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Sermons: “They Take Our Jobs! reflecting on immigration

"Few of their children in the country learn English
Unless the stream of their importation could be turned
they will soon so outnumber us
that all the advantages we have
will not be able to preserve our Language,
and even our Government will become precarious."

Does this sound familiar?
This complaint was actually made by Benjamin Franklin. in the 1750s.
Yes, that Benjamin Franklin, the one some claim as a Unitarian at heart.

He opined, "Those who come hither
are generally of the most ignorant, stupid sort of their Own nation,"
and cited a fellow protectionist who charged
"they are not esteemed Men till they have shown their manhood
in beating their mothers."
While this may sound like the rantings of rightwing radio,
it was the eighteenth-century influx of Germans into Pennsylvania
that prompted ol' Ben to fly his kite
right into the middle of the debate about immigration.

Later, Franklin ominously warned:
"If they are not excluded from the United States by the Constitution,
within less than a hundred years they will stream into this country
in such numbers that they will rule and destroy us..."
This time the "they" about whom he was so concerned were Jews
whose entry into this country he soundly opposed.

More than two-and-a-half centuries later, we're still struggling with this issue.
The claims and warnings made about the injurious affects of immigration
are, at times, equally repugnant and dubious.
Beacon Press, our own denomination's publishing house,
recently published a book called "They Take Our Jobs!"
and 20 other myths about immigration.
This time the word "myth" is not being used to mean
"one of humankind's founding, grounding stories"
but, rather, inaccurate claims based on misinformation.

Because of the complexity of this issue and the limitation of our time,
I'll briefly visit only the first of these so-called "myths."
Author Avia Chomsky writes: ‘Immigrants take American jobs'
is one of the most common arguments brandished
to justify the need for a restrictive immigration policy."
No doubt, we've all heard that claim.

Chomsky counters: "The first fallacy lies in the very concept of ‘American' jobs.
In fact, today's economy is so globally integrated
that the idea of jobs having a national identity is practically useless."
She points up the history of U.S. industry seeking to reduce costs by employing
"the poorest, most vulnerable people."
As unions and labor laws in this nation made it possible
for workers to participate in the benefits of industrialization,
companies began to seek cheaper labor elsewhere.
Often aided by our own government, companies have been financially rewarded
for their participation in what some analysts call the "race to the bottom,"
the concerted effort to find cheaper and cheaper workers
around the world.

I was on a Corporate Responsibility Committee
for a major Catholic heathcare system,
and in that role participated in a border witness trip
to that astounding area in Mexico just south of Texas.
Venturing back into a huge shanty town
filled with workers in the so-called maquiladora industries,
we stopped and talked with a woman who produced a pay stub.
She made less than $1 an hour assembling dashboards for a U.S. automaker.
Her husband was employed by a U.S. electronics company.
Lured to the border by promises of good jobs,
their wages instead kept them confined to a sprawling shanty with
ramshackle dwellings,
little running water or electricity, and
children playing in dusty streets filed with stench.

We live in and benefit from a global economy.
The things we wear, drive, eat and use
are cheaper because some, like this young couple,
provide an inexpensive source of labor.
These workers now compete in a global economy,
one that needs cheap labor to thrive.
So, as Chomsky notes, the notion of jobs having a national identity
is increasingly anachronistic.

She goes on to cite studies that demonstrate
a much more complex relationship between
immigration and job loss or gain than seems apparent.
One of these concludes: "no consistent pattern emerges
to show that native-born workers suffered or benefited
from increased numbers of foreign-born workers."
Whether or not this is the case, it is considerably more apparent that
the profitability of companies is enhanced
when they are free to seek cheap labor anywhere in the world.

That's one of my questions in the debate about immigration.
Can you make a moral case, a moral case,
for mobile capital and an immobile workforce?
That is, how does one morally defend a system that says,
if you already have resources,
you are free to make money anywhere in the world.
However, if you are "just" a worker,
you are confined to your own national borders.

We do live in a global economy.
But, do we think globally?
Do we act globally?
Do we do our ethics globally?

We are the ones recognizing and professing a "respect for
the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part."
Where immigration is concerned, to whom does the "we" in that statement refer?
Who are "we?"

I am not reticence to acknowledge my patriotism.
I love this country.
I regularly celebrate what is so wonderful about it.
I'm one of those people who actually stops and sings the national anthem
at sporting events.
It's a little expression of gratitude for all of the benefits I enjoy as a U.S. citizen.

But, my faith reminds me, my ultimate allegiance is not to this country.
My ultimate self-definition is not as a U.S. citizen.
When I say "we," I am constantly challenged to think in larger categories.
Not "we" meaning men.
Not "we" meaning white people.
Not "we" meaning straight people.
Not "we" meaning well educated, liberals.
And not even "we" meaning citizens of this country.

As we reflect on complex issues like immigration,
as we overhear the voices of Charlotte's immigrants,
our faith constantly beckons us beyond
all narrow definitions of "we."
It challenges us to expand our scope,
to recognize that the real implications of a professed belief in
an "interdependent web" may be less about
a peaceful stroll through nature
and more about the incredible personal dilemmas fostered
by our participation in a global economy
based on worker exploitation.

Maybe that's how we can contribute to the still-raging debate about immigration.
Not from a self-interested standpoint asking "what's in it for me."
Not from a nationalist viewpoint seeing it as an "us" vs. "them" battle.
But from the worldview of the interdependent web
recognizing that, in the end, there are no "they's."
There are only "we's."

This doesn't offer us any easy, obvious answers.
It does suggest a starting point for the conversation.
It's one Joseph Campbell commended.
Using myth as one of the founding, grounding stories of humankind, he urged:
"the only myth that is going to be worth thinking about
in the immediate future is one that is talking about the planet,
not the city, not these people, but the planet,
and everybody on it."
For which our faith, in hope and commitment, prays:
May it be so.

Copyright: The author has given Unitarian Universalist Association member congregations permission to reprint this piece for use in public worship. Any reprints must acknowledge the name of the author.

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Last updated on Monday, March 25, 2013.

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