Immigration and Opportunity by Duffy Peet

February 13, 2011 – The First Parish of Watertown

Call to Worship – “The New Colosus” by Emma Lazarus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land; 

Here at our sea-washed sunset gates shall stand 

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame 

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name 

Mother of Exiles.  From her beacon-hand 

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command 

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame. 

“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she 

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor, 

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, 

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. 

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, 

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Poem – “Nuestre Madre/Our Mother” by Ricardo Calleja

Isabel sells jewelry at Harvard Square,

her cart brimming  with gold and silver objects

made by poorly paid  Latin American  hands.

The years pass but her voice  does not lose

the cadence of her native Bogota

high up in the misty Andes.

She complains of loneliness

but like a child cast out by a cruel mother

she knows she cannot go back.

Thus Latin America spills us out onto the world,

an ambivalent, conflicted mother

who smothers her children with

volcanic eruptions and dictatorial embraces.

Yet we hold on to her accents

hawk her wares in northern markets

unfurl her flag in ethnic pride parades.

On winter afternoons we get nostalgic 

for her warmth, her scents, her plazas

but the wounds of our childhoods

keep us a way.

On winter afternoons

we long for the mother

who cast us out 

and sent us fleeing

to this northern land                                

that was cleared for settlement

by genocide.

Reading – “Too much pluribus and not enough unum?” by Ricardo Calleja

  E pluribus unum, out of the many, one it says right above the eagle’s head on the back of a dollar bill. “There’s just too much pluribus and not enough unum in these disunited states,” I heard someone lament the other day.  He was nostalgic for a mythological past when the United States was the great melting pot, when upon arriving on our shores, people from all corners of the earth willingly left behind their foreign ways, got rid of their accents and simply became Americans. 

      Most of the people that I’m friends with embrace diversity.  They do not subscribe to the melting pot ideal.  They prefer the tossed salad metaphor for our society instead.  They think it’s possible for people to enjoy the fruits of American freedom and democracy without having to give up the customs, traditions and flavors from other parts of the world that make them unique. 

     I agree with them. I think it’s possible to have both pluribus and unum. I believe that it’s possible to be part of a tossed salad in which people from different backgrounds live in harmony with each other and respect each other’s differences while striving for common ground.  I believe in a tossed salad in which the tomatoes, the lettuce and the cucumbers can contribute their unique flavors without fighting each other.

    I’m proud to be one of the millions of hyphenated Americans, a Cuban -American in fact.  When I came here at the age of 12 from Cuba, I knew I had to learn English quickly,  I understood that I had to adopt  new customs and traditions  but that did not mean that I had to forget Spanish, and give up the customs and traditions of my native country.  My life is richer because I am a bilingual, bicultural person.  I live in English and Spanish I laugh at jokes, read novels and even dream in both languages.  I celebrate the 4th of July and Thanksgiving but I never stopped celebrating the feast of the virgin of Charity, Noche Buena and Three Kings day.  I became a big fan of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin but I never stopped listening to Cuban greats Celia Cruz, Willy Chrino and Orquesta Aragón. 

       It seems that lately our country, the United States is becoming more distrustful of the other – the person who looks different, speaks with an accent, worships God in a different form, or does not have the proper paperwork to walk among us.  Some speak about the other in less than human terms, like the politicians who rail against “illegal aliens” – blaming them for bringing down wages, accusing them of committing crimes and mooching off our social welfare system.  But those same politicians and their supporters look the other way when those same undocumented workers  perform  the truly tough work very few want to do in our country – pick lettuce, slaughter hogs, take care of the elderly, clean houses,  and mow laws. 

     It seems we’re entering a nativist (America is only for Americans) time in our history.  We’re circling the wagons and pulling up the welcome mat.  The United States, a country built by immigrants, does not seem to want to welcome any more immigrants.  Or else we only want immigrants who already speak perfect English and know our constitution by heart. Those strict criteria would have kept my family out. We came without knowing the English language but we had the desire to rebuild our lives and to be productive citizens. My father barely learned any English even after living in this country for 20 years. He was simply too tired after working 60 hour weeks to attend classes, or meet with a tutor, but that does not mean he did not love his adoptive country or bring two children who love it as well..   

      This past fall you couldn’t turn on the television without seeing ads by the candidates for the US senate from the state of New Hampshire. One candidate in particular wanted to make sure that everyone who comes to this country learns the English language in weeks and becomes versed in our constitution or he will be getting a one way ticket out of the live free or die state. I do not entirely disagree. Everyone who comes to this country should learn as much English as possible and be familiar with our laws. But learning English is not easy, especially for older adults. Is that same candidate now that she’s been elected senator willing to fund English classes for working immigrants?

     As a language teacher I know it requires over a thousand hours of study for someone to become proficient in a language. To become truly fluent in a language a person needs to associate with native speakers who are willing to take the time to converse with them in English and introduce her to  the customs and traditions of her new country.  How many people in our busy society are willing to reach out to immigrant and help her practice her English and become acquainted with our customs and traditions? How many people are willing to invite a new comer to a fourth of July picnic or to celebrate Thanksgiving Day with their family? 

      “Lo cortes no quita lo valiente says the Spanish proverb – You can be both brave and polite.  I can be both Cuban and American. I need my two cultures the same way a bird needs both of its wings to fly. Diversity enriches our country. Imagine how boring and colorless our country would be without the contributions from so many ethnic groups who because of war, famine, religious persecution or economic deprivation had to flee their homeland and start a new life in America. We would have no jazz, no Chinese food, no transcontinental railway, no Hollywood movies, no Albert Einstein, no Carlos Santana, no Arnold Schwartzsnagger and probably no sense of humor.

    We would be a gigantic suburb of England instead of the greatest country on the planet earth.

Sermon – “Immigration and Opportunity” – Duffy Peet

When I was a youth it seemed like all of the adults in the community knew everyone who lived in town as well as all of the farmers who lived in the surrounding countryside. No matter where I was, or who was around, if I did something I wasn’t supposed to, my parents always knew all about it before I got home. Growing up in such a community had its advantages and its disadvantages. I always had the sense that I would be protected and sheltered from harm. Most of the time I was sheltered from the harsh realities of life, realities that I now realize were important for me to learn about.

But there were times when the community’s usual way of life would be disrupted. Every year for a few months there would be an influx of strangers to the community. The strangers looked and acted differently than almost everyone I knew. Their skin was darker than mine and the way they dressed wasn’t like anyone who lived in the community. Not only that, they spoke a language that I couldn’t understand and neither could any of the adults I knew. It was obvious these people were “outsiders.” These people were migrant laborers who would come to work in the fields each summer. Those who came to work in the fields weren’t just men, whole families came. Wives and children worked the fields along with husbands and fathers. They lived in what were commonly called “migrant shacks” because that was what they looked like, shacks. They were square, one room buildings with no running water and a single incandescent light hanging in the middle of the room. There was no privacy and sometimes two or three families would have to share one “shack.” Most of those who came were from Mexico. They would begin arriving in June, just a few of them. By August though there were hundreds of them. That was a lot for a county with a population of less than 35,000. Then once the crops were harvested in September they would all leave.

From the time I was very young I could tell that the people of the community didn’t like these strangers. I could tell it by the looks on people’s faces and by the way they would speak about these visitors but they wouldn’t speak to them. The message most evident in the community was that the people who had come to work in the fields weren’t appreciated and they weren’t welcome. Before I reached my teens I had learned the mannerisms of disdain and the disparaging words that were so often used by the people I knew. I used the mannerisms and the words myself back then. Then I believed that the people I knew must be correct. These strangers somehow deserved to be treated badly. They were using up the limited local services in the area and taking job opportunities from the people in the community. But, like so many things I believed earlier in my life, I came to discover that not everything I was taught was true or right.

My discovery began the summer after I turned fourteen. By that time my two older sisters had their driver’s licenses. I was beginning to fantasize about getting my license and being able to drive whenever I wanted to. But there was a problem. Unless I could somehow buy my own car I would be relegated to fourth in line for use of the family vehicle. I was desperate to earn money and begin saving. The only means of transportation I had available to get to a job were my two feet and a one-speed bicycle with very wide tires. Neither of these would get me very far and both were a slow way to go. Then a friend told me of a great opportunity. Six days a week a farm truck would come to a bank parking lot just a couple of blocks from my house and pick up anyone who wanted to work in the fields. The truck would take you out to the job and bring you back at the end of the day and you didn’t have to pay for the ride. Initially it seemed to be exactly what I was looking for. It sounded too good to be true ‒ and it was. In order to get the ride, you had to be on the truck by 6 in the morning and it didn’t bring you back until 6 that evening or sometimes even later. If the weather was really hot and sunny or if it rained cats and dogs you were out in it all day. As much as I wanted to earn money that summer, I could never seem to get myself up and moving in time to be ready to catch the ride. Several of my friends had claimed they were going to ride the truck and work in the fields that summer. I later learned that not a one of them ever did so. There was more I discovered as well. If you took the truck to the fields you earned money the way the migrant laborers did, by how much you picked, not by how long you worked. If you weren’t really speedy you could work all day and only make a couple of dollars. While the wage requirements have changed over the years the pay is still very low and the work is dirty and physically demanding. I know because I spent the summers when I was sixteen and seventeen working in the fields, weeding fields of beans and pickles, and bailing straw and hay. But I got paid by the hour, not by the job, which meant that when I had to stop to take a break I was still getting paid. 

By the time I graduated from High School I had come to realize that without all of those people who worked in the fields many of the local farmers wouldn’t be able to harvest their crops. Without the cheap labor they wouldn’t be able to afford to farm. Over the years many of the farmers I knew lost their lands, not because of anything having to do with the migrant laborers but because of the fluctuation of prices for what they grew. Today our government subsidizes crops such as corn in an attempt to help out our farmers. But there is a down side to those subsidies. There has been an abundance of corn grown. As a result, a lot of the corn grown in this country now gets sold in other countries, countries like Mexico. The price of the corn has been so low that the small subsistence farmers in those countries, many of whom are the indigenous people of the land, can’t make enough to support their families anymore. Large numbers of them have been forced from their homes by the need to provide for themselves and their families. 

When I was young, those who migrated to work in the fields where I grew up would typically return to their home countries for several months a year. That was long before we began fortifying our borders. Today, most of the people who come seeking such work go to great lengths to get into this country. Of the approximately one million seasonal farm workers over half don’t have proper legal documentation to be here. Today, most of these people don’t return to their native country out of fear of being caught upon attempting to return here as they seek to provide for themselves and their families. Some people say these people need to abide by the law of our land and should only be here after going through proper channels and obtaining the necessary paperwork. That sounds reasonable, until you begin to look into the channels that need to be navigated and the paperwork that needs to be obtained. The number of non-immigrant temporary/seasonal worker visas available each year wouldn’t be sufficient for even one tenth of those who are undocumented and already working in the fields. And only 5,000 immigrant visas are available each year that a person who was unskilled might qualify for. The backlog of people requesting such “special immigrant status” visas is very, very long. When you begin to look more closely at the immigration system it quickly becomes evident that it is clearly not working. It is obviously not working for those who want to immigrate. But it is also not working for the many employers who need workers and are put in the position of breaking the law when they hire a person who doesn’t have the paperwork to be in this country legally. And what about how the undocumented person and the employer are treated if they are discovered by the authorities. Being in the country without proper documentation and hiring such a person are both considered civil offenses. Neither is considered a criminal act. The employer is required to pay a fine for the civil offense committed. The undocumented worker is immediately put in detention, provided minimal opportunity for legal review and eventually deported, sometimes after weeks or months of being locked up. Once they have been deported there is no possibility for them to legally immigrate.

I have been focusing primarily on those who feel compelled to come here for economic reasons but there are a variety of reasons that people seek to immigrate. Some people want to be with family members who are residents or citizens of our country. Others are fleeing from war or armed combat in their homelands. Some are members of groups that are persecuted in their home countries. And there are those who no longer want to live under oppressive regimes and want to live in a land where freedom and justice are highly valued. There are others as well.  All of the ones I have mentioned seem to me to be reasonable motivations for wanting to immigrate to this country. I find all of these reasons congruent with our UU Principles. Because of how I understand our Principles, as a delegate at the UUA General Assembly this past summer I voted in favor of the proposed Congregational Study/Action Issue titled “Immigration as a Moral Issue.” The issue was approved by a significant majority. As I mentioned during the announcements, I am currently teaching a course on this topic. Another important vote occurred as well. It involved whether or not to hold the 2012 General Assembly in Phoenix, Arizona. A proposal had been made not to have GA there as planned. The proposal was in response to the passage of Arizona S.B. 1070 that allows local authorities to arrest anyone who does not have documentation on their person proving that they are in the country legally. The delegates in attendance decided we should go to Phoenix, but not to do General Assembly as usual. Instead, GA 2012 will focus on social action around the issue of immigration and the plight of those who seek to live in this country and find no reasonable legal option open to them. It seems to me that our current immigration laws and policies as well as the prevailing sentiment in our country convey the message that was so prevalent in the community of my youth. Strangers are not welcome here. Those who are from foreign lands and are struggling will find little if any compassion for their plight in our immigration system. I believe the immigration situation in our country today provides us an opportunity to look at what we consider to be important, at what we value. 

The home town I grew up in provided me with the safety, the stability and the security I needed to become the person I am. The migrant laborers who came each summer and the immigrants I later came to know provided me with the opportunity to recognize that while safety, stability and security are important, there are other things that are just as important and maybe even more so. These are the things that have been spoken of by spiritual teachers for centuries. In the Book of Matthew we find that Jesus responded to the question “What is the highest commandment?” with “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The Buddha, who recognized that suffering is a part of everyone’s life, instructed those who came to him seeking the path to enlightenment to develop and demonstrate compassion for everyone they would encounter. I don’t claim to have the answer of how to solve the current problems regarding immigration. I know that safety, stability and security are important to and for everyone. I also know that love and compassion are important. What seems clear to me is that when our interest in safety, stability and security supersedes our capacity to show love and compassion our humanity is diminished and the world becomes a bit more impoverished. My hope, yes, my desire, is that we can somehow find a way to consider those who would seek to live in this country as our neighbor. And that we can someday learn to love our neighbor as ourselves and show compassion to everyone we encounter.

May it be so. 

Meditation – from Peter Morales (adapted)

Spirit of Love and Life,

On this, the eve of the second Standing on the Side of Love Day, we gather again in spirit across boundaries of time and place. 

We gather once again in a world torn by fear, by hatred, by violence. 

Dear Spirit, remind us once more that we are one, that we are connected, that we need one another. Remind us again that love is powerful, that love endures, and that ultimately love prevails. 

Teach us to allow the love that lives deep within each of us to express itself. 

Teach us to feel, to share, to form strong bonds of love. 

And may the love that lives among us grow so strong that we are compelled to take a stand. 

Let the love among us be courageous, strong and bold. 

May love fill our hearts and guide our path.


Closing Words – from “Standing on the Side of Love” campaign

We are called to love our neighbors and to welcome the stranger.

In the face of fear, may we stand on the side of love.