The Call to Phoenix

The Rev. Joshua Mason Pawelek –

I want to address immigration in the United States, and I want to do so looking through the lens of my experience in Phoenix last week. I begin with a confession. I confess I am, at times, conflicted and even confused about immigration. In terms of fixing the brokenness in our immigration system and addressing the fact that between twelve and twenty million undocumented people currently live in the US, I think I know from a policy perspective what potential fixes are most realistic and most humane. I think I know from a legal perspective what potential fixes are most realistic and most humane. I think I understand the larger economic conditions that drive immigration to the United States. I think I understand the economic impact of undocumented workers on local economies and on the local, legal workforce. I think I have a fairly sophisticated analysis of immigration, and yet every time I express what I think and then have the opportunity to hear what other people think—and I’ve had that opportunity quite a bit over the last month—I realize there are many pieces of the immigration puzzle I have not yet put into place, many facets of the conversation about which I remain unaware. I realize that, relative to undocumented people, standards in law enforcement, hiring, healthcare and education vary radically from state to state and even from town to town. No wonder there is confusion. No wonder people gravitate to the simplest sound bites. No wonder people, myself included, seem to be talking past each other, rather than to each other in this debate.

An example: one person might convincingly describe the federal government’s failure to enforce existing immigration law as criminal. Another might say, “Wait a minute. Federal law is being enforced. The rate of deportations under President Obama is running at or higher than under the Bush administration.”

The first speaker might then say, “But there are still millions of illegal immigrants in this nation. How can you say the laws are being enforced?”

The second speaker might say, “It is not a crime to be in the country without documentation. It is a ‘civil violation,’ perhaps akin to a parking violation, but not a crime for which you can be arrested. Arizona’s SB 1070 law made it a crime to be in the state without documentation. It overstepped the traditional limits of state authority.”

“The Federal District Court struck that down, so why are you complaining?”

“The Maricopa County Sheriff is still conducting raids on Hispanic communities under the federal 287(g) program. Hispanic communities throughout the Phoenix area are still being harassed and unfairly targeted.

“Only if they’ve committed a crime.”

“That’s not clear. There are many examples of police harassing people for no apparent reason other than that they look Mexican. You can find videos on the web that show police stopping and questioning people who haven’t committed crimes. Then they turn them over to federal authorities because they aren’t carrying documents. That’s unreasonable search and seizure. It’s unconstitutional.”

“They crossed the border illegally. They aren’t citizens. They have no rights.”

“The 14th Amendment says that no state shall deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

“If I were visiting or working in any other country in the world, I would carry my documents and I would expect to present them to the authorities if asked.”

“Some of those being detained are U.S. citizens! They’re being targeted based on the way they look and the way they talk.”

“If they’re citizens, they’ll be OK.”

“What part of unconstitutional don’t you understand?”

“What part of illegal don’t you understand?”

And so it goes. The conflict over immigration is immense. The confusion is immense. I’m not sure any of us escape that conflict and confusion completely. There is, however, one aspect of this debate about which I am neither conflicted nor confused. When the call came from Puente —Arizona’s grassroots immigrants’ rights organization—for clergy and other concerned citizens to come to Arizona to participate in what they called the “National Day of Non-Compliance,” this is the reason I went. No matter what the law is, immigrants, regardless of their legal status, are human beings and ought to be treated with dignity and compassion. In making this claim I am firmly grounded in Unitarian Universalism’s first and second principles, “the inherent worth and dignity of every person” and “justice, equity and compassion in human relations.” Those of you who read my Op Ed in the July 25th Hartford Courant might remember that I also appealed to a passage from the Book of Leviticus that says: “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be as a citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were once aliens in the land of Egypt.” The point of this appeal was not to suggest that we just open the borders to anyone who wants to come. The point was to remind readers that this ancient ethical ideal—the Golden Rule, the Great Commandment, the heart of Torah—makes no exceptions. It applies to immigrants too. And that is the central message Unitarian Universalists and other people of faith brought to Arizona for the National Day of Non-Compliance. I joined about 150 other UUs from across Arizona and across the country who feel that not only were many of the provisions in SB1070 immoral, inhumane and quite possibly unconstitutional, but that current immigration law enforcement practices—particularly those of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Department which include racial profiling, unreasonable search and seizure, and cruel and unusual punishment—are also immoral, inhumane and quite possibly unconstitutional. I concede there is gray area here. Who decides what constitutes racial profiling, unreasonable search and seizure and cruel and unusual punishment? Well, that’s what much of the debate is about in Arizona. But when we were in Phoenix, the fear and the anger among Hispanic people—documented and undocumented—over how the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Department is treating their communities, were palpable and raw. Their list of grievances is enormous. The stories of spouses being separated from one another and not knowing what has happened, parents being separated from children and not knowing what has happened—these stories are omnipresent and heartbreaking. These communities feel they are under siege, living in what looks like a police state that has divorced itself from its democratic foundations.

I have a basis for comparison. I had the privilege of traveling to Poland in 1984 and Northern Ireland in 1990. Both countries at those times required a massive police and military presence to maintain public order. Both trips were frightening. Though as a U.S. tourist I never felt I was in any real danger, the people I visited in both countries lived with deep sadness and the constant threat of police brutality. Once I saw it with my own eyes I understood: that’s what Phoenix feels like to its Hispanic residents. Spending time in Poland and Northern Ireland underscored for me the blessings of living in the U.S., the blessings of our civil liberties, the blessings of our democratic political system. It is shameful that an American city can visit such blatant state-sponsored oppression upon its own residents.

Twenty-eight Unitarian Universalists, many of them ministers, including the president of our denomination, the Rev. Peter Morales, were among more than eighty people who were arrested for civil disobedience during two days of non-violent protests. The demonstrations were highly organized. All of us received training—either in how to conduct civil disobedience or how to support those who were being arrested. Those who broke the law on July 29th participated in three different actions that, for about six hours, shut down the Sheriff’s office at the Wells Fargo building and his downtown jail on 4th Avenue. The actions prevented the Sheriff from conducting his planned neighborhood sweeps which he announced would happen whether SB 1070 was upheld or not. On Friday, July 30th, a fourth action blocked the entrance to the Sheriff’s infamous Tent City jail on Durango St. in Phoenix and prevented further community sweeps.

The Unitarian Universalist presence in Phoenix was highly visible. We wore bright, yellow-orange t-shirts and carried bright, yellow-orange signs which read “Standing on the Side of Love with Immigrant Families.” Standing on the Side of Love has become a “brand” for Unitarian Universalists engaged in certain kinds of social justice work. Our offices in Washington, DC house the Standing on the Side of Love Campaign which has been focused primarily on immigration reform and gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender civil rights. The shirts and signs made an impact. One of the first people to take an arrest was Mar Cardenas, a UU from San Diego. There she was the next morning, on the front page of the Arizona Republican, wearing her Standing on the Side of Love t-shirt and grimacing in pain as officers jammed her arms behind her back to handcuff her.

It was touching how often local Hispanic people and members of the Spanish-language media kept thanking us for being there. Most of us were white, and we kept hearing how important it is to have Anglos present for actions like this, to have Anglos as allies who understand what they are going through and care enough to stand with them. People told me in broken English how good it felt to know they weren’t alone in their struggle anymore. Locals started referring to the UUs first as “the yellow shirt people” and then as the “love people.” And after two days, it seemed that everyone was carrying a Standing on the Side of Love sign, or wearing a bright, yellow-orange t-shirt.

Although there were moments when we UUs got caught up in our own publicity, we always knew this is not about yellow-orange t-shirts or Unitarian Universalists. It is about love. President Morales spoke constantly about love to the media. He referred to the struggle for the soul of the nation. Will we be a country that fears and resists its multicultural future, that pushes the limits of the Constitution in order to prevent immigrants form leading dignified lives? Or will we be a country that figures out how to lovingly and compassionately embrace those who wish to live and work here in peace?

Our nation needs immigration reform desperately. While President Obama admits the federal government’s negligence in its failure to overhaul the immigration system, he also says he doesn’t have the votes to pass immigration reform right now. This is tragic, as peoples’ lives hang in the balance—and not just immigrant lives. I think there is a credible argument to be made that the presence of so many undocumented workers erodes the viability of the American middle class. Small businesses that want to obey the law and only hire citizens often can’t compete with similar businesses that hire undocumented workers and pay them far below the minimum wage. Law abiding businesses can’t compete against those engaged in the exploitation of immigrant labor. In such situations, the dignity of workers and the dignity of work suffer. We need to stand on the side of love when it comes to protecting the dignity of all American workers.

Federal immigration reform, when it comes, should not focus on making life miserable for undocumented people and the communities where they live, as was the case with Arizona’s SB 1070. We cannot deport our way out of this situation. Federal reform, in my view, needs to focus on work. It needs to make all work visible so that it is fully taxable; so that workers can organize and engage in collective bargaining to keep wages as strong as possible; so that honest companies aren’t forced to compete with companies who engage in exploitation. Some are calling for federal amnesty. Others say that’s too lenient, but perhaps there’s a way for undocumented people to earn their legalization and get on a path to citizenship. Whatever structure the government adopts, this massive population of undocumented people needs to come “out of the shadows,” as one person put it in Phoenix. As long as they remain hidden, the quality of all our lives is at stake. The United States can achieve immigration reform. But let us achieve it in a manner that respects the integrity of undocumented people and honors their contributions to our society. Let us achieve it in a way that doesn’t tear parents from their children in the dead of night. Let us achieve it in a way that doesn’t criminalize whole communities based on skin color, language and accent. Let us achieve it in a way that recognizes, as the Rev. Susan Frederick Gray said minutes before her arrest at the Fourth Ave. jail on July 29th, “Love is where our future is. Not fear. And not hate.”

Amen and Blessed Be.


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For the text of SB 1070 check out:

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Check out: Pay attention to the news report embedded
in the first few minutes of this video.

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Leviticus: 19: 33-34.

To hear one such story from a family in the UU Church of Phoenix, check out:

The Ruckus Society of Oakland, CA provided training for non-violent civil disobedience in Phoenix during the National Day of Non-compliance. Check out:

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