How Nuns On The Bus Get It Wrong On Immigration Reform

Serrano, Sin Título, with dog 1

Border Wall, by Guadalupe Serrano. Used with permission.

Like Sr. Simone Campbell I am a clergy woman. I also am a full time advocate for illegal immigrants, guest workers in the US legally with an H2 visa, and domestic labor. She is a lawyer; I am a historian. I am a film maker whose migrant justice documentary, The Second Cooler, narrated by Martin Sheen, has won awards on the festival circuit. I have won awards for humanitarianism. Sr. Campbell has been praised by Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart, and Bill Moyers and has become the subject of a documentary in the making, Nuns on the Bus, directed by Sundance Award-winning film maker, Mellisa Regan.

It would appear we have much in common. In fact, we are miles apart when it comes to both a starting point for and an analysis of immigration reform. Sr. Simone promotes S. 744, the so-called Comprehensive Immigration Reform bill which passed in the Senate but failed in the House last year [2013]. I vehemently oppose it.

The Wall, Sasabe, fence and barrier

Photo by Bill Schweikert for the Huntsville Immigration Initiative, LLC. As seen in The Second Cooler.

Her vocational starting point appears to be that clergy people must negotiate with power and accept the parameters established by military contractors, corporate employers, the for-profit prison industry, big, well-funded activist groups, and confused politicians. My starting point is that clergy must tell truth to power. We must say “No!” to Caesar and the national security state, not become apologists for them.

More importantly, Sr. Simone does not appear to understand the content of the bill. It is in no way a good bill stymied by Republicans on the wrong side of history. It is far from being a bill which would offer immigrants a reasonable “path to citizenship” or stop deportations. This is, however, precisely the message she conveys. As the subtitle of her article which appeared in on May 9 puts it, “Because Congress has failed to pass immigration reform, mothers will be separated from their children throughout America this Mother’s Day.”

Aizeki, Prohibido cruzar la linea

Photo by Mizue Aizeki. Used with permission.

Reality is that the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act would, if passed, make a bad situation much worse. It calls for further militarization of the US / MEX border which inevitably will put more pressure on border communities, environmental systems, and migrants. Deaths will increase. It will expand the consignment of poor foreign workers to indentured servitude by expanding the inherently abusive and highly exploitive Guest Worker program, a program which has been condemned by the Southern Poverty Law Center as being “Close to Slavery.” The program inevitably will work to the advantage of employers and to the disadvantage of domestic and foreign laborers.

Militarization and guest worker visas are not incidentals hovering around the edges of a “pathway to citizenship” bill. They are the keystones of the bill. Deportation? Not even addressed in the bill which should surprise no one since the GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America, the two powerful for-profit prison corporations which have contracts with the Federal government to fill their beds with immigration detainees are helping pay for the bill. And that “path to citizenship?” To the degree that it exists at all, it is a punitive, 13 year long path which cannot be begun until after the border is fully militarized and it is so filled with fees and exceptions that those who live long enough to start out on the path will never make it to the end. Surely, even those inured to the rough and tumble of politics should agree that it is a poor exchange for other people’s lives and other people’s servitude.

The Wall, Crosses 30

Border Wall art installation, by No More Deaths.

When I wrote Sr. Simone a letter last July [2013] encouraging her to reconsider her position on S. 744 she replied, “if you have a magic wand, please use it.” I have no magic wand.

What I do have is an ability to speak truth to power and propose justice alternatives. Instead of expanding militarization and increasing migrant deaths, we should de-militarize the border. We should create a visa allowing poor people without significant amounts of money and title to land to come to the US legally. We should abolish the Guest Worker visa. We should immediately confer a legal status on those without it. We should halt deportations altogether until they can be detached from the Department of Homeland Security and the for-profit prison system. We can support a good alternative to S. 744 which already exists, the American Families United Act, HR 3431.

In other words, we clergy can insist on justice not deals.

This article originally appeared in The God Article, with Mark Sandlin on on May 19, 2014.

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