Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Of Aliens and Bananas

Growing up in rural North Carolina, politics and religion were the subject of many public conversations. One of the topics frequently brought up was the issue of immigration, though living in a predominately white small town I rarely ever had contact with immigrants. My opinions were formed early in life before I could even drive, and not so much by overheard conservative talk radio blowhards, but by overheard conversations in everyday life. I would hear old men debating in the barbershop, ladies conversing in the grocery line, and whispered concerns in church hallways. “The Mexicans are stealing our jobs!” “Those illegals waste our tax money” “Foreigners are ruining America!” “Deport ‘em all!” These were the politest of the comments.

It is funny how our perception can be changed sometimes by the tiniest of events, the most trivial of acts, if we have an open heart and active conscience. It happened one day while working construction, as I did between starting and actually finishing college. I mixed concrete and operated machinery, and happened to be working for several days with another crew on a job in downtown Greensboro. The other crew was Hispanic with a white boss who generally treated them without respect and lorded over them like there were children, but they did the best they could without being able to speak English. One day lunch break came and I realized I had forgotten my meal that day. As I was hungrily sitting around alone waiting for lunch break to end, one of the Hispanic workers saw me, walked over, and offered a banana from his modest sack lunch. While we were never able to speak in a common language, his warm smile and friendly gesturing said it all. Maybe it was the heat getting to me that summer day, but I felt moved by this trivial act of kindness. I began to think about my own prejudices of people I had hardly met before. Love is such a powerful thing that even in the tiniest of doses it holds the power to tear down the greatest fear, pride, and bigotry.

As I recently began to reevaluate my Christian faith, I found much of what I hear Christians say about immigrates doesn’t match up with what the Bible says about loving aliens and welcoming strangers. Deuteronomy 10 verse18 says

He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing.”
According to Matthew 25 verses 37 to 40 Jesus said
"Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?' The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.' "

The scapegoating of immigrants and vilification of foreigners is not Christian, and is not acceptable policy for our government. Johnston County (NC) Sheriff Steve Bizzell was recently quoted calling Hispanics “trashy” and that they “breed like rabbits.” According to Bizzell “drunk Mexicans” “rape, rob and murder" Americans. Yet in the past decade, as illegal immigration has surged, Johnston County's rate of violent crime has dropped by almost half, according to the State Bureau of Investigation. Property crimes are also down.

Our country must find a way to make immigration fair while respecting the dignity of all human life. It has been a tough issue throughout the history of our country, from the Alien and Sedition Act, to the backlash against Chinese immigrants in the American West, to the open violence in the streets of New York against the "Irish hordes", to the interment camps for Japanese-Americans in WWII. As Thomas Wenski, Bishop of Orlando, has said,

"The so-called “illegals” are so not because they wish to defy the law; but, because the law does not provide them with any channels to regularize their status in our country – which needs their labor: they are not breaking the law, the law is breaking them."
Fellow Christians, we must realize that our faith, that God's church, transcends any imaginary map-line drawn by temporary rulers of earthly kingdoms. We must learn that God loves all people equally, and that we must show Christ's love to other by living out the commandment to "love your neighbor as yourself."

I recommend checking out Justice For Immigrants and National Immigration Forum for a good look at the human element of an over-politicized issue. Also, the detention system in the United States for immigrants and foreigners is confusing and often inhumane; for information on what you can do check out the Detention Watch Network.

I'm very excited about a new film that deals with issues of immigration called "The Visitor." Unfortunately I didn't learn about it in time to catch it in theaters, but it will be available on DVD in early October. The trailer:

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