problem”

Two weeks ago, NBC 7/39 San Diego interviewed me for a segment they were running on the Judge Bolton’s decision to put a hold on the most controversial pieces of the Arizona’s SB1040 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8k7raR4M8IY). During the course of the interview (most of which was left on the cutting room floor), the reporter says, “clearly, there’s an immigration problem and reform is called for.  What reforms do you think should go in place and how do we do it?”  Talk about a loaded question.

I’ve let this question roll around in my mind –wondering how I could elaborate on what was my rather straight forward, media byte answer to the question. My answer then was, “I want us to lead with facts not fear.”  When I explained, I said that “the reality about immigration policy today is that public perception does not align with the realities of what’s happening at the US/Mexico border”.  At length (translation: not in media friendly clips) I explained at length that during the Obama Administration we’ve witnessed greater numbers of detentions and deportations then the Bush Administration[i]. According to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University,

“Just released figures from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), however, show that during the first nine months of FY 2010, 279,035 non-U.S. citizens were removed* from the country as a result of ICE enforcement. This number is ten (10) percent more than the same period during FY 2008 — the last fiscal year of the Bush administration. This represents almost a doubling of the rate of removals that have taken place during the past five years (http://trac.syr.edu/immigration/reports/234/).

In fact, according to statistics provided by Homeland Security, estimates show that there are far fewer undocumented immigrants in the United States now then pre- 9/11[ii] In addition, immigrants are witnessing prolonged waits to become legal permanent residents and naturalized citizens. In a memo dated, August 20th 2010, ICE Director John Morton noted, that currently“17,000 illegal immigrants who are detained have pending applications for legal status with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, ICE’s sister agency within the Department of Homeland Security.“ It is unclear whether or not these individuals will be deported.  Clearly, these issues are complex.   Faced with dire economic situations in their home countries that caused in no small part by the United States and the signing of unbalanced Fair Trade bills, most individuals must do whatever it takes to keep their family healthy and alive.   Part of the ‘problem’ is that our immigration system does not provide a timely legal option for immigration.

 I realize now that the reasons I have not been able to let go of the question are the assumptions that served as the lynchpin of the question. What exactly is “the problem?”  Media and opponents of immigration reform point to statistics, rates, and the economy as rationales for restricting immigration to the United States.  The problem, in this configuration, looks at immigration as a deficit without looking at the sum total of the benefits that migration brings.  It seems then, that ‘the problem’ needs  revisiting. Instead of simply looking at border crossing –one must look at the reasons leading to the need to migrate.  Awhile undocumented immigration continues, and the number of individuals who are out of status grows, it’s equally important to look at the ways that the United States and its domestic and international policies have created humanitarian emergencies in countries around the globe.  Free trade agreements like NAFTA have collapsed the economic infrastructure in countries such as Mexico –driving farmers, small business owners, and numerous other organizations out of business. While a handful of businesses have prospered, many more people have been left destitute with families to feed and support.  In the face of such dire circumstances, is it any wonder that people would migrate to help their families survive?  Current immigration policy has made it near impossible for immigration to cross seasonally to work and then return home as they once used to.  The reality is that companies in the United States still need labor and actively recruit their labor force from outside the country and, in fact, support undocumented migration to the United States.  Companies such as Tyson chicken move factories to ‘Right to Work’ states, and have supported active campaigns encouraging undocumented workers to labor in their factories.    Pundits point to the continued proliferation of violence at the border as a persistent problem, but most fail to point out the lack of a humane deportation policy.  For those of you who have ever stood on the border fence at the US/Mexico border in Tijuana and watched ICE deport individuals back to Mexico –you quickly realize that these individuals have nothing but what they were wearing and had in their pockets during the raid.  Imagine if we simply allowed people to collect a few supplies or have families bring them money before they were deported –the desperate situations we see rising in border towns might be slightly abated.  Finally, when we think about ‘problems’ related to immigration, few people look at the staggering amount of time it takes to become naturalized in this country, or the years it takes for families to be reunified legally.  Imagine not seeing your son or daughter, sister or brother, and mom or dad for upwards of a decade.  The types of desperation both mental and physical are hard to imagine.

So what is the real “immigration problem?”  Perhaps it’s’ simply that as a society, we’re losing sight of that which makes us unique –humanity and compassion.  The world can be a better place if we let these two qualities instead of unfettered capitalism inform our foreign and domestic policy.

[i]Deportations rise under Obama;  More illegal immigrants expelled than in Bush years;
Emphasis being placed on convicted criminals”
Destefano, Anthony. Newsday. August 10, 2010 .  And http://trac.syr.edu/immigration/reports/234/

[ii]The Border Closes: Immigration” The Economist. December 20th, 2008.  And “The Real Numbers on Illegal Immigration” by: William Finnegan. The New Yorker

A Question of Faith

Some of you already know that I describe myself as a spiritual person that does not subscribe to any one faith tradition. Growing up, I was exposed to numerous forms of organized religion. I attended a Presbyterian nursery school and frequented that same church when I was in junior high. My father is a baptized Southern Baptist, and my maternal grandparents practiced Buddhism. During my teenage years, I had my flirtations with a few different forms of Christian churches –none of which took a particular hold on my life. During college and graduate school, I learned about the Muslim and Jewish faith traditions through readings and exposure to the faith practices of friends. Of course, the greatest religious influence in my life was Catholicism. I attended to Catholic School for 9 years (St. Gabriel School in San Francisco) and my bonus family –The Purcells were practicing Irish Catholics –which meant that from the age of 6 until I left home at 18, Catholicism was a regular presence in my life. Today, I am a professor at a Catholic University. My reasons for not getting baptized into any one faith tradition are deeply personal and political, so much so that I won’t share them here. However, the knowledge that I’ve gained form learning and experiencing diverse forms of religious faith traditions is that the common ground that links all of them together is love –love of community, the world around us, and the environment. Each religion, in my mind, asks us to practice that love in different ways –all with the ultimate goal of making the world a better place.

I was reminded of the love ethic that should inform our lives earlier this week, when I attended the annual opening mass for the Residential Life team. This small intimate ceremony is held in the courtyard adjacent to my apartment building and serves as a time for the staff to come together and reflect on the journey ahead of us during the academic year. Father Mike, our amazing University Chaplain, reminded us of this in his homily. He said, “God’s will. What is God’s will? So often we hear people say ‘God’s will’ as a rationale for any number of things –for violence, conducting war, or as a rationale for why one group is better than another. Is this really God’s will?” He reminded those assembled that today, on the day of Mary’s Assumption into heaven, that she was a woman of faith, belief, and hope. Faith is difficult because we must continue to believe even when the outcome is unknown. Father Mike challenged us to think of God’s will as the qualities that connect us, that rather than using those words as a rationale for violence or war, that instead we should see God’s will as a call to community and a reason to connect with others around us. He reminded us that as we move forward this academic year, that we should guide our action with a sense of brotherhood and sisterhood –and a faith and belief that we can be a stronger community by working to make the world a better and more just place.
After listening to the political pundits and various ‘activists’ talk about their opposition to a mosque being built at ground zero (which is factually incorrect, the location is two blocks away) I find myself both mystified and offended by the racialized forms of religious intolerance. If religion at its core, is about loving thy neighbor –the real question is, “Where is the Love?”
The reality is that every religious order (Christianity included) has its form of fundamentalism that strays greatly from the teachings and tenets of the majority of faith practitioners. There is an estimated 2 billion Christians in the world, of which violent Christian fundamentalists make up an infinitesimal percentage. By extension to believe that ALL 1.3 billion practitioners of Islam are violent terrorist is simply ludicrous. The women and men who died in the World Trade towers on 9/11 were of all nationalities and faiths. The center itself was built on the graves of former African Slaves –some of which practiced Islam (http://motherjones.com/mojo/2010/08/ground-zero-was-built-graves-slaves).  Ground Zero and the entirety of lower Manhattan is sacred ground. The irony is that we choose to acknowledge some histories, while ignoring others in an effort to promote forms of intolerance. Freedom of religion is a RIGHT in the United States. It’s time that we look beyond our prejudices and fears and practice acceptance and love regardless of our faith traditions. It seems to me that by educating ourselves on the diversity of faiths present here in the United States and globally, that we can find the common ground that connects us as opposed to focusing on what divides and separates us.