Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Immigration Reform

Fifth in a series of posts about the January UUA Board meeting

She had graduated from high school at 16, and college, with a degree in biology, at 20. Smart, articulate, funny, she had been told by her parents that she had been born in the United States shortly after they immigrated. The parents became naturalized citizens, but by some series of mistakes, she did not -- which was discovered when she applied for a job and could not prove her citizenship.

Now she is being deported -- to a country and people she knows nothing about.

Maria told her story, along with two other people with similar family-wrenching stories, to the UUA Board at an interfaith meeting in San Antonio. These stories are not that uncommon. According to Nina Perales, head of the Southwest Region of the Mexican-America Legal Defense Fund (MALDEF), who met with the UUA Board in San Antonio, nearly 13% of the people in the United States were born outside of it -- 43% of that number are naturalized citizens. Of the remaining, the Department of Homeland Security estimates about 11.6 million undocumented immigrants in 2008, of which about 7 million are from Mexico. Undocumented immigrants typically work in the least desirable jobs, such as meat packing, housekeeping, or poultry processing, and are constantly under the threat of being turned in. They do not qualify for educational aid, food stamps, healthcare, or housing subsidies. Because they cannot get a drivers license, in many cases they are forced to break the law just to be able to get to work.

What does this have to do with us? Every time we buy a cut of meat at the grocery store, eat chicken for dinner, eat in a restaurant off a plate washed by an undocumented immigrant, get a recommendation from a friend for cheap labor to do construction or repairs, sleep in a hotel bed made up by an undocumented person, or have such a person cleaning our house or watching our children, we are perpetuating this system. The 11-12 million people working illegally are "propping up the economy, making possible the American way of life" (Nina Perales, presentation to UUA Board, January 15, 2010). I have a "don't ask/don't tell" policy with Emelia and Miguel, who clean my house, and I am ashamed of my role.

Along with the increased attention on immigration has come increased racial violence directed at people who might -- based on appearance -- be undocumented. Nina read a letter she had recently received: "Go back to defending all these criminals, killing, raping, robbing innocent Americans. Fix your own defunct country, we will take care of ours... for hundreds of years, Mexico did not improve their quality of life for their people. You have natural resources, you have oil, an ocean." She is told, in harsh terms, to go back to Mexico, and gets calls for her citizenship to be investigated.

Nina was born in New York of Puerto Rican heritage, and is a life long UU.

Though we typically think of segregation in terms of Jim Crow laws aimed at African Americans, Mexican Americans were not allowed in many restaurants, pools, and schools throughout the Southwest until well into the 1960s and 70s. Even today, as long as "illegal" prefaces the term "immigrant", there appears to be permission to use racist terms. Polls show that Latinos and African Americans both perceive significant discrimination against Latinos, while Anglos do not. Sound familiar?

Gini Courter recently asked the board "given the lead up to the Selma march in the 60s, what would that Board have wished they had done before it happened?"

What will we as Unitarian Universalists wish we had done in the immigration debate?

Only now there is still time.

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