You can listen to a recording of this sermon here.
Rev. Dr. Carrie Knowles
Nine days have passed since the 45th president of the United States was sworn in to office. I am mindful of the Chinese curse: May you live in interesting times.
So many issues are now at the forefront: religious tolerance, the well-being of immigrants and refugees, racial justice, affordable healthcare for Americans, the dignity and equality of women, the rising temperature of the earth, to mention only a few. And each one of these is a matter of faith, not politics. Each one of these, for us UU’s, touches on our covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person which must include women, Moslems, Blacks, refugees and immigrants; our covenant to affirm and promote justice and compassion in human relations, which is violated when we bar refugees from any nation; our acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations as we reach out to all.
We UU’s affirm a free and responsible search for truth and meaning—which calls us to confront blatant lies and the bland denial of solid fact.
We covenant to promote the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large that calls us to live by our core values of what is right, by advocacy and action in our communities. We affirm the goal of a world community with peace, liberty and justice for all which counsels us to stand firm for peace and civil rights, and to preserve the earth, our home. And lastly, we affirm respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part—an ideal that includes all the other principles of our faith.
I admit—all of these calls to live by my faith right now feel a bit overwhelming. I feel like the mosquito at the nudist society picnic: no question what to do, just where to begin.
But then I thought of an essay by Virginia Safford where she tells of walking in an old cemetery in New England where she came upon a tombstone with an epitaph I hold in my heart. The name and dates of the dead had been erased by time and weather, but the epitaph was still readable: “She attended well and faithfully to a few worthy things.” [repeat]
Today, the worthy thing I want to attend to, is the issue of immigration and the undocumented. It is about as many as 11 million people, in the US. And the first of our principles I want to address is, a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.
I have a special care in my heart for immigrants. Some of you may remember my own family story: my father migrated here when he was 12, fleeing the massacre of Jews in Russia. I have a strong feeling about Mexican immigrants. I broke out my ankle one Sunday morning some years ago, when I lived here, in Riviera West. I had walked to the top of a steep hill and then slipped on gravel. No houses nearby, no cell phone. A Mexican worker nearby heard my screams. He lifted me into his pickup truck and took me home so my husband could drive me to the ER. The worker’s name was “An-hel,” Angel. A close friend of mine now is a young woman in the East Bay who came as a teenager from Mexico without documents. She has a job, but no health care coverage, and no benefits. Her children are citizens, they were born here and they go to public schools.
The political campaign of the 45th president opened with a profound assault on the truth: among his lies, his assault on the truth about immigrants and the undocumented. Here are some of the lies.
It is a lie that we have open borders.
President Obama has often been referred to by immigration groups as the "Deporter in Chief.” Between 2009 and 2015 his administration removed more than 2.5 million people through immigration orders. This doesn’t include the number of people who "self-deported" or were turned away and/or returned to their home country at the border by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). [ABC News]
It is a lie that immigrants account for high rates of crime.
We have heard over and over from the now-president of the US that about 2 million illegal immigrants are criminals, and must be deported.
In truth, newcomers to the U.S. are less likely than the native population to commit violent crimes or be incarcerated. For over a century, innumerable studies confirm two simple yet powerful truths about the relationship between immigration and crime: immigrants are less likely to commit serious crimes or be behind bars than the native-born, and high rates of immigration are associated with lower rates of violent crime and property crime. This holds true for both immigrants here legally and the unauthorized, regardless of their country of origin or level of education. In other words, the overwhelming majority of immigrants are not “criminals” by any commonly accepted definition of the term. [American Immigration Council, 2015]
According to data from the American Community Survey (ACS) in 2010, roughly 1.6 percent of immigrant males age 18-39 were incarcerated, compared to 3.3 percent of the native-born. This difference in incarceration rates has existed for decades. In 1980, 1990 and 2000, the incarceration rates of the native-born were anywhere from two to five times higher than that of immigrants.
The exact number of undocumented immigrants, out of the 1.9 million, whom the new president has offered to deport at once, is not clear.
Calculations by the Migration Policy Institute show about 820,000 (43 percent) of the 1.9 million are unauthorized
immigrants with criminal convictions. But more than half of the 1.9 million immigrants who are convicted of crime are lawfully in the country with green cards or visas. And of the undocumented with criminal convictions, only about 690,000 committed felonies or serious misdemeanors that could make them a threat to society. [Washington Post]
Despite these realities, the most recent language about deportation priorities, tucked into the president’s border wall order out this week, expands the definition of who is a criminal.
The president’s order focuses on anyone who has been charged with a criminal offense, even if it has not led to a conviction. It includes anyone who has used a false Social Security number to get a job, as many unauthorized immigrants do.
It further allows the targeting of anyone who “in the judgment of the immigration officer” poses a risk to public safety and national security. Now immigration officers have broad authority without review from a supervisor before targeting individuals. This goes further than any previous administrations in the number of people targeted for deportation.
It is a lie that the undocumented immigrants are mostly those who cross our southern border. It is false that a “wall” between Mexico and the US could seal off unauthorized migration.
Since 2009, the origin of unauthorized immigration has shifted from Mexico to other countries. The number of the undocumented, 3.5% of our population, has stabilized in the last three years at 11.1 million, down from its peak of 12.2 million.
Mexicans are a bare majority of the undocumented—52%, about 5.8 million people. The number of unauthorized immigrants from countries other than Mexico is about 5.3 million, or 48%. These people come from Asia, Central America and sub-Saharan Africa. [Pew Research, 2014]
It is false that unauthorized immigrants have been flooding over the border. About 2 out of 3 undocumented adults have been in the US for at least a decade. Ninety-three percent of unauthorized immigrants from Mexico have been here more than 5 years.
I think many Americans recognize these grave distortions of the truth.
Yet there are beliefs and concerns that override the facts. Some feel that no matter how many or how few, unauthorized immigrants are depriving American workers of jobs. I have heard from an elderly woman that they take jobs away from older Americans.
I have heard from a disabled immigrant from Europe that they take jobs away from disabled persons.
In fact, the undocumented have strikingly different occupational profiles than those born in the US.
One out of three unauthorized immigrants hold service jobs such as janitor, child care worker or cook—nearly twice as many as the share of US born workers in these jobs. An additional 15% work in construction, compared with 5% of US born. A small percentage—4% work in farming and forestry, compared with .4% of US born workers.
None of these jobs would deprive the elderly or disabled of employment.
In better paid work, in the fields of sales and office jobs, and professions, in management, and business and finance, 62% of those jobs are held by US born workers, compared with 26% of the undocumented. [Pew Research]
That’s a lot of numbers I’ve thrown at you. Let me step back. Most jobs held by the undocumented and by other recent immigrants are jobs that few US born workers compete for.
Yesterday, a home care worker from LA joined the Women’s March in Washington DC. She’s a member of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. She wrote a piece for the New York Times, published on Inauguration Day.
Teresita Villasenor herself is a legal immigrant from the Philippines who works as a caregiver, supporting people with disabilities—work that takes patience, understanding, and sometimes hard physical work. She writes,
I have faced low wages for long hours, discrimination, abuse and exploitation. Ninety percent of care workers are women and many are immigrants, some living undocumented in this country….. What we want Mr. Trump to recognize is that undocumented immigrants are a blessing. We challenge him to figure out who will take care of him when he’s old. Who will take care of his wife, his daughters and his sons? For too long, immigrant families in this country have been separated, deported and detained.
This immigrant caregiver reminds us of our core principles: the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and our commitment to justice and compassion. Yet the narrative that has resounded with many millions of Americans is that immigrants are “Other,” less than “us,” and a threat to our identity as a white so-called “Christian” nation.
As more of the undocumented have been rounded up for deportation, we have seen profound violation of their civil rights and due process. By law, people accused of crimes have a right to a hearing before a judge and to release on bail, within six months, unless they present the risk of flight or further wrongdoing. Yet undocumented immigrants rounded up for deportation, not for any crime but only because they lacked authorization to enter the US, have been held in detention centers without a hearing and without bail for much longer than six months, sometimes as long as five years.
Interestingly, those held for the longest times are those most likely to be found legitimately seeking refuge, and they are released, and they ultimately become citizens.
Our Congress has failed for decades to deal rationally with the presence of undocumented immigrants. Finally, former President Obama took executive action to limit deportation of undocumented immigrants who came here as children, and who are now in school or the military—it’s called DACA—and he took further action to limit deportation of undocumented parents of citizens—called DAPA— who have committed no crimes.
Obama’s executive orders seem to many the embodiment of justice and compassion. But the order to suspend deportation of undocumented parents was blocked in the courts. The order to hold off deportation of those who came as children can now be reversed with the stroke of the new president’s pen.
The fate of 752,000 young immigrants brought to the US as children—a third of whom live in California—now rests with an unverified executive order that was leaked to the media but had not yet been signed as of this weekend. Further, the president has made no commitment to honor the promise of the US government to DACA kids that their information will not be shared with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE).
I stand here today near the altar in this Fellowship Hall in fear this will happen, and soon. I have been living since November 8th with the fear that young people called “Dreamers” will be torn from their lives and hopes and find themselves detained and ultimately deported to a world they never knew. I have been living with the fear that parents will be torn from their children, kept endlessly in deportation centers, then sent back to countries no longer their home.
My fear is tempered with hope, exactly because I stand here near this altar in sacred space.
This consecrated place that contains us all is called a sanctuary. More generally, a sanctuary is a place of refuge or safety.
There is a tradition going back thousands of years in many ancient cultures including the Israelite culture that all who came for refuge at the altar or in the consecrated space of the temple or to those cities designated as sanctuary cities were safe there.
Those seeking refuge could include criminals, debtors, escaped slaves, priests, and ordinary people. It was considered a greater crime to drag someone from the sanctuary or kill them there than it was to defile the sanctuary itself.
This tradition was revived in American churches when they offered sanctuary to soldiers who refused to serve in the Vietnam War. And in the 1980’s congregations opened their doors to Central Americans fleeing wars in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. The movement was revived again in 2006 and grew during President Obama’s two terms.
Today, 450 houses of worship in the United States have offered to provide sanctuary or other assistance to undocumented immigrants. More than forty of these are Unitarian Universalist congregations—with the full backing of the UUA.
Protecting immigrants is becoming a priority for religious liberals of many faiths and ethnicities since Trump’s victory and his selection of an attorney general nominee who supports a crackdown on immigrants. While few congregations have the space and determination to risk harboring undocumented immigrants indefinitely, they can connect with neighboring churches that have such resources. They can line up to contribute money, legal assistance, food, clothing, medical care, child care or transportation.
So I bring my heart and soul here today in the trust that we can start consideration here about supporting the sanctuary movement. I will be in the Fellowship Hall after the service to meet with all of you who are interested in further discussion.
A first step is understanding what undocumented immigrants and their families confront now and hearing their stories.
A further step is to reach within ourselves and ask what we may be called to do by our faith, our guiding principles, by our compassion and love of justice.
Then, for those of us who see providing for the safety of vulnerable unauthorized immigrants as one of those “few worthy things” we desire to undertake, we can together develop our priorities for action.
May we find deep in our hearts those few worthy things that fill our spirit with light and hope and may we attend to them well and faithfully in the coming days.