Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Religious Perspectives on Borders and Transnationalism

By Dr. Susanna Snyder

     Keeping up with immigration issues anywhere is like trying to catch an eel with your bare hands. Newspapers run a story about it almost every day, in one form or another, and just when you think you’re getting close to understanding what’s going on, new legislation or procedures are initiated or something happens to an immigrant somewhere you hadn’t imagined was possible.
     Take a look at what’s going on in Massachusetts at the moment. A bill currently under review in the State House—S2061 Act to Enhance Community Safety—is likely to have serious effects on immigrant communities if it is passed. Similar to laws passed in Alabama, Georgia and Arizona, it is designed to help Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) deport undocumented immigrants. Among other things, it would allow law enforcement officers to check the immigration status of people arrested for certain offences—such as driving under the influence.
     But what has religion got to do with all of this, though?
     At one level, religious organizations are among the most prominent advocates for (and against) immigration inclusion. For example, Boston New Sanctuary Movement, a coalition of interfaith leaders and congregations that supports immigrants, states: “We people of faith support fair and just changes to our immigration system.  People who have worked hard here without documents for years deserve to have legal residency and a path to citizenship.”
     At another level, religion plays a large part in the daily lives of many immigrants. From providing a source of spiritual comfort, meaning, and community to practical support in the form of English language classes, accommodation, or legal advice, faith and faith-based organizations can be invaluable to new arrivals as well as those who have been living in the country for many years.
     The Migration, Theology and Faith Forum, based at Episcopal Divinity School, was set up to bring migrants, activists, and academics from different disciplines together to discuss these important issues. The MTFF will hold a symposium, “Borders and Transnationalism: Religious Perspectives,” on Friday, March 23, from 1pm to 4:30pm, to explore some of the intersections between religion and migration.
     Speakers at the symposium will explore such questions as how migrants are drawing on their faith and negotiating religious identity and practice—both on their journeys and after they arrive in the U.S. and what role faith-based organizations are playing in terms of practical support and advocacy—in support of and against immigrants? It will be multi-faith as well as interdisciplinary—with papers on Islam, Christianity, and Hinduism. Some participants will reflect on the root causes of migration while others will discuss what happens at the border or when people have arrived in the United States.
     No matter how you feel about the complex issues related to immigration, it’s important that we come together to learn more, especially as the situation is changing every day.

Dr. Susanna Snyder is Assistant Professor in Contemporary Society and Christian Ethics at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.


  1. I never thought that such a bill could come to Massachusetts. I believe one of the biggest problems (and that is reinforced by certain politicians) is this idea that an "illegal immigrant" broke the law to get here, therefore he/she is a 'criminal' that must be punished and of course was 'never meant to be here'. This dichotomy of "legal immigrant" and "illegal immigrant" must be solved.


  2. I struggle with--and am confused by--why is is anathema to make a distinction between immagrants--those people who, like my not-so-distant ancestors--came here legally, and illegals aliens who are here, well, illegally.
    When I lived in Massachusetts, I thought and believed that amnesty was of course the right thing, that everyone who made the effort to come here--save a few obvious criminals--should be embraced and encouraged.
    Then I moved to a border state.
    Our reserves are stretched to the limit, and illegal immigration (and NOT just people from Mexico) is one of the reasons. In the wealthy town next to me, women from China are trafficked in solely for the purpose of having an anchor baby. They are exploited and held in overcrowded "MacMansion" style houses by women who make a lot a money on their desperation. "Coyotes" exploit desperate Mexican families, sometimes leaving them to die in containers in the desert. Too many illegal aliens fail to demonstrate any desire to learn English, and if they work at all they are relegated to jobs that once would have gone to teenagers at minimum wage. Now, they are held by men, women, and sometimes children, who are exploited and paid--if at all--as little as their employer can get away with. And this exploitation does not take place only behind closed doors; I will not have my car washed because the worst kept secret is the exploitation of those who dry cars with gritty rags.
    It is all well and good to pontificate about "justice," but turning a blind eye to the economic, social, and human damage caused by the recent explosion of illegal aliens--especially in border states--is not truly just. If I am suspected of driving drunk, my license, registration, and warrant status will be checked. If they are found to be irregular, I will be duly charged and my car impounded. The LA County chief of police has gone so far as to call impounding cars a "hardship" on illegals who cannot get a license, and the policy is being reviewed. Really? A "hardship" for an UNLICENSED driver to have his/her car impounded? MY insurance rates are ridiculous because illegal cars and drivers have long been a problem here, and it is just getting worse.
    Removing the well-intentioned glasses, what is really wrong with insuring that someone who has already broken the law is not breaking more laws? Why is checking immigration status any different from a warrant check? And I do not want the tired "profiling" argument, because I have white Canadian friends who went through ten years of immigration hell and occasional harassment and huge sums of money to get full resident status. And further on profiling, although while not all non-English speakers are illegal, most illegals are non-English speaking, so profiling does--and perhaps should--absent harassment (which realistically will never be eliminated although it must not be codified)--be part of enforcement. And don't even get me started on "The Dream Act" when in this state, young people I know who are full citizens can't get a place in a community college due to brutal cut-backs, let alone afford, higher education...
    So Mario, come to SoCal and see that yes, an illegal immigrant did indeed break at least one law to come here, or better yet, give sneaking across Mexico's--or ANY border--a try and see what kind of reception you get. It is a complex mess, but ignoring and encouraging it is not the answer.

  3. First, no human being is "illegal." A person may be "undocumented," which refers to a specific legal problem, but calling someone "illegal" and "alien" is classic othering. It may not be intentional, but it is. If someone is an "alien" then that makes him or her different from me; if they're "illegal" than I can justify doing whatever I need to do to fix the problem which is "them." But I believe every human being has inherent worth and dignity; no one to me is "alien" or "illegal." These aren't just words. These are powerful ideas and their use will determine the outcome.

    The immigration system in this country needs a drastic overhaul, on that I think all can agree. But what exactly are we trying to do?
    Whatever changes are made, they should affirm human dignity. That is not an unreasonable demand. Someone who gets in legal trouble, and who breaks the law, will have bad consequences. But that is not really what we're talking about, is it?
    My ancestors would never have made it into this country under its current legal system and (c)overt racism toward immigrants. I hope we can find ways to do better.

    1. I agree that every human has worth and dignity, but the fact remains that just as there are citizens who commit illegal acts, there are non-citizen, non-immigrant (I do not want to use the word immigrant as part of a descriptor for people here illegally, and undocumented is too soft) persons who are in this country illegally. Words do matter, and I agree that the descriptors I used can be inflammatory.
      But we--or at least I--am talking about people who do illegal things. While there is a small cohort of persons who faced true persecution in their homeland, most persons here without legal portfolio started their lives here as law breakers, and that is not a good foundation upon which to build citizenship.
      My ancestors were "white," but on my father's side as Irish were subject to very poor treatment even though they were documented. My mother's ancestors came here--legally--as non-English speakers and realized almost immediately that they needed to gain a functional command of the English language, so they did, and insisted their children did as well.
      Here in California, a heinous school sex abuse scandal has unfolded in Miramonte. The claim is that parents failed to come forward because they were undocumented. If you could see the redundant sheaves of paper I had to produce to register a fourth generation citizen in school, you, too, would be scratching your head at how so many undocumented children could be in Miramonte's classrooms. That said, if the parents' claims are true, the teachers in question no doubt had a strong suspicion that their targets--and the abuse was long-term and revolting AND public--came from families that would be reluctant to blow the whistle. The wreckage in Miramonte is and example of what tolerance for undocumented/illegal residents breeds. Justice demands that we find a reasonable way to control the flow through our borders (and I am not a proponent of a fence) and when those mechanisms fail, that we swiftly identify those here illegally and return them to their homelands, unless they would legitimately be the target of persecution. This of course also requires a revisiting of birthright citizenship, a concept that has been subject to gross, intentional abuse (yes, those Chinese maternity houses are real and abhorrent, trading as they do at the juncture of misery and hope).
      The answers will be difficult and demand bi-partisan cooperation free of rhetoric. Alas, I am not holding my breath.

  4. Friends:
    In a world of, "Global Economy", we must look at more than just the money. The hands that pick the fruit and change the bed sheets are more than just a commodity. Comprehensive reform is needed in a nation where one state is passing legislation to that criminalizes undocumented individuals and another needs thousands more to harvest apples (the same apples we ship to Asia at great profit).

    Check out the following links to great articles in Sojourners:

  5. As advertised, this symposium shows no sign of an awareness that we live in a world of finite resources.

    How about introducing some elements of reality into it?

    (The Rev) Lawrence D. Rupp
    EDS 1961


    Following (and attached) is an analysis of domestic (US) nonrenewable natural resource (NNR) scarcity, which is an update to the analysis presented in my book “Scarcity”. It would appear that the current data support my earlier findings—there can be no recovery this time.

    If you have the time, please take a moment to review—it’s only 3+ pages long; and feel free to circulate and/or post.

    Thank you!

    Chris Clugston

    Peak US Societal Wellbeing—There Can Be No Recovery This Time
    Peak US Societal Wellbeing.pdf
    Humanity’s Greatest Challenge
    Ours is not a temporary systemic predicament; ours is a permanent ecological predicament.