Arizona’s Opportunity to Really Challenge the Immigration Crisis
David R. Weiss, July 23, 2010
Exactly seventy years ago, in northern Indiana, on a hot July night, my great-grandmother endured yet another insult to her heritage. It was during World War II, and neighborhood kids—or men, for all she knew—regularly scrawled “Nazi” on the stone wall that bordered the front yard. Great-grandma Weiss had no sympathy for Hitler. But she spoke German, and in those days of patriotic fervor, her language alone was enough to identify her as “the enemy” in the eyes of her neighbors.
On July 29 Arizona’s new immigration law will make every Spanish-speaking person in the state “the enemy.” Every one of them will be required to carry proof of their immigration status—and to show it to any police officer who asks to see it.
My uncle, who now resides in Arizona, will also technically be required to carry proof of his immigration status. But as a third-generation German immigrant, who doesn’t speak any German and who would never be mistaken for Hispanic, the odds are miniscule that he’ll ever be asked to show his. He’ll never feel the threat of his ethnic heritage hang over him the way my great-grandmother did. I wonder how he feels about this new law that will cloak other grandmothers in the same fear that cloaked his own just two generations ago.
Having lived the last two decades in Iowa and Minnesota, where migrant labor is common, I know that we desperately need immigration reform. Although, truth be told, I doubt many of us northerners would line up each morning to toil in the fields or slaughterhouses in exchange for the working conditions and wages that our migrant laborers enjoy.
And unquestionably in Arizona the press of undocumented persons across the border makes the brokenness of our immigration policy visible in ways that cry out for response. But to respond by crafting a law that will inevitably erase the dignity and eventually the humanity of a whole category of people—and will aim to cloak them all in fear—this will solve nothing.
It will instead betray the ideals on which our nation was founded. In the stirring words of the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all [persons] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” These truths are just as self-evident and these rights are just as unalienable for undocumented persons as for U.S. citizens.
If we are honest today, however, it is not persons but wealth—factories, commodities, capital—that moves freely across borders in pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness (or, put into plain English: in pursuit of free trade, low wages, and unfettered profit).
Actually, I’d welcome Arizona taking a bold position of leadership on immigration reform. But I’d like to see it address the roots of the immigration crisis rather than the symptoms. And the roots of the crisis lie in U.S. economic policies that despoil the countries south of our borders and impoverish their people—and do so in order to make most of us live better and more cheaply and to make a few of us obscenely rich.
The “way of life” we so prize is affordable to us only by making life abjectly miserable for others elsewhere on the globe. It is a closed circle, and as long as we make life unbearable for people to our south, some portion of them will do their best to come north, showing the same courage, ingenuity, fortitude, and sheer passion that we so honor in the immigrants whose bloodline we happen to share.
So I hope Arizona makes a real stand. I’d like to see them require that all goods imported into the state be produced under conditions that pay a fair wage to the workers, show stewardship of the land, and respect the integrity of the communities—especially in the lands that lie to their south. And even to be relentless and annoying if necessary, in pressing for full documentation of all goods entering Arizona. To do otherwise is to engage in licensed piracy. As a nation we obviously have the power to get away with that. But we have no right. Absolutely none.
If Arizona does this, they might even spark a national conversation around and reform of the inhumane trade policies that drive the immigration crisis. Then Arizona could rightfully and proudly claim to have made a real contribution toward a just immigration policy. As it stands, they’re only making it open season on people like my great-grandmother. And there’s nothing to be proud in that.
David R. Weiss is the author of To the Tune of a Welcoming God: Lyrical reflections on sexuality, spirituality and the wideness of God’s welcome (2008, Langdon Street Press). A theologian, writer, poet and hymnist committed to doing “public theology,” David lives in St. Paul, Minnesota and is a self-employed speaker and writer around issues of sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and at https://tothetune.wordpress.com.