Sermon: Why I Don’t Believe in Borders

Why I Don’t Believe in Borders

Rev. Jerald Stinson, Pilgrim United Church of Christ, Carlsbad, California
November 28, 1993
Text:  Leviticus 19:33-34

In 1938, a Polish Jew, Zindel Grynszpan, was routed from his home by Nazi police, dispossessed of everything, driven on foot across the German border and incarcerated in the stable of a military camp.  One of 12,000 Jews beaten and deported, he managed to let his son Paris know what had happened.  The angry son took a gun to the German embassy.  Planning to shoot the ambassador, he ended up shooting a counselor named Ernst von Rath.

Now in the meantime, Adolf Hitler was upset with the passivity of the German people.  He felt he needed a crisis to wake people up and a Jew shooting a German diplomat would provide that crisis.  Joseph Goebels, Nazi propaganda chief, arranged anti-Jewish demonstrations to be held all over the nation.  On November 9, the following order was sent to all police stations:  “At very short notice, actions against Jews, especially against their synagogues, will take place through the whole of Germany.  They are not to be hindered.  Preparations are to be made to arrest 20-30,000 Jews; wealthy Jews in particular.”

That night riots inflamed Germany.  So many windows were shattered that the night became known as “Kristallnacht”, night of shattering glass.  76 synagogues were destroyed; another 200 set afire; thousands of homes and shops were burned down.  20,000 Jews were arrested.  And Adolf Hitler had both his crisis and his scapegoat.  Onto the Jews, he heaped all blame for Germany’s economic problems.  People accepted that, and we all know of the holocaust that followed.

Today it is refugees and immigrants in our world who are the scapegoats blamed for economic and social problems everywhere.  There are 17 million refugees throughout the world.  They are mostly fleeing war and famine and as many as 85% of them children.  In addition, there are millions of immigrants simply seeking a better life in a different country.  And both refugees and immigrants face hostility in many, many places.  In Turkey there is anger toward refugees from Iran, Iraq and North Africa.  In Europe there is growing hostility toward people of color coming from anywhere.  Tamils driven out of Sri Lanka are rejected in England, Moroccans are seen as a problem in Italy, and both Germany and Denmark have tightened visa laws to slow down immigration.

Here in the United States we continue our conflicting tradition of hospitality and hostility toward the stranger.  As Benjamin Franklin noted, “America has hailed newcomers to its shores as the bulwark of democracy; however, in times of crisis, it has also used the foreign born as a scapegoat for unsolved social problems.”

For the first hundred years, the United States welcomed immigrants with open arms.  In 1819, Congress encouraged immigration by setting standards for passenger ships to make the voyage to America more comfortable.  Only after the frontier was settled in the late 1800’s did limits on immigration begin.  Ironically, just as the Statue of Liberty in 1886 began welcoming immigrants into New York’s harbor, the United States began turning them away.

The first immigration limits applied to types of people; not numbers.  In 1875 Congress said no to immigration for convicts and prostitutes.  In 1882, pressures of racism led to the Chinese Exclusion Act.  Even as playwright, Israel Zangwill in 1908 coined the phrase, “Melting Pot”, Congress kept adding to the excluded list:  paupers, polygamists, epileptics and the mentally ill.  In 1924, a numerical system of restriction was started.  That was modified in 1952, 1965, 1980 and again a couple years ago.

In a Newsweek survey most Americans today think immigration was a good thing in our nation’s past—it helped make us what we are.  But, 60% of the people in that survey said immigration is a bad thing now.

Even the most liberal people want to distinguish between refugees and immigrants, but those differences are breaking down.  Traditionally, immigrants were those leaving a country voluntarily for economic reasons while refugees left involuntarily for political reasons.  But what about those fleeing grinding poverty and starvation—are they refugees of immigrants?  What about countries where poverty is so closely linked with repressive political systems?

Now our concern about immigrants in the United States relates to several realities.  (1) We are a very rich country and want to remain that way.  (2) Our abundant life style partly depends on exploitation of the poor in other countries, though we don’t like to admit that.  (3) We also have the longest border on earth separating rich and poor.  The exploited poor are literally in our back yard; whether from Mexico or Haiti or Central America.

So in recent months, as political leaders have tried to justify why our economy hasn’t recovered or why urban crime continues, the obvious folks to blame are immigrants.  Is it unfair to link current animosity toward immigrants with Hitler’s kristallnacht?   Yes, perhaps it is unfair in terms of intensity and violence, but it’s not unfair in terms of the need to find a defenseless scapegoat to which blame can be ascribed.

With unemployment in California at nearly 10% and his job-approval rating at only 15%, California’s Governor has launched a crusade against immigrants, saying California is under siege and proposing a constitutional amendment barring citizenship for the offspring of undocumented immigrants.  He also wants to deny health care to pregnant immigrants and expel their children from school.
Now the Governor is a Republican, but this scapegoating is non-partisan.  California’s two Democratic senators have been just as vehement.  Diane Feinstein wants to charge a toll for entering the U.S.  Barbara Boxer wants the National Guard sent to the border.  Attorney General Reno wants to get tough and President Clinton said:  “We must not and will not, surrender our borders to those who wish to exploit our compassion and justice.”

A number of Chinese immigrants were recently pulled from the water off New York City; they were immigrants who voluntarily crammed into the filthy hold of a ship for months at sea in hope of a better life.  In an earlier era, Americans would have empathized with those immigrants.  But not today -- we say:  keep them out!

Now my having said all of this is probably no surprise.  You would expect from me a liberal view of immigration.  I imagine you expect me, from a faith perspective, to call for leniency at the border, and for care and compassion for those who have come across.  You would expect me to argue that increased immigration will not hurt us very much; that scare tactics have been misleading.  And I could do all of that.

I could consider the statistics which are used to justify increased police funding.  If you take those statistics seriously it would mean 1/10th of the population in San Diego County is undocumented -- we all know that’s not the case.

I could quote a Census Bureau and University of Maryland study showing the average immigrant family pays yearly about $2,500 more in taxes than it receives in government services.

I could point to statistics from the office of the state’s Community College Chancellor that show newly amnestied California immigrants paid $8-1/2 billion in federal taxes from 1986 to 1991, but received only $2.8 billion in federal assistance.  Or three recent studies by the Rand Institute, Princeton University and the Urban Institute all show both documented and undocumented immigrants are a positive force both for this state and the nation.

Closer to home, I could cite Vista Community Clinic research that found that 57% of immigrant workers pay social security and federal taxes while only 26% have ever used Medi-Cal; only 16% have used legal services; only 8% have been on welfare of any sort and only 5% on worker’s compensation.  Since most are young men who do not speak English and since health care costs less in Tijuana, only 4% have used a U.S. doctor.

I could highlight the racism.  The most vehement immigrant hysteria is here in California aimed at Hispanic immigrants; this is a state where suddenly the white majority is terrified of what may happen when Asian and Hispanic people begin to outnumber Euro-Americans.  We’d have so many stereotypes.  New York City has ½ million undocumented immigrants - 80% are from Ecuador, Italy and Poland.  But you don’t hear about them; racism and scapegoating are mixed together.

But back to what I am supposed to do.  I imagine it’s no surprise that I make those arguments.  Then you perhaps expect me to call for more generosity and compassion at Christmas.

But I can’t really do that -- or at least, not “just” that.  I feel compiled to go further; to journey to a position where I suspect very few of you would want to go; to a radical stance that few in even a church as liberal as this one would accept.

For you see I don’t think compassion or border liberalism is enough.  No, I think our faith calls on us to get rid of all borders -- to tear down the barbed wire; to remove chain-link fences, to level the checkpoints, to dismantle the guard towers.  I think we need to do that to our border - and all borders.

Now I know that’s not logical.  It’s not practical.  And it might mean endangering our lifestyle as American people.  I know that.  I wish I could be content with just advocating a more compassionate approach to borders; content with their existence.

But you see, this is one of those times when I just can’t get the Biblical message and my faith to justify what I think I would like to see us do.  It’s one of those times when what I truly believe my faith requires means proposing something preposterous and outrageous.

I won’t make any attempt to claim this will improve our style of life - it won’t!  But the point is, I think God requires this.  This land, and all land, belongs to God--the land on which we live and work is not ours, and we have no right to put up those borders.

I think immigration laws and border control are the ultimate in human greed and maybe even self-idolatry.  I mean we moved in and grabbed this land - our forebears like Columbus took it from the Native inhabitants.  Our part of California was founded as a state of Mexico; we took it by violent force in the Mexican War of 1846.  And yet somehow, we are arrogant enough to think it really is ours.  We insist on keeping all this land and its riches for ourselves and our children.

Let me try an analogy developed by Mark Olson.  He talked about affluent people from the suburbs who buy urban slum buildings, bragging about getting them for a “steal”.  Then the poor are evicted, the houses renovated and a family of two moves in where previously twelve had dwelt.  In order to feel safe the new owners put a brick wall around “their” property, install electronic security devices and bars on the windows - and maybe even buy themselves a gun.  Isn’t that what borders are about?

We are protecting what is ours.  But I don’t think it is ours; I think it is God’s.  I am really convinced the Psalmist was right in saying, “The earth is God’s and all that is in it; the world and those who dwell therein.”  This is not OUR land nor OUR wealth--this is God’s land.  We are but stewards serving God.  All good things of creation are gifts of God held in trust for the good of the whole human family.

But we’re scared of what will happen if others come in.  Political refugees are o.k.  They make us feel good, that is if they come from the right country and are the right color.  We’ve always welcomed white Europeans fleeing communism, especially scientists and professionals.  We haven’t been as open to Africans and Latin Americans fleeing repressive regimes that our country has supported.

We’re afraid we might lose our wealth and our life style might decline.  And that might indeed happen if we collapsed our borders.  But so what - this is God’s land, not ours.

That theology seems s basic in the Judeo-Christian tradition.  All lands belong to God; we have no right to abuse the earth nor to hoard its wealth.  But more than that, the Judeo-Christian tradition is full of calls to accept the stranger.

As that disparate band of liberated slaves came together in the new nation of Israel, over and over they spoke of the need to welcome the stranger.  There is a passage in Exodus:  “Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner.”  (Ex. 22:21).

In our scripture, we heard from the Hebrew law:  “When a foreigner resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress that alien.  The foreigner who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the foreigner as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt, and I am the Lord your God.”  You see the Hebrews remembered their own experience with a border.

Or there is a description of Solomon’s census revealing 154,000 resident foreigners in the land of Israel.  (2 Chr. 2:17)  People came and went as needs arose; usually for economic reasons.  And no one seemed to mind.

And not only were Hebrews required to accept foreigners in their midst, they also had to care for them, provide for them, and share with them.  Again from their law code:  “When you harvest your fields, do not cut the grain at the edges of the field and do not go back to cut the heads of the grain that were left.  Leave them for poor people and FOREIGNERS.  For I am the Lord your God.”  (Lev. 19:9-10)

In ancient Israel, it was clear that the wealth they had was God’s wealth meant to be shared with poor strangers; immigrants; migrants in their midst.  In Deuteronomy we read:  “At the end of every third year, bring the tithe of all your crops and store it in your towns.  This food is for the Levites, since they own no property, and for FOREIGNERS, orphans and widows who live in your towns.  They are to come and get all they need.” (Dt. 14:28)  Now think about it.  Can you imagine a large corporate American farm inviting immigrants from Mexico to share in the harvest.  Or Nordstroms holding back a portion of their fall collection to give recent immigrants from Haiti.

The biblical stuff is challenging; not easy; and it doesn’t mesh with our affluent 20th century lifestyle.

Words from another Hebrew prophet, Malachi:  “God Almighty says, ‘I will appear among you to judge, and I will testify at once against those who cheat employees out of their wages and those who take advantage of widows, orphans and FOREIGNERS.” (Mal. 3:5)  Or words attributed to God by the great prophet Jeremiah:  “I the Lord command you to do what is just and right.  Protect people being cheated from the ones cheating them.  Do not mistreat or oppress FOREIGNERS, orphans or widows.”

The Biblical mandate, certainly out of ancient Israel is clear.  Accept and even more than accept, care for foreigners in your midst.  Now maybe we can say that’s ancient thinking relevant only centuries ago.  But I can’t stretch that far; I see no reason to reject that basic morality so important to our religious forebears.

And then of course, there’s Jesus himself.  Jesus who saw no difference between people:  Greeks, Romans, Samaritans, it didn’t matter.  And think about Jesus, the immigrant refugee child.  This is Advent when we retell the story of a poor, young, unwed mother who gave birth to a child in a manger.  Then that mother and her husband had to flee from political repression.  They had to escape the tyranny of Herod, just as people today escape tyranny in Sri Lanka, Haiti and Tibet.  Mary, Joseph and the child raced to the border with Egypt and they were allowed to cross.  They were not stopped at a checkpoint.  They didn’t have to prove by the scars on their backs that they were indeed real political refugees.  No, they simply crossed the border; found sanctuary in a foreign land; and stayed there until it was safe to return.  Jesus, the one at the heart of our faith whose advent we celebrate; Jesus, the light of God’s love, was a refugee child; an immigrant himself.

How would he look upon the border at Otay Mesa?  How would he feel about calling out the National Guard or those who light up the border to spot border crossers so they can be pursued and returned?  How would he treat Jasmine Sanchez, born in a Carlsbad Canyon?

But we’ve got to be practical, don’t we?  It’s insane to knock down the borders?  Won’t we be over-run by people?  Well right now we have one of the world’s least dense populations.  Many countries, including some prosperous ones, have many more people per square mile than we do.  We have a long way to go before our boat is so full it turns over.

Agriculture; think of our resources.  Mexico has so little arable land, we have so much.  Mexicans pour into San Diego county to earn food for their families, and we don’t have enough consumers for the food our farms can produce.  We put up a border to keep out hungry people while our government pays farmers not to plant crops on their land.  Now is that practical?  Is it morally right?

What about foreigners taking away our jobs?  Well some economists say we can have many more people without hurting the economy.  The more people the more demand for goods and services which mean jobs.

But I can’t get trapped trying to rationally justify what I am proposing.  Because in the end it isn’t rational.  Opening our borders probably would cost us something - our standard of living might go down.  There would be much more ethnic diversity so the era of white domination would end.  Mark Olson wrote, “More ethnic enclaves, greater cultural diversity, more languages - that’s hard for some of us to take.  I wonder,” he asked, “if we don’t fear that the newcomers will somehow do to us what we did to the Native Americans before us.”

Oh, eliminating borders would mean change; big changes.  But remember:  “The foreigner who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the foreigner as yourself.”  We tell our children that everyone is a child of God - they are God’s children, their friends are the children of God.  Well, what about our neighbors beyond our border, those we often call “illegal aliens.”  Nobel prize winning novelist Elie Wiesel said, “You who are so-called ‘illegal aliens’ know that no human being can be ‘illegal’.  That is a contradiction.  Human beings can be beautiful or more beautiful, can be right or wrong, but illegal?  How can a human being be illegal?”

Now for me, that is a question of faith?  “Illegal alien” - what a combination of words.  A person somehow illegal in their very being and then alien, an ominous otherness, not our kind.  What an image for a fellow child of God.
Listen to yet one more passage from the Hebrew scriptures, from the Book of Numbers:  “For all time to come, the same rules are binding on you and on the FOREIGNRES who live among you.  You and they are alike in God’s sight.” (Num. 15:15)  There it is, so clear.  We are all alike in God’s sight!

Each of us must struggle with this issue for ourselves.  My answers won’t necessarily work for you.  But I tell you, my faith won’t let me accept the presence of any borders.  My faith compels me, against logic and against my own self-interest, to oppose all immigration quotas, to oppose all efforts to deport people, and to oppose all measures to keep people out of this or any other country.  My faith requires that I call for free and open borders.  To do otherwise is for me a symbol of greed.  This is God’s land.  I am but a steward without the right to keep others away.

In a day of scapegoating, of fear, of what to me is clearly racist immigrant bashing, I think those of us in the Judeo-Christian tradition need a bigger vision and deeper hope.  We must defy logic and realism in order to declare ourselves a haven for economic and political refugees alike.

Remember that symbolic imagery of Jesus that on a final day, God will ask each of us:  when I was hungry did you feed me, when I was thirsty did you give me drink, when I was naked did you clothe me, and when I was a stranger did you welcome me.

The spirit of God dwells in each person seeking to cross our border, whether from Mexico or Haiti, from Poland or China.  Do we dare look upon those strangers and not welcome them?  For remember, “Truly I say to you, just as you did not do to one of the least of these, so you did not do it to me.”  I don’t dare push away the stranger in need!  Amen.