A sermon delivered by the Rev. Dr. Carrie Knowles on 2/12/17 at the UUCLC. All copyrights reserved to the Author.
You can listen to a recording of this sermon here.
Burning Bridges of Hope
The 45th president issued on January 27th a travel ban that immediately suspended for 90 days the entry of immigrants and nonimmigrants into the US from seven countries with majority Moslem populations. It suspended for 120 days the entry of all refugees—and indefinitely suspended refugees from Syria. It contained the further significant provision that, when refugee admissions resume, it would prioritize “refugee claims made by individuals on the basis of religious-based persecution, provided that the religion of the individual is a minority religion in the individual’s country of nationality.” That is, provided the individual is not a Moslem.
Foreign born doctors who serve people in small towns through the US were stranded. Patients from the affected countries in dire need of expert medical care were cut off from access. Exchange and foreign students were blocked from returning from visits home. Researchers and other professionals were stuck either at American or foreign airports. Longterm legal residents with green cards found themselves held for hours at entry points in many cities. Iraqis who had served for more than a decade with our armed forces as interpreters and fighters and now were fleeing threats to their lives found their refugee status cancelled.
With a 3-0 decision of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday, a Temporary Restraining Order was kept in place that blocks enforcement of most of the president’s travel ban. The Ninth Circuit’s very readable opinion lays out powerfully the many legal challenges to the president’s order that loom ahead. A long process now seems to lie ahead, with uncertain outcome.
As the week’s events unfolded, as I read the words of the president’s executive order, as I heard the ban being defended by powerful American lawmakers of his party, I found deep questions welling up in me. Is this who we are?
I felt repeating in my mind, like some deep songs we hold for always in our memory, or some prayer I learned before I even knew what I was chanting, words written 240 years ago:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
– Declaration of Independence
The declaration, that all men are created equal, didn’t say only Americans were created equal, or only white men were created equal or only Christians were created equal. The Bill of Rights enshrined in our constitution states, “No person shall be…deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.…” That text makes no exception for the foreign born.
When I found my spiritual home with the Unitarians, and made a covenant to affirm and promote;
The inherent worth and dignity of every person, and
Justice, equity and compassion in human relations
these principles seemed to echo those enshrined values.
As Americans, who are we? Are these truths indeed self evident, that all men are created equal, and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?
Over these days, I have been confronting a troubling reality. From the beginning of our history as a nation, we have time and again tossed those lofty words aside.
In 1789, our Constitution’s preamble promised the “Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity,” but “ourselves” included none who were slaves. It took a civil war and incredible political pressures to draw from Abraham Lincoln the Emancipation Proclamation.
Our early settlers, the Puritans, fled persecution in their homeland, England, to Massachusetts—the Mayflower arrived in 1620. In 1845, a calamity of monstrous proportions struck Ireland—the great Irish Potato Famine. The blight that destroyed this staple that fed the people was an airborne fungus originally transported in the holds of ships traveling from North America to England. It blackened and withered the leaves of the potato plants and rotted the potatoes underground.
Through the famine years, nearly a million Irish migrated to the United States. Their roughest welcome was in Boston, Massachusetts, then an Anglo-Saxon city of about 115,000. In 1847, the first big year of Famine emigration, the city was swamped with 37,000 Irish Catholics. They were ridiculed, relegated to unskilled jobs, and found themselves victims to unscrupulous landlords who rented them rooms with no water, no sanitation, no ventilation and no daylight.
Under these conditions, diseases like cholera took the lives of 60% of Irish children before age six, and adults lived on average six years after stepping off the boat.
By 1850, the Irish made up 43% of the foreign born. Irish immigrants were derided in the press as “aliens” who were mindlessly loyal to their Catholic leaders, to the Pope, rather than any allegiance to America. American born workers felt displaced from jobs. These fears led to violence—Protestant workmen in Boston burned down a Catholic convent. Violence against Catholics erupted in Baltimore, St. Louis, New Orleans and Louisville, Kentucky. Militant anti-Catholics formed a third political party nicknamed the “Know Nothings” who wanted to cut Irish immigration and keep them from becoming naturalized American citizens. In Massachusetts, Know-Nothing candidates won every statewide office including the governorship, in 1854.
Does any of this sound familiar?
Yet the most famous Famine descendant was John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the great grandson of Patrick Kennedy who left Ireland in 1849.
We have other grievous times that challenge our identity, who we are, who we have been.
Political changes in Japan and a serious recession led many Japanese to migrate to the United States, beginning in 1868. By 1924 about 380,000 had immigrated to Hawaii and the West Coast, where they established farms or small businesses. As the Japanese-American population grew, European Americans on the West Coast resisted the newcomers. They were scared of competition, and spread the idea of the “Yellow Peril”—we must fear the hordes of Asians would take over white-owned farms and businesses. Groups such as the Asiatic Exclusion League, the California Joint Immigration Committee, and the Native Sons of the Golden West organized and lobbied successfully to restrict the property and citizenship rights of Japanese immigrants. The Immigration Act of 1924 effectively banned all immigration from Japan and other “undesirable” Asian countries. US law prohibited Japanese immigrants from becoming naturalized citizens.
In 1936, President Roosevelt ordered the Office of Naval Intelligence to compile a “special list of those who would be the first to be placed in a concentration camp in the event of trouble” between Japan and the US, and in 1939 the President ordered the ONI and FBI to work together to compile a larger Custodial Detention Index.
Early in 1941 and again in 1942, Roosevelt commissioned studies of Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast and in Hawaii to document the threat. Both reports concluded there was no Japanese problem. Yet after the Pearl Harbor attack, political pressure escalated against Japanese-Americans, urging internment.
Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt, head of the Western Command, who administered the internment program, testified to Congress:
I don’t want any of them here. They are a dangerous element. There is no way to determine their loyalty… It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen, he is still a Japanese. American citizenship does not necessarily determine loyalty. But we must worry about the Japanese all the time until he is wiped off the map.
By February of 1942, Earl Warren, then the Attorney General of California, had begun his efforts to persuade the federal government to remove all people of Japanese ethnicity—including those who were as little as 1/16th Japanese (those who had one great great grandparent who was Japanese) and send them to internment camps. A Colonel, Karl Bendetsen, declared,
I am determined that if they have one drop of Japanese blood in them, they must go to camp.
A series of proclamations culminating on May 3, 1942, ordered all people of Japanese ancestry, whether citizens or non-citizens, to report to assembly centers and then “Relocation Centers.”
White farmers were delighted. California newspapers took up the cry. The Los Angeles Times signed on to the message:
A viper is nonetheless a viper wherever the egg is hatched… So, a Japanese American born of Japanese parents…notwithstanding his nominal brand of citizenship almost inevitably and with the rarest exceptions grows up to be a Japanese, and not an American…
Not all voices joined the chorus. The Orange County Register argued that the internment was unethical and unconstitutional. Its publisher, R. C. Hoiles, wrote:
It would seem that convicting people of disloyalty to our country without having specific evidence against them is too foreign to our way of life and too close akin to the kind of government we are fighting…. [A]s Henry Emerson Fosdick so wisely said, ‘Liberty is always dangerous but it is the safest thing we have.’
One hundred and twenty thousand people were incarcerated. People were convicted of crime if they evaded internment.
In 1944, two and a half years after issuing Order 9066, Roosevelt rescinded the order and closed the camps. Ultimately, the courts found that the government had intentionally withheld the original racist versions of the testimony by General DeWitt and Colonel Bendetsen about the disloyalty of Japanese Americans. The government had held from evidence the two reports commissioned by Roosevelt in 1941 and 1942 that found Japanese Americans posed no threat to national security. The court found the justifications for internment were based on “willful historical inaccuracies and intentional falsehoods.”
Does any of this ring a bell?
One more story of who we are. While our Unitarians, Rev. Waitstill Sharp and his wife Martha risked their own lives to bring to safety Jews and others whose lives were threatened in Nazi occupied Europe, the United States government turned away thousands of Jewish refugees, fearing that they were Nazi spies.
Most notoriously, in June 1939, the German ocean liner St. Louis carrying 937 passengers, almost all Jewish, were turned away from the port of Miami. The ship was forced to return to Europe and a quarter of the passengers died in the Holocaust.
Rhetoric of unfounded fears spread the belief in a supposed “fifth column” of spies and saboteurs who had infiltrated the country as refugees. US Attorney General Francis Biddle declared in 1942,
..every precaution must be taken…to prevent enemy agents slipping across our borders. We already have had experience with them and we know them to be well trained and clever.
Until the end of 1944, Attorney General Biddle warned Roosevelt not to grant immigration status to refugees. All foreigners became suspect, including Jews. In this climate of disinformation—shall we say “alternative facts”—immigration restrictions were actually tightened as the refugee crisis worsened.
Some journalists challenged these assertions. Then in 1944, in the face of mass murder of Jews, the Treasury Department released a damning report that saw wartime paranoia and bigotry in the actions of the State Department:
…certain officials in our State Department, which is charged with carrying out this policy, have been guilty not only of gross procrastination and willful failure to act, but even of willful attempts to prevent action from being taken to rescue Jews from Hitler.
The Trump administration’s assault on Moslems, those who are citizens, those who are recent migrants, those who are refugees, will go on as long as his party buys into the rhetoric of hate. We are living again our woeful past of injustice and intolerance, fueled by falsehoods: that Moslem refugees swarm with terrorists, though not a single act of terror has been carried out by a migrant from any country listed in the ban. We’re told our visa vetting process is a total failure, yet it already consumes 18 months to three years.
Remember that old saying—insanity is repeating over and over what you have done in the past and expecting a different outcome? With no benefit to our nation, in past generations, we destroyed the lives and well-being of those we saw as “other.” Our country was moved by flagrant lies that fed the rhetoric of bigotry. Belatedly, we faced the wrongs we committed, but nothing could undo the harm we did to people we saw as “Other.”
We don’t have to relive our shameful past. We gain nothing by burning the bridges of hope for men, women and children seeking refuge and survival.
We can affirm the self-evident truths that all of us, from all continents, of all skin color, people of all faiths are born equal and have certain unalienable rights, among these life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We can grow as a nation as Abraham Lincoln grew, as he wrote in his second inaugural address,
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
We can reach out in justice, equity and compassion, and welcome the stranger, and draw all people into the circle of love and peace. May it be so.