20 November 2014

"We were strangers once, too."

E pluribus unum. Source.  
Source: my first passport.  
I had completely different plans for today's post, but then I was driving home this evening from Eugene Friends Church when I heard the U.S. president begin his speech on immigration policy. We reached our destination long before the speech ended, but I continued sitting in the parked car to the end of the speech, and for a while afterwards.

Obama's opponents have been sharpening their knives ever since elements of the plan announced tonight have started to appear. Of all the areas where they have fought him, the anger and invective directed at this specific initiative have been among the hardest for me to fathom. The previous president turned our national treasury from surplus to deficit, started two ruinous wars, weakened constitutional protections against invasions of privacy, and supported torture, with barely a peep from the same politicians who are now denouncing Obama's effort to address the USA's dysfunctional approach to immigration. Those same politicians could have supported bipartisan congressional action but abandoned the field from fear of the latest wave of xenophobes. (See this fascinating Politico.com account with its summary of the effect of Eric Cantor's primary election defeat.)

Tonight, Obama presented a very simple message: we cannot offer unlimited mass amnesty, nor are we realistically able to deport everyone who doesn't have the right papers. Neither approach is compatible with the rule of law or the nation's values. The present situation isn't defensible, either: millions of people are simply trapped in the shadows, subject to exploitation and the constant threat of families being ripped apart. In this climate of political intransigence on the part of those who have the legislative power to make things better, and (what Obama didn't say directly) the increasingly effective advocacy of immigration reformers, he had no choice but to offer a pragmatic way forward.

Above and beyond all the policy issues is the plain command of God, paraphrased by Obama from Exodus 23:9. "Scripture tells us that we shall not oppress a stranger, for we know the heart of a stranger -- we were strangers once, too. My fellow Americans, we are and always will be a nation of immigrants. We were strangers once, too." What really moved me was Obama's paraphrase of Exodus: "we" instead of "you." This is the element that has been disastrously missing from the toxic debate over immigration reform. As an immigrant to the USA, I had always assumed that "we Americans" included me, despite my foreign birth and my quota number. As a school child, even before I actually became a naturalized citizen, every school day I put my hand on my heart and with childish naivete recited the Pledge of Allegiance to "one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

I know that the road to complete immigration reform will be long and hard. Sometimes the claims of justice and security will be hard to reconcile. But if everyone who cherishes the Bible would take Exodus seriously and look at the "stranger" as one of "us," and those complications as a challenge that "we" tackle together, refusing to give in to that old American tradition of nativist scare tactics, wouldn't we be a lot closer to the goal?

Or would we honestly prefer another five, ten, twenty years of limbo for the men, women, and children we refuse to include in that Exodus standard? Is that who we think we are?

Seems like just yesterday ... Reedwood Friends Church's minute on immigration enforcement.

"Religion in Latin America: Widespread Change in a Historically Catholic Region." I was glad that this study referenced David Stoll's fascinating book from 24 years ago, Is Latin America Turning Protestant?

KKK vs Anonymous--ZDNet's summary of the recent clash.

I must lead a sheltered life. Oxford Dictionary's word of the year is a verb I'd never run into.

I had been a U.S. citizen for all of three years when I fell in love with the blues. This musician, J.B. Hutto, was one of the reasons.


Mindful Searcher said...

Thank you, Johan. Well said.

Johan Maurer said...

Thanks for the affirmation!

Anonymous said...

I always appreciate your thoughtful pieces, Johan, and I'm in agreement with your basic thesis here. It makes no sense to me that the right is going ballistic over the President's initiative on immigration policy. We can't deport millions at once, there has to be some kind of triage and his makes sense, the immigration courts are already choked, and so forth. What bothers me is the use of the nominative form when stating opinion. That is, pronouncing opinion as fact. For instance, "two ruinous wars." As a lifelong pacifist, of course I doubt the wisdom of these, as of any, wars. Ruinous? That's your opinion, yet you state it as fact. We can't know, for instance, what greater ruination might have occurred had these wars not taken place, in which case they could be considered a necessary evil by non-pacifists. Mainly, I'm concerned about the characterization of those who oppose Mr. Obama's new directives as xenophobes. I know you didn't say they all are. I personally doubt that very many are, which is where we differ it seems. Most people I know who hold the basic Republican view on immigration place the value "rule of law" over the value "compassion to those who come seeking a better life." It's not all one way or the other. They share the latter value. They see the former as more foundational. Perhaps my conservative friends don't represent the mainstream, but I suspect they do. Your posts are usually more even-handed, so I'm surprised this time to see more partisanship.

Johan Maurer said...

Thanks for thoughtful comments.

First of all, my blog is probably 100% opinion. Even if I claim something is a fact, you're probably getting my biased description or my evaluation. I never disguised my belief that President Bush's war was immoral, criminal, and evil. Maybe my calmer approach since then has led some people to think I don't have strong biases.

Next, I didn't say that all those who oppose Obama's immigration proposals are xenophobes. I was referring to the sudden retreat from a bipartisan House of Representatives proposal after the defeat of Eric Cantor. It was the campaign against "softness" on immigration that seemed to have defeated him and frightened others. I am sure that among those who use the anti-foreigners card in politics are genuine xenophobes as well as others who simply exploit the issue for political gain, but to me the net effect is xenophobic. Of course it is possible that I'm giving more weight to the Politico article than I should--but readers are free to evaluate it for themselves.

Am I guilty of drawing "we/they" lines in my blog post after criticizing others for doing so? I don't believe that "we" should be afraid of honest conflict within the community. People of goodwill can, for example, differ on the trade-offs between security and justice, and even have strong feelings about those differences. But we do not have the power to exclude or to deport. We may argue and struggle, but we remain "we."

You are right to challenge intemperate language on my blog, and I hope you keep doing so. I appreciated this page on Andrew Sullivan's blog, and maybe should do more to show the same courtesy he advocates. Even so, I can't pretend to be even-handed when I see the outrageous lack of a wider and more humane perspective on the part of those who claim either Christian or patriotic righteousness.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your article, Johan. I'm not ashamed of Christ, but I'm ashamed of much of what American Christianity has become. Heaven forbid that the President should use Scripture to back up a humane solution to the immigration problem without first asking permission from the Republicans! I enjoyed this article on Patheos: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/unfundamentalistchristians/2014/11/last-night-our-president-sounded-like-jesus/