Dispatches from the Borderlands: Missing Voices

In the late summer of 2006 a young woman facing deportation to Mexico sought sanctuary in the Adalberto Methodist church in Chicago; the sight of Elvira Arellano, sitting in a church pew with her 7-year-old US-born son in her lap, pushed many buttons. Legal fundamentalists painted a one-dimensional portrait of an audacious fugitive (Arrellano had organized pro-immigrant rallies in Chicago). Seasoned veterans of the Central American sanctuary movement and Bible scholars saw yet one more iteration of an ancient practice of legal and humanitarian relief. Like Rorschach ink blots, the Arellano case provoked vastly different interpretations.

The current immigration reform impasse caps a decade of argument over the vexing question of strangers in our midst. What to do with the 12 million estimated undocumented aliens laboring to keep us fed, clothed, and sheltered, their 3 million US-born children studying alongside our own, and the predatory elements (smugglers, agribusiness, hotel chains, restauranteurs, and consumers) that feed cheaply off their precarious status at the bottom of our economic food chain? How to balance national security concerns with pragmatic ones over economic productivity? The debate has drawn the usual cast of advocates: policy wonks, border vigilantes, and religious leaders.

Some religious leaders, that is: Others have been notable in their silence.

In the case of Arellano, bishops from Mexico and the US, acting in congruence with longstanding social doctrine, issued joint proclamations of pastoral concern. In February 2006 Los Angeles cardinal Roger Mahoney drew a line in the sand in the face of prospective criminalization of pastoral ministry. Mainline Protestant leaders, such as Arizona United Methodist Bishop Minerva Carcaño, have weighed in forcefully in favor of a comprehensive reform; so have some Latino evangelical and Pentecostal leaders through Christians for Comprehensive Immigration Reform and other coalitions. In an era of muscular public morality, this advocacy is not surprising. Unfortunately, Latino religious leaders lack the bully pulpit of a Catholic cardinal, and the prelate’s moral power has been diminished by the Catholic Church’s sex scandals.

More importantly, what should we make of the missing? Where are the leadership of the Latter Day Saints, the Seventh-day Adventists, the Assemblies of God, the Church of God, the United Pentecostal Church, the Apostolic Assembly and other groups whose churches, according to the Hispanic Church in American Public Life project (newly confirmed by the Pew Center for the Study of Religion), have long thrived among and because of migrant populations? It is not that the public square has been hostile to their moral concerns; recent election cycles have disproved that. Yet, for some reason, they have remained AWOL in the immigration debate, leaving the sojourners in their pews—whom they otherwise call brothers and sisters in the faith—to a capricious fate. Perhaps the comfort of American Zion has deadened entrails of compassion, smothered prophetic voices, and caused amnesia.

As in all religious traditions, memory can inform the present. Pentecostal and Baptist churches in the Southwest and Midwest were impacted severely by the mass repatriation of the 1930s, when nearly one out of every three Mexicans and Mexican Americans was forced out of the country. U.S. citizens were leveraged out of the country because of strong family ties. The repatriation of the Depression’s scapegoats decimated Latino church membership and ministerial rolls. A body blow was dealt to a community attempting, like other ethnic groups, to move into the American mainstream (the crucible of military service in World War II helped to overcome the setback). The draconian measures championed by some politicians and opinion shapers would repeat this wrenching experience for, among others, 3 million young U.S. citizens.

As we flirt with legalized xenophobia and family disintegration, perhaps the silent shepherds will take up the ancient cloak of Mordecai and Esther and speak a prophetic word of remonstrance. To begin with, the ministers can remind us of the obvious: there has been much hypocrisy in the immigration debate. All have sinned. The cheap salads and meats consumed at immigration policy conferences and stored in the homes of suburban America were placed there through the labor and sweat of “illegals” (so, too, were those suburban homes); the wine and bread served at communion tables arrived through “illegal” hands. After foisting “free trade” schemes on to the vulnerable Mexican countryside, we feign shock at the consequent intensification of the northward flow of desperate farmers escaping the flood of subsidized American corn. Or, having glutted the worldwide coffee market with ambitious development schemes (in Vietnam), we wonder why thousands of farmers from southern Mexico and Central America, forced by the handful of global coffee traders to sell at a loss, have abandoned their milpas and headed north in order to survive.

While raking in seven billion dollars a year in migrant-supplied subsidies for our retirement, we decry the economic burden represented by these sojourners and their “anchor babies.” While brandishing “family values,” we denounce the normal reproductive and affective activity of healthy adults—most of them married at religious altars—in prime childbearing years. While heaping onerous penalties on workers, we, the complicit beneficiaries of a decades-old system, get off scot free—much like the absent male partner of the adulterous woman dragged before Jesus for punishment. While declaring the immigration reform of 1986 a failure, we posthumously praise the beneficiaries of that amnesty for dying in military service in Iraq. While demanding stricter border security, we forget that such measures have grossly inflated the number of undocumented immigrants residing in the US. Half of these used to return to Mexico annually, but researchers now estimate that only one-fourth do so today; stricter border enforcement measures since 1994 have staunched the cyclical flow of the return home of millions. The crisis of 12 million “illegal” immigrants is one of our own creation.

The missing clergy could also lay healing hands on a body politic fevered by xenophobia. These churches all proclaim a universal message of brotherhood. Indeed, the enormous overseas constituencies of the LDS, Seventh-day Adventist, Assemblies of God, and United Pentecostal Church International outnumber the domestic membership of these quintessentially American denominations. As globalizing churches they can ill afford to remain captive inside Fortress America; as pilgrim churches they remind all Americans of our time as sojourners and of the enduring value of hospitality. Their histories and religious texts offer examples of trespassers, lawbreakers, and refugees from hardship and capricious law enforcement. (Think Joseph Smith and Navoou.)

Or take a biblical tale, common to all Christian denominations, the story of a melancholy returned migrant widow, Naomi, and her foreign-born (also widowed) daughter-in-law, Ruth. Naomi’s widowhood was made bearable through Ruth’s labor and second marriage. Like Elvira Arellano, the intrepid Ruth inserted herself into the messianic genealogy of her host nation.

What a contrast to the modern Malthusian premises of zero-sum economics that tilt the lopsided analyses of the exclusionist think tanks, the muckraking reportage of cable news, and the scapegoating rhetoric of politicians! Like the biblical matriarchs, Americans and Mexicans and others are condemned—or blessed—by history and geography to work out joint solutions for each other’s wellbeing. The cool shade of solidarity’s tree offers relief from the withering heat of fear. Can the missing preachers lead us there?