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Some years ago, and continuing today, we heard in the popular media the proclamation of doom for the middle class. In these stories we hear of how the rich are getting richer, the poor, poorer and that ever fewer people (though still a vast number) belong to what we call the middle class. I have no interest in discerning the truth of such claims. The prophecies of doom for the middle class however, point out an area of public discussion that has bothered me lately. In recent months I have written on subjects such as illegal immigration and the proposed construction of a mosque in New York, but in both of these issues (and many others) I notice the same thing, the utter lack of middle ground.
To be clear, I would rarely describe myself as a moderate, but because I am the spiritual leader of a diverse group of people I try to keep obviously partisan thinking out of both my public writing and speaking. For me, although my political beliefs are passionately and strongly held, the need for us to see beyond the world of the political is far more important. Our relationship with Jesus trumps our relationship with any political party, or at least it should.
We watch these public discussions in the media (radio, television and internet) and, even though I would not describe myself as a moderate, I often find myself wondering where the moderates have gone. Certainly we’ve seen a rise in partisanship in recent years and, for all the election year talk of bipartisanship, we’ve seen less of it than ever. In fact, public discussions seem to be entirely dominated by radical factions or, at least, representatives from the polar extremes of the political spectrum. To some extent, this has always been the case. In reporting the news it is easier to frame the discussion by showing opposite ends of the debate. Where I have begun to have difficulty is that, increasingly, the opposite ends are all there are. Perhaps it’s because news outlets have fallen in lockstep and report a single point of view. Perhaps everyone has tuned into partisans like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Rachel Maddow, Keith Olbermann or similar partisan talking heads. Honestly, I don’t know. What I have noticed however is that with the discussion no longer framed by the extremes but dominated by the extremes, no one seems to be left to have an honest discussion of what lies in between.
In discussing the immigration debate I noticed that both sides have valid and serious concerns that need to be addressed but everyone is so busy pointing fingers and name calling that virtually nothing is being done. In the New York mosque debate everyone seems to be either for the mosque because the constitution demands it, or against it because they find it offensive for Muslims to worship so close to ground zero. But what about the pesky details in the middle? The world is watching our great American experiment in democracy and constitutional government. The constitution and the freedoms that it guarantees are important.
On the other hand, we are accustomed to the slow pace of progress. St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church was destroyed by the collapse of the World Trade Center and hasn’t yet managed to get permission to rebuild, now almost ten years later. The reasons for this delay are debated, but still, if it has taken the congregation of St. Nicholas ten years to get their project moving (and they already owned the land) why do we think that this Islamic congregation should get permission overnight? Our constitution guarantees certain freedoms, but we still place legal limits on those freedoms. We limit where alcohol can be served in our communities and who may legally own a liquor license. We limit where industry can build and what types of industry can be built. Communities frequently protest construction of mega-churches because of concerns for traffic. A community near where I once lived refused permission to build a hotel because of concerns of how the patrons would affect the neighborhood. These rules and regulations do not violate the constitution but instead allow careful and thoughtful review by state and local authorities as well as allowing the discussion and consideration of local neighborhood concerns and opinions.
My problem with all of these discussions is that no one is being allowed to voice concerns without being attacked and dismissed for being on the “wrong side” of the argument. Once upon a time, it was the moderates that found the middle ground, who considered the arguments of both sides and allowed an orderly and honest discussion that looked at all sides and considered the needs and desires of all the stakeholders involved. Sometimes these discussions took a lot longer than we wanted them to take but still, we had the discussion. Lately it seems that there are no more moderates to bring the two sides together and to consider the claims and the needs of all involved. All we have left is a pile of partisan bickering that heads for the door as soon as they think they’ve buffaloed, bullied and shouted down enough people to form a majority.
I hope I’m wrong.
I hope there are still a few good moderates left because if we’ve lost the ability to have these kinds of discussions, we’ve lost everything and the great American experiment has failed.
Immigration activists argue that the people crossing the border are no different than all the other immigrant migrations that our nation has experienced in previous generations. The argument is that these people are indeed the tired, the poor, and the huddled masses yearning to breathe free that we’ve invited to our shores in Emma Lazarus’ poem engraved on the Statue of Liberty. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_New_Colossus) Activist would have us understand that these migrants are simply coming to our shores in search of a better life and that we should therefore treat them with compassion and respect.
Arizona has had law enforcement officers shot and killed in an immigration related shootings, crimes committed by immigrants, including murder, is increasing and drug cartels have reportedly put a bounty on all law enforcement officers. From their point of view, it is glaringly apparent that something has to be done immediately, but after asking for Federal assistance, and receiving none, for more than twenty years, they felt compelled to take matters into their own hands. Worse, after the attacks of 9/11 and multiple terrorist plots on our homeland, our porous border is leaking not only Latino migrants, but potentially hostile Arab ones as well. (http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2005/jun/30/20050630-124933-1494r/)
If we pay closer attention, there are more than two sides that need to be considered and we can find people of faith on all sides. Migrant activists claim that our current process of legal immigration is too slow, too difficult, too expensive and generally too cumbersome. From their point of view, this lack of fairness is reflected in the rising numbers of migrants who feel compelled to flaunt the law in search of something that is unavailable at home. They question whether heavy-handed legal enforcement (or worse, outright prejudice) is necessarily directed at people whose only interest is in finding employment and caring for their families. Their opponents point out that, as an immigrant nation, we welcome newcomers to join the millions of us who have already come here but we invite them to do so legally. They ask, why we should not legitimately separate those who wish to join us as fellow citizens and those who wish only to use us as a convenient income stream but who do not desire to accept the responsibilities of citizenship.
On another side, we hear that the jobs being sought are jobs that American citizens don’t want. Still, others argue that when at least ten percent of our population is actively seeking employment (and some estimates double that), it seem doubtful that so many of our fellow citizens would refuse work of any kind.
The more we look at our immigration problem the more it is apparent that there are far more questions than answers. Why are asylum seekers who come to our shores seeking protection persecution, religious and otherwise, being systematically imprisoned? (http://www.humanrightsfirst.org/pdf/090429-RP-hrf-asylum-detention-sum-doc.pdf) What should we do with the children of illegal immigrants, children who were born here or who speak only English and who have known no other life than the life of an American? (http://www.kevindhendricks.com/2010/05/19/immigration-protest-its-not-about-us/) In this maze of questions it is apparent that our current system of immigration is in dire need of reform. Currently it seems to be unfair to everyone, immigrants, citizens, border-states and others.
I don’t pretend to have any answers but one thing seems obvious. Name-calling isn’t going to help. Partisan bickering and finger pointing isn’t going to provide a path to a solution. Everyone seems to have real issues that need to be addressed. Immigration needs to be reformed. Our current system is unwieldy, slow and expensive. Arizona and other border states are constitutionally entitled to a secure border. National security demands that we prevent terrorists from crossing our borders at will. In each instance, we need to find a way for human beings – regardless of their political motivations or immigration status – to treat one another with respect, compassion and justice. If a solution exists, it can only be found by having a reasoned and intelligent conversation, we will have to have an open mind are be willing to hear – and listen to – arguments from every sides.
The truth will not be found in the black and white but somewhere in the stew created by the gray in-between.
Before I begin, I want to be clear that I have a significant personal interest in immigration. Both of my maternal grandparents immigrated to the United States after WWI and my father’s family also traces its heritage overseas (though somewhat more distantly). My Mother-in-law is an immigrant and my wife and I filed all the paperwork, wrote all the checks and visited all the government offices necessary to adopt and naturalize our three children. Having said that, I also note that all of these immigrations followed the legal processes required by our government even when they were unpleasant, expensive and time-consuming.
There is a lot of talk about immigration lately, specifically, illegal immigration. Most of the voices are loud and, unfortunately, most are quick to dismiss and even disparage any differing points of view. As is the case with many of our political discussions of late, I suspect that we won’t travel very far in the right direction (if at all) unless we have an open mind are willing to hear – and listen to – arguments from both sides.
Arguments over immigration most often seem to center on “fairness” and “justice” and while are important principles, we cannot allow our personal view of fairness and justice to blind us to what is fair and just to others. A one-sided view of what is just abandons real justice before it begins. To be truly just and fair, again, we need to determine what is fair and just from (and for) all sides.
Lately, the furor began when the State of Arizona enacted a law that allows the state to enforce existing Federal immigration laws. Arizona has since been accused of being anti-immigration, racist, fascist, and worse. In their own defense, Arizona insists that it only did what was necessary to secure is borders and to protect its citizens. So what is the truth? Like many things, the truth is not so black and white and seems to be a stew created in the gray in-between.
Immigration has been a hot-button issue for a long time. For as long as I remember being politically aware (since the Reagan era and a little before) there has been no clear consensus on immigration, especially as it relates to our Southern neighbor, Mexico. What I do remember is that border states, like Arizona, have been asking the Federal government (the part of government that is constitutionally responsible for border security and enforcement) since before the Reagan administration and from every administration, Republican and Democrat, ever since. President Reagan was known to be one of those rare persons who was able to create legislation that had true bipartisan support. Immigration reform was among those laws that were passed under his watch. The Reagan era immigration reform provided amnesty to migrants who had become permanent residents in the United States and 1.7 million of the estimated 5 million illegal migrants became legalized American citizens.
The Reagan era amnesty law was a great bipartisan success, but is also believed to be one of the root causes of our current dilemma. In order to secure conservative support for a bill that included amnesty, promises were made to increase border security and to make it more difficult for employers to hire non-citizens. The stated goal was to reduce the numbers of illegal migrants and amnesty was intended to be a part of doing that. Since then, while the amnesty part of the law was very successful, the enforcement part has not and we’ve increased from 5 million illegal immigrants to 12 million. The law that was intended to reduce the problem did nothing and perhaps made it worse (http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2008/jan/06/rudy-giuliani/yep-reagan-did-the-a-word/).
Today, we have pro-immigration voices shouting for more amnesty but those who have longer political memories see the world differently. If we remember the Reagan amnesty, a solution that clearly didn’t work, we might honestly question whether another amnesty program can be some kind of magic bullet.
Our church, The United Methodist Church, has been an advocate of social justice for over two hundred years and so it is naturally important to us to speak out for those who have no voice in our institutions and in our system of government. This view is not only the view of our founder, John Wesley but well established in scripture (Exodus 23:9, Leviticus 19:34, Deuteronomy 24:17). But again, we cannot choose to wave a banner of social justice without considering what is just for all parties involved.
(next week – Part 2)