May Day, Immigration, and Social Justice

As I read the news coverage over the weekend, I was struck by the attention given to May Day demonstrations throughout the United States.  May 1 is International Workers Day.  While May 1 doesn’t typically draw much attention in the United States, May Day is observed as Labor Day throughout Europe, Asia, and Latin America.  On May Day, the contributions of workers to society are recognized.

Given the international significance of May Day, probably no other day could have been more appropriate to focus on the plight of immigrant workers in the United States especially given the backdrop of the passage of the Arizona immigration law, SB1070.  In cities throughout the US, thousands of people marches and demonstrate for equitable immigration reform as a human rights issue.

Having lived in Arizona for seven years, I am well aware of the number of people crossing the border illegally with hopes of a brighter economic future in the US.  I have also witnessed the pre-dawn bus loads of undocumented workers taken to agricultural areas outside of Yuma to work 12 hour shifts in 120 + degree weather for just a few dollars a day.  Their back-breaking work enables my family in Missouri to eat fresh fruits and vegetables at a price lower than in other parts of the world.  I have stayed in hotels throughout the country in which no member of the housekeeping staff spoke fluent English.  Their willingness to clean up after those of us who stayed in hotels they could never afford keeps the lodging rates reasonable.  The low cost chicken I enjoy was probably raised and butchered by other undocumented workers.  I can’t forget many Mexican lawn care workers I see each day throughout my suburban neighborhood.  Hundreds of thousands of undocumented workers hold the lowest paid jobs in the American economy.  The work they do is essential to our economic development, stability and the standard of living most Americans take for granted. While the labor conditions of undocumented workers is often deplorable, while these people are treated unjustly each day, the Arizona legislature chose to exploit these people even further by the passage of SB1070.

Having spent time in Arizona little more than a month ago, I am aware at how dangerous Southern Arizona has become due to the increased drug trafficking and activity by organized crime.  During my visit, the deputy police chief of Nogales, Arizona was shot and killed.  The University of Arizona responded by suspending research in its many projects in the Nogales area.  People living 75 miles from the border told me of the increase of violent crime related to drug smuggling.  The issue of violence on the border related to organized crime is significantly different from the number of undocumented workers.

As I read the news stories about May Day demonstrations, I found many postings by other readers stating that undocumented workers are criminals who should be prosecuted.  The only “crime” the vast majority of these people have committed is attempting to find a way to financially support their families.  These hardworking people are demonized and treated as the same as violent drug traffickers.  They are not.

As a Christian, I look to the Bible as a source of inspiration for understanding the challenges of social justice.  Both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament have frequent references to the importance of welcoming strangers and aliens into the community.  The author of the book of Hebrews reminds his readers to welcome strangers because those strangers may, in fact, be messengers from God (Hebrews 13:2).  An even more significant understanding of the mandate to make provision for aliens is found in Deuteronomy 24.  Because of the covenant made between God and the people of Israel, the people of Israel were to be sure to make provision in society for the alien because the person from a foreign land is also a person made in the image of God.

By labeling undocumented workers as criminals and insisting on their prosecution, the humanity of people is consistently denied.  Not only is prosecuting undocumented workers an unviable solution because of the sheer number of people living in the US who have fallen through the cracks of our immigration system, such actions would do more harm to the United States than help us.  Calls for criminalization and deportation fail to recognize the way in which the American economy relies on the contributions of undocumented workers. Instead, people of good faith and compassion need to put that faith and compassion to work by advocating comprehensive immigration reform.  Undocumented workers fill jobs throughout the country which others are unwilling to take.  Often, they are in the United States without proper documentation because the United States does not have a workable immigration system.  The present immigration system does not represent the realities of a globalized world and the changing needs of the United States.  A complete overhaul is needed.  Part of that overhaul needs to include transparency, which is currently missing.  Transparency in the process along with appropriate accommodation for skilled and unskilled workers would be an ethical, compassionate response to welcome aliens who come to us and seek to live in a country which prides itself on freedom and equality.

© 2010, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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