By Scott Wright
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”- Emma Lazarus, 1883
On February 17, President’s Day, people of faith and undocumented immigrants will join hands, kneeling in prayer on the sidewalk in front of the White House, to call on President Obama to do the right thing and end the deportation of immigrants before his administration reaches the 2 million mark.
I must confess, every time I hear about another death in the Arizona desert or massive deportation to Mexico or Central America, I think about Emma Lazarus’ words on the Statue of Liberty. What meaning do they have for us today? And what moral obligation do they impose upon our conscience?
Every day an immigrant dies in the desert, and every day 1,100 immigrants are deported. Add that up and it becomes more than 365 deaths and 400,000 deportations each year.
But numbers are not the language of faith and conscience, human faces and human stories are. Each death in the desert, and each deportation leaves a trail of human suffering and tears in its wake. If we were to hear even a few of these stories, our hearts would break.
These are the stories I remember:
I remember the young pregnant Salvadoran woman who had been raped on her journey north. I interpreted for her a few years ago at Mary Center in Washington DC, the trauma of her journey and the fear of being undocumented etched in her sad eyes and shy demeanor.
I remember Sara and Saba, two young women from Ethiopia, survivors of torture, and survivors of an incredible journey being trafficked through a dozen countries, only to be shackled and detained for months in a private detention center in Florence, Arizona. I met them at TASSC, in Washington DC, as they sought help and successfully gained their political asylum.
I remember Ana Maria and Noemi, two young Salvadoran women I met at a church shelter in Mexico City at a conference on migration organized by SICSAL, an international network of solidarity named after the martyred Salvadoran bishop Oscar Romero. They had survived a two day journey riding atop the trains from the Guatemalan border, no small feat, as many fall victim to the abuse of gangs, cartels and police. You can see for yourself and search for “La Bestia” or “El Tren de la Muerte” on YouTube. Traumatized and exhausted, they were on the way to Boston to reunite with their families.
I remember the children whose parents were deported, reading the letters they had written and would deliver to Congress as we gathered one December evening in the Fast4Families tent on the National Mall. What does a member of Congress say to a nine-year-old whose father or mother was deported?
I remember meeting a frightened young woman from the DR Congo in the Don Hutto Federal Women’s Detention Center in Taylor, Texas. One can only imagine the horrors she had experienced. And I remember meeting a frightened middle-aged man from Mexico in the Federal Detention Center in Florence, Arizona, who had been kidnapped by the drug cartel and survived to tell his story. They told him he had to run drugs across the border or they would kill his family.
And I remember hearing the story Luis told about his visit to unaccompanied minors – children –in detention in El Paso, Texas. More than 40,000 come each year, and the number may reach 70,000 this year. Many come looking for their parents, and they draw the same sad pictures I remember from the refugee camps in El Salvador.
Why do people come? Many come to save their lives, many come to reunite with their families, many come for the opportunity to work and to feed their families.
What does this have to do with our faith? We don’t have to look far in the Bible to be reminded that we are to treat the widow, the orphan, and the stranger with compassion. For Christians, we are to welcome them as we would welcome Jesus.
Why are we at the White House and not Congress? Clearly, Congress has the obligation to enact comprehensive immigration reform. But will they do it, and when? Clearly, President Obama has the power to stop the deportations until comprehensive immigration reform is enacted. But will he do it, and when?
Why civil disobedience? This is one of our noblest traditions and one of the cherished safe-guards of our freedom and democracy. In hindsight, we lift up the shining example of Cesar Chavez and the United Farmworkers and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement. Can we do the same for the Dreamers, those undocumented immigrant youth who remind us of our moral heritage?
People of faith and immigrants have met many times with the White House and with Congress. Many have marched and rallied. And I know many of us will continue to do all of these things until there is comprehensive immigration reform that respects the dignity of our immigrant sisters and brothers and responds fully to the call of conscience and demands of faith.
But as people of faith, we cannot wait, because immigrant families have waited too long. The long train of suffering and abuse cries out to citizens and churches alike to act. If we have the power to alleviate human suffering, we cannot not act. Our faith and our conscience compel us to advocate, to organize, to march, and to prophetic action, for the sake of our immigrant sisters and brothers, for the sake of the children, but also for the sake of the soul of our nation.
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” Who will lift that lamp if not us? Who will welcome our immigrant sisters and brothers, if not people of faith and conscience?
Someone said, “If you want to have hope, do hopeful things.” That is why I am joining in this public witness, and in the fast for families. Because I find hope in the courage and fortitude of these immigrant men, women and children, many of them undocumented. Because they are our sisters and brothers. Because I want our nation to be more like that Lady in New York harbor lifting her lamp to welcome the stranger, just as she welcomed our own families not so long ago.
I take hope, also, from Howard Zinn, civil rights activist and author of The Peoples’ History of the United States, who said the following:
“To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.
What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.
And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”
Scott Wright is a member of Pax Christ USA and recently served on the National Council.