Immigration has been reduced to two options: the naïve and ahistorical legal route or the sentimental and anecdotal one. Both approaches and parties argue one side or the other, and the politics and rhetoric generated from that empty strategy are as clueless and predictable as they are terrifying. The terror of the present situation at the border between the United States and Mexico is that it risks becoming institutionalized, branded into the flesh of our collective psyche and imagination. It is an ahistorical, arbitrary, and brutal barrier.
The United States must stop living in a scapegoating lie. Let’s face up to it: Our most basic services (food, farming, building) are provided by people from other countries, especially Mexico. The laws under which “illegal” immigrants live are fundamentally unjust. They are skewed toward corporations that take advantage of a labor force that’s legally captive. The corporations also collude in propagating laws that are designed to keep that labor force legally captive. We then have the temerity to impute the label illegal to these people whom we clearly need.
The “border” itself is suspicious, especially when we consider the fact that our way of life in the United Stated is already built on the presumption of cheap, exploitable labor, for which the border is simply risk absorbed by those already exploited. We would venture to say that Mexican hands cook most of the restaurant Italian food in this country. The more important point is that, besides the covert and hidden ways we collectively profit from undocumented labor, there is the economic principle that is invoked on both sides of the U.S. political establishment: global capitalism. The idea, made concrete in NAFTA and countless political speeches and policies, by which goods and capital can move as freely as possible across borders, with little to no restraint, whereas people and their families are glued to their geopolitical and temporal conditions, is a perverse and inverted reversal.
The perversity behind these double standards approaches what the British did to the Irish. We live off the fat of exploited Mexican cheap labor, then like Trevelyan we moralize at the workers for not educating themselves, for not speaking English, for being moral retrogrades. One can’t imagine the pressure on undocumented workers (essential to our economy) when one’s own parents, legal immigrants, could barely find time to learn English (especially if one had to call welfare and Social Security for them as an eight-year-old). These same parents would sometimes wander off walking around the neighborhood randomly because they couldn’t take the pressure anymore. You can’t even begin to imagine how many times, as a legal, one hears good Americans (many, if not most of them, Christians) tell you to go back where you came from. Something needs to be done and we, the authors, must say we’re proud to see the bishops sticking their necks out on this very unpopular life issue. Unjust laws should be opposed.
Of course, the demands we make on Mexican immigrants ignore the obvious fact that there are millions of Mexicans who are not, and never have been, immigrants. Some of our ancestors, for instance, are mestizos of Hispanic origins, yet never crossed a border to enter the U.S. Quite the reverse, the U.S. border literally crossed them. It is difficult to think honestly about the geopolitical history of the southwestern United States and not find deep and real solidarity between the Mexicans who were crossed by the border and the ones who it missed. After all, it only takes a simple geography lesson to see how Mexican the U.S. side of the Southwest still is; just listen to the names: Los Angeles, Santa Fe, Las Vegas, San Antonio, San Diego, Las Cruces, Sacramento. It is also no coincidence that these are all religious, Catholic nomenclatures. Don’t forget the Irish (and Italians and Poles): There is something deeply protestant and anti-Catholic in the nativist sentiments that surround Mexican immigrants. Unlike the Catholic immigrants from Europe, Mexicans suffer from a double bind when the colonial implication of their relationship to the U.S. is ignored willy-nilly.
This is why the Catholics need to look beyond national loyalties on this issue and many others. In 1960, when John F. Kennedy promised the Southern Baptists that he wasn’t going to be taking orders from Rome, he was telling them that he wouldn’t take the Vatican hardline on supporting the Civil Rights movement. Where has this gotten Catholics in American public life? Nowhere.
It is a religious and political dead end. The Republicans hold the Catholic right hostage over abortion, while the Democrats hold the Catholic left hostage over healthcare. In the end, both politicized sides of American Catholicism lose out by acknowledging an authority higher than the Vicar of Christ. They become Protestantized by refusing to see the issues in a more (both in the lower case and the capitalized sense of the word) catholic way. It is high time we roll back the Kennedy promise in order not only to regain relevance but to recover our very identity as children of God. If not for ourselves, then at least so we can come closer to treating the outcast, widow, and foreigner as a child of God.
Not all immigrants are created equal. One reason that German immigrants, for instance, came “legally” is because they came from Germany. In other words, when crossing the Atlantic Ocean, as opposed to the Rio Grande River, material conditions create their own set of rules and processes. A German immigrant has a different sort of claim to make when immigrating to the U.S. as opposed to the Netherlands. This ought to be obvious enough, and all obfuscation of the material conditions that unite and separate the U.S. and Mexico, especially in the Southwest, is rooted in ideology instead of elementary geography and political history. We are all children of God, and we are also inhabitants of common places and spaces with real temporal conditions. Real families and people from Mexico have a unique claim on these lands, in a way that is asymmetrical because of the imperial status of the United States. To ask for “equal treatment” is to ask for the treatment that lost the Southwest in the first place.
The United States was founded by anarchic British Protestant immigrants, who oppressed and in many cases killed the local people, with a native claim to this land. This act still cries out for justice and even for mercy and reconciliation. There is a fragile solidarity between the plight of the Indigena and the Mestizo, the Navajo and the Mexican, the native and the other one living on the other side. May we, as Catholics, guided by the message of Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of the Americas, stand and pray and even act in a way that gives voice to those who suffer in fear and pointless despair.
Please share with your local church and state officials and affix your name below, in solidarity.