Dear President Obama, Turn The Grief-Bearing Ship Around

The Wall, Sasabe, fence and barrier

 

In a different form, this article originally appeared in the Mobile Press Register, 2011. Altered, it appeared in Patheos.com, August 29, 2014.

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/faithforward/2014/08/an-open-letter-to-president-obama-and-members-of-the-united-state-congress-turn-the-grief-bearing-ship-around/

Dear President Obama and Members of Congress,

I am a Baptist Minister to the Community. My ministry focuses on the production of a migrant justice documentary, narrated by Martin Sheen, called The Second Cooler. I first felt called to make the documentary because I was heartbroken for the families, especially the mothers, whose children died under the blazing Arizona sun as they were trying to cross the heavily militarized border into the United States.

Through a terrible twist of fate, I joined them in grief.

On the night of April 17, 2009, my sixteen year old daughter, Leigh Anna, and her precious boyfriend were killed by a drunk driver in Huntsville. The car exploded on impact and Leigh Anna’s tiny body was consumed by flames. The driver was an undocumented migrant from Mexico.

My family and I lost a lot that night. A daughter, an only sister, a granddaughter, the son-in-law we might have had, grandchildren, an aunt, cousins. And on that fiery night we became one of the broken families with broken hearts and broken dreams.

One of my favorite memories of Leigh Anna was the day, about two years before her death, when she went with me to Athens. The Ku Klux Klan was holding an anti-immigrant protest. We went to participate in a counter-protest. I remember her holding a neon-yellow sign, as big as she was, that had one word written on it in big, black letters: LOVE.

I have my memories, but I grieve and I grieve and I grieve.

There is nothing special about my grief. It is no different from that of the young mother in Huntsville whose infant was suffocated by an anxious coyote in that treacherous southwestern desert. Or the grandparents of other children who have died of the brutal cold there, alone and scared. Or of the children whose fathers have been snatched from them and put into deportation. Or the mothers now making plans for someone else to take their children if they should be deported.

And I am reminded of Mary, prostrate with grief at the foot of her crucified son.

I am reminded that recklessness does not belong only to drunk drivers. Or to police officers engaged in high-speed chases.

Recklessness also belongs to the powers, princes, and potentates who wash their hands of the grieving people they accept as the collateral damage of their policies and programs. Who wash their hands of the broken families, broken hearts, and broken dreams.

And as I think long thoughts about Leigh Anna and that reckless night, I recall that I worship the God who said, “No!” to Pharaoh and his recklessness. The God who said, “No!” to Nebuchadnezzar and his recklessness. The God who said “No!” to Caesar and his recklessness.

I worship the God of the Exodus, the God of protection for those in fiery furnaces, the God of Resurrection. The God who takes sides with the broken families, broken hearts, and broken dreams. The God who defies expectations and delights in dramatic reversals.

I remember Saul on the road to Damascus who heard a voice saying, Saul, “Why do you persecute me?” And he encountered himself in that profound moment and Saul became Paul, announcing the reality of the God who had effected the dramatic reversal, the dramatic “No!” to Caesar, the dramatic Resurrection.

And I recall John Newton, steering his deadly ship filled with desperate, grieving human beings bound for slavery. And that in an unexpected moment John Newton encountered himself on that alien sea, encountered his own recklessness, turned around his ship with its cargo of broken families, broken hearts, and broken dreams unsold, and wrote those endlessly beautiful words, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now I’m found, was blind but now I see.”

President Obama and members of the United States Congress, in the days and weeks ahead, the political talk and strategizing about “comprehensive immigration reform” will resume. In its guise as the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act, “reform” is a deadly ship, a ship filled with nothing but more broken families, more broken hearts, and more broken dreams.

But I believe you already know this. In your efforts to further militarize our southwestern border with this package, carelessly disregarding the more migrants who are sure to lose their lives there, you already know you are being reckless with other people’s lives. In your effort to extend the system of indentured servitude duplicitously called the Guest Worker Program, you already know you are being reckless with other people’s lives. In your effort to push all undocumented people into the deportation system under the guise of a “path to citizenship”, you already know you are being reckless with other people’s lives.

I am asking you to encounter yourselves as did Paul and John Newton and turn this deadly grief-bearing ship around. I am asking you to reject political calculating with other people’s lives and begin working for justice.

 

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 faithstreet.com 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 Patheos.com on May 19, 2014.

Illegal Immigration — Op-Ed for Mobile Press Register, 2008

I wrote this article in 2008. It was about this time that I began to get the idea of making a documentary about immigration.


“Illegal Immigration” (unedited version)

Mobile Press Register

March 3, 2008

300px-Wallace_at_University_of_Alabama_edit2The borderline has come to the colorline in Alabama and we are off to a bad start. There should be no people in the country better prepared to step up with empathy, courage and humility to the issue of illegal immigration. Our history of slavery, segregation and debt peonage should have brought us the insight that what is legal is not always right. Rosa Parks’ momentous decision should have etched on our collective psyche the profound understanding that what is illegal is not always wrong. Strong histories of the notorious Tuskegee syphilis experiments and Birmingham in 1963 should have taught us to respect the complicatedness of race and class. The struggle to reverse our well-deserved reputation as a safe haven for demagogues should have made us leery of the politics of race, fear and confusion.

The borderline has come to the colorline in Alabama and we are off to a bad start. There is not a dime’s worth of difference between George Wallace vowing he would never be “out-niggraed” and Gardendale Rep. Scott Beason’s aggressive decision not to be “out-illegalled.” There is not a dime’s worth of difference between Wallace’s “segregation yesterday! segregation today! segregation tomorrow!” and local city councils proposing ordinances referring to a group of human beings as a “public nuisance.” There is not a dime’s worth of difference between the arrogance of “whites only” and “English only” nor between the current crop of vehicle impoundment ordinances and the old voter literacy laws designed to harass and humiliate.

The borderline has come to the colorline in Alabama and we are off to a bad start. The racial cast of characters has changed but the old, ugly vilifications have made a comeback. At a public meeting a black man rants he cannot rent his property because of Hispanics “running around half-naked.” A white, professional Hispanic with papers lords his supposedly Spanish descent over the poor, indigenous, undocumented Latinos in his church. A white woman with refined speech mannerisms dresses up her racist anti-Catholicism as concern for women. At the Joint Interim Patriotic Immigration Commission’s (JIPIC) lynch mob-like Huntsville meeting, black and white police officers step into the crowd to protect a Latina attempting to speak up for illegal immigrants. At the JIPIC’s Hoover meeting, in words chillingly reminiscent of “Crucify him!” the mostly white crowd chants “deport them!” when a white minister attempts a “what would Jesus do?” mini-sermon.

We are at it again. We need to remember our history. We need to develop a working knowledge that U. S. history includes installing, supporting or colluding with Latin American dictators and their Mafia-like national guards and promoting economic “developmentalism” plans both of which, many historians conclude, have concentrated more and more wealth, land and power in the hands of fewer and fewer. We have been instrumental in creating the poverty pushing Latin Americans across our borders.

We need to develop a working knowledge of current “trickle down” developmentalist subsidies, tariffs and U. S. free trade agreements with Latin America. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a phased-in agreement signed by Canada, the U. S. and Mexico in 1992, was designed to make the countries safe for investors. That it may have done. Experts who look at economic policy from the perspective of workers and peasant farmers, however, conclude NAFTA has brought catastrophic suffering to already impoverished Mexico. For example, NAFTA’s lifting of export tariffs the big, subsidized U. S. producers of corn and beans had to pay allowed them to dump their products in Mexico well below the cost of production. The result has been, according to conservative estimates, the bankrupting of 1 ½ million small corn and bean farmers pushing them off their lands and into migration. Many of them are Native Americans pushed onto the latest leg of a hemispheric “Trail of Tears.”

Experts who look at economic policy from the perspective of small and medium Alabama farmers and ranchers conclude free trade agreements are also bringing economic suffering to Alabamians. Our once strong peanut producers are being hard-hit. Small and medium-sized Alabama beef ranchers, flower growers, tomato farmers and lumber mills are struggling to compete with cheap corporate-produced Argentine beef, Ecuadorian flowers, Mexican tomatoes and Canadian softwood.

And jobs? Fort Payne’s sock factories are in the Dominican Republic. In Huntsville, a Canadian-owned maquiladora, as low-end, foreign-owned assembly plants in Mexico are called, says it simply cannot operate without importing and abusing 900 human beings duplicitously referred to as “guest workers.” At the Joint Interim Patriotic Immigration Commission’s “fact-finding” meeting in Mobile, shipyard, oyster company, and seafood company owners politely testify they simply cannot operate without that most vulnerable of all worker—the guest worker far from home, legally bound to the employer who imports them, who speaks little English and who has incurred thousands of dollars in debts to get here. Meanwhile, predominantly black Perry County languishes in eternal underemployment, poverty and neglect. And the Poarch Creek Indian reservation in Escambia County languishes in eternal underemployment, poverty and neglect.

The borderline has come to the colorline has come to the picket line in Alabama and those of us who advocate for legal and illegal migrants are also off to a shaky start. We have been quick to assume that if migrants are right, farm and trade unionists concerned about the adverse affect of “guestworkers” on U. S. workers’ wages and working conditions must be wrong. We are quick to assume that because blatantly racist Minutemen are wrong, polite corporate owners insisting they need more “guests” must be right. This despite the fact Montgomery’s Southern Poverty Law Center has called the H-2 guestworker program an “inherently abusive modern day system of indentured servitude.” We have been quick to lament the failure of the U. S. Congress’s proposed Comprehensive Immigration Reform bill oblivious to its effort to extend this cruel system of “disposable workers” and to its proposed extension of the militarized border which since 2000 has sent 1,000 migrants to their deaths in Pima Co., AZ alone, including at least four little girls. We have been slow to be horrified by this new federal experiment which exchanges real peoples’ lives for hypothetical safety from hypothetical terrorists. The new noose.

The borderline has come to the colorline has come to the picket line in Alabama. This phase of our on-going civil rights struggle, as before, is about race, class, fear, small jobs and big money. It will be won when we insist on human dignity. We are in a struggle for our soul. It is going to be a long haul. It is not too late to get it right. Somewhere encoded deep in our DNA is the intuitive conviction that the politics of division is feeding a sinful socio-economic structure that is benefiting the few at the expense of the many. Somewhere deep in our DNA is the intuitive conviction that cruel, oppressive systems are bigger than the people, like slaves, segregated blacks, poor whites and illegal immigrants, caught up in them. We need to bring that deeply buried but nonetheless real intuition to the surface and allow it to work for us. Sí, se puede, Alabama. Eyes on the prize!

Ellin Sterne Jimmerson