Sanctuary - Sermon for First Unitarian Society of Denver by Rev. Mike Morran March 2, 2014

Last week at I took a few moments to let you know that we, this congregation, have been asked by the American Friends Service Committee and the Colorado Coalition for Immigrant Rights, to become a sanctuary congregation for a family facing deportation.

And this is kind of a big deal, for a number of reasons.  But before I go into that much further, it would be good to know some the background for this request. 

Immigration Justice is one of our Congregational Projects, which you have voted for these past two years in a row.  All indications are that in a couple of months, you are going to get to vote on extending the project for another year still.

Congregational Projects, by the way, are how we organize our social justice efforts here at First Unitarian, and we currently have four of them.  Immigration Justice, Peace, Homelessness, and Illuminating Invisible Injustice, or I-cubed as we like to say, which focusses on mental health, addiction, and trauma.

Over the last couple of years, the Immigration Justice Circle and Immigration Justice Project have held numerous forums, brought in guest speakers, facilitated classes along with our ministerial interns, visited legislators, provided letter-writing opportunities for the church, worked with our Religious Exploration program for the kids, lobbied at the State Capitol, created Sunday worship and 1st Wednesday Vespers services, hosted film and book discussion groups, attended monthly vigils at the Immigration Detention Center in Aurora, taken training in non-violent resistance for wage theft direct action and Detention Center visitations, developed working network relationships with the American Friends Service Committee, the Colorado Coalition for Immigrant Rights, El Centro Humanitario, and more.  They have arranged for all of these organizations to be recipients of our Giving in Action Program, where we give away our offering plate twice each month, as we did this morning.

Would those of you who have been making this important work happen please stand up briefly so we can see you and thank you?  (Applause...)

You should also know that we are not alone in working for Immigration Justice.  The Unitarian Universalist Association has been working on this issue in one way or another for over fifty years.  The denomination passed a resolution for migrant worker rights in 1961, for immigration reform in 1963.  We were active in the original Sanctuary Movement, passing resolutions and actions of immediate witness in 1980, and from 1984 to 1986.  In 2007, the Unitarian Universalist Association became the first denomination to join the New Sanctuary Movement, and our General Assembly in 2012 was entirely dedicated to social justice, with thousands of Unitarian Universalists marching in Phoenix, Arizona to protest the racist and abusive policies of that state.

Kierstin Homblette, (now Rev. Kierstin Homblette) was one of our interns that year and she led a group on an educational journey to the Mexican border to witness first-hand the conditions of the border, and the ridiculous system that migrant workers and detainees must endure.

Now if you haven’t following this issue or haven’t been part of this work, you might be asking yourself why this is so important and what it has to do with you.

At the risk of oversimplifying a very complex reality, and borrowing from my colleague Rev. Kendyl Gibbons, there are three large and practical flaws in the current Immigration system, flaws that produce untold human suffering that is completely unnecessary.

The first great flaw, perhaps the essential flaw from which all the other flaws derive, is in the way current law fails to allow or account for temporary workers.  There are hundreds of thousands of seasonal and temporary workers who come to the U.S. for jobs that few native citizens want, but which for many immigrants are real prosperity. These workers are an essential part of the economy and all of us rely on them.

However, by severely limiting the number and type of workers allowed to enter the country legally, (workers that companies and the economy need!), the current system makes it inevitable that workers without documentation will immigrate to seek those jobs, and that employers will circumvent the law in order to hire them.

This creates conditions that are ripe for abuse, with undocumented workers often facing unrealistic hours or productivity requirements, dangerous working conditions, unfair wages, underpayment for their work, abusive bosses or other conditions that employers get away with for the simple reason that they can.  Undocumented workers have no recourse and everyone knows it.  They cannot organize.  They cannot seek the protection of labor laws.  They cannot seek the protection of occupational safety laws.  They cannot seek the protection of anti-discrimination laws.

Wage theft, where employers pay less than promised, or sometimes not at all, is a huge problem for this population.

A second major flaw is that we don’t adequately recognize families on either end of the system.  The process by which families might come here to work legally is arcane and backlogged to the point of absurdity - decades in many cases.  It forces spouses and parents to separate from their families for unspecified periods, and actually prohibits visiting, since the migrant worker can’t leave the country without losing their visa, and their families can’t enter.  Not even for a vacation.  It is unfair and unnecessary that we make separation from family a condition of coming to work in the United States.

On the other end, if someone has been here living and working, paying taxes and raising their family, even if they’ve been here for decades.  Even if they’re married to a U.S. citizen.  Even if they have children who are U.S. citizens.  Even though our own contradictory system makes it impossible for them to apply, they can be forcibly separated from their lives and families and forcibly deported.  This is a Catch-22 for thousands of hard working families, and makes no sense from any reasonable perspective.

Which brings me to the third broken element of existing policy: the arbitrary, random, inhumane and unjust ways in which enforcement takes place.  Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (Or I.C.E.) use jails and detention centers whether or not someone has committed a crime.  Those in detention can be denied bond and deported without a hearing.  The system is rampant with stories of how these non-criminals, tens of thousands of people, have been subjected to strip-searching, shackling, solitary confinement, lack of access to telephones, mail and legal resources, and verbal, physical and even sexual abuse.  Again, with no consideration for the families they might be supporting, and no real recourse.

Between 2005 and 2008, 66 people died while being held in ICE custody, many from inadequate medical care.

This kind of enforcement completely fails to address the basic issues of immigration, the need for workers, the rights of workers, the health of our communities, or even national security.  These policies and their arbitrary enforcement only make the inadequacies the current system more tragic, and highlight the urgency of a more rational and just approach to immigration.

And here’s the thing...  This is all quite easy to fix!  Congress knows exactly what to do and how to do it, but they have managed to avoid or ignore the issue for 26 years!  1986 was the last time we had any serious immigration reform.  And yes there are details to be worked out, but no sensible or informed person can deny the mess and the injustice we currently have.

The following are offered as some of the essential, moral components of immigration reform.

We need a reasonable and timely path to citizenship for millions of workers who are already here.  It is the only humane and sensible thing to do.

We should set humanitarian goals by giving priority to keeping families together and to refugees fleeing persecution.  That doesn’t mean an open door for half-a-billion people from every warring country on Earth.  It just says how we would most morally choose immigration priorities.

We desperately need to streamline and restructure programs for temporary workers, including the rights of these workers to a living wage, and to organize, if they choose.  Again, it is the only human and sensible thing to do.

We should protect the most vulnerable sectors of workers from an influx of low-wage competition.  This is more difficult, but knowledgeable people assure that it is possible

We should protect the basic human rights of everyone who lives on our soil, whether they have documentation or not.  (Repeat: we should protect the human rights of everyone who lives on our soil!)  I don’t know why this is even a point of discussion.

Lastly, we should match immigration flow as close as possible to what the country and economy can reasonably tolerate on a sustainable basis, so that we don’t end up once again with a broken system that hurts everyone.

Now, finally, I can get back to the very specific issue of 1st Unitarian becoming a Sanctuary for a family facing deportation.  Here are the essential things we all need to understand. 

  • Because of timing issues with the family we might host, the Faith in Action Council and the Board of Trustees have already voted to go ahead with this, possibly as early as April, though they have also set it up so that you could veto the idea at the congregational meeting in May.
  • We would be providing housing.  We would have to find someplace in the building where this family could actually live.  The staff, the Immigration Justice group, and the Property Management Committee have all been in conversation and discussing options, privacy, access to bathrooms and a kitchen, and so on.  There would almost certainly be some costs involved since none of our rooms are really designed to be living quarters.
  • We would commit to this for some limited period of time. Say, six months or so, after which we would re-assess if things were working out.
  • We would be doing this very publically.  We would hold a press conference with the family, and put out press releases, and we would be joined by our partners - the American Friends Service Committee, and the Colorado Coalition for Immigrant Rights, and a host of other local congregations, Unitarian Universalist and otherwise, who are also concerned with and committed to Immigration Justice.
  • We would be engaging in civil disobedience.  Make no mistake.  We would be breaking the law by harboring a non-citizen for whom a deportation order has been issued.

And let me speak to that just a little bit, because it’s essential we proceed with clarity about what this is.  We are a church, a community of faith, a religious institution, organized for and around moral and religious principles.  We must not confuse what is moral with what is merely legal, they are not the same things.  It is worth noting that the forced removal of Native Americans from their land and onto reservations was legal. The capture, importation and slavery of African people was once legal.  Laws that prevented African American citizens from voting, or attending white schools, or eating at white restaurants and so on were all legal.  Apartheid was legal in South Africa.  Nazi concentration camps were perfectly legal.  Crucifying Jesus was legal.  And so on and so on.  These are extreme cases but the point is identical.  Like I tell people every year when we stand on the side of love and marriage equality at the State Capitol, “You can make it legal to discriminate in who is allowed to get married, but you can’t make it right!”

  • So yes, we would be doing this to help a particular family, somewhat trusting that ICE would not come onto our property to forcibly arrest the person we would be sheltering.  And somewhat trusting that the district attorney would not press charges against us.  And we would know that is part of the risk we would be taking.
  • The most important thing to remember though, is that we would be doing this primarily as a church, as a moral people, to make the moral point that a system that would tear a woman away from her own child, away from her work, away from the life she has built over many years in this country is a moral travesty.  The larger goal is to raise awareness, and to put pressure on the public and on congress to also see this in a moral light.  And by that light, get their butts down to work and fix it!