Monday, May 01, 2006

Welcoming the Stranger

Today is "Un Dia Sin Inmigrantes — A Day Without Immigrants." It is still early in California where I write, and there is no news yet about the national boycott on behalf of immigrant rights. Hundreds of thousands of immigrants and their supporters are expected to participate. Here in Santa Cruz, there will be two marches, one from Beach Flats near the Boardwalk where many immigrants live, and another down from the UC Santa Cruz campus. Both marches will meet at the Town Clock at noon and then will continue to San Lorenzo Park for a rally. I will be there.

"Welcoming the Stranger: United in Diversity" is the title of a pastoral letter issued by the U.S. Catholic Bishop in the fall of 2000. For me, that is the heart of the matter. The stranger, whomever he or she might be, deserves to be welcomed, not deported. The Catholic Church always has been at the front of the march for immigrant rights. They have a web site, "Justice for Immigrants: A Journey of Hope," devoted to it.

When I traveled to Mexico in 1962, I recall seeing from my bus window a huge field with thousands and thousands of men sitting around camp fires in the early morning. I was told they were braceros, waiting to enter the United States to work in our agricultural fields. California's fields have always needed help from immigrants. Before the bracero program, which lasted from 1942 to 1964, farm owners lured workers from China, Japan, the Philippines and elsewhere to tend their fields and pick their crops. The white Okies, memorialized by John Steinbeck and Woody Guthrie, were just a blip on the field worker screen. Foreign strangers have always done the dirty work in the United States (to call this country "America" is to ignore the huddled masses north and south of us, all of them Americans).

There have always been immigrants, unending flows of migrant people from continent to continent in search of a better life. I first learned about this from reading Eric Wolf's classic study, "Europe and the People Without History." In pre-modern times, populations were necessarily multicultural. The old and the new residents got along. If you look at the earth from outer space, there are no borders. What changed for the immigrants was the rise of the nation state in the 19th century. It legitimized the differences between Us and Them.

Welcoming the stranger is a prime value to ancient and indigenous people, a value we've lost. The Patriarch Abraham was a "wandering Aramean," leaving his home in Haram to travel where he would become the founder of the Jewish people. The Semitic people considered hospitality to strangers a sacred duty. In Genesis 18, the story is told of Abrham's encounter with God in the form of three strangers (Christians see this as a foreshadowing of the Trinity). He invites them in to his tent, washes their feet and feeds them, as was the custom. Later in the Bible, God say to Moses: "You shall treat the alien who resides with you no differently than the natives born among you; have the same love for him as for yourself; for you too were once aliens in the land of Egypt." (Leviticus 19:34)

Jesus taught that that we love God by loving our neighbor. The Good Samaritan is the story of helping the stranger when all around you treat them as undesireable. In the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 25, Jesus says to those at the Last Judgement, "Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was...a stranger and you welcomed me." Hospitality to the stranger, the alien, the immigrant, is the key to the Kingdom of God.

Even this country once recognized that welcoming the stranger was important. "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearing to breath free..." is enscribed on the Statue of Liberty which stands in the harbor of New York to greet and welcoming incoming immigrants. But as soon as the first immigrants settled here they began constructing fences to keep other immigrants out. Xenophobia, the fear of strangers, became the rule of the land.

In California where the native population had been displaced, first by Spaniards and later by Mexicans, the new flow of immigrants came not only from the United States to the east but also from every country in the world; the 49'ers saw in the gold fields the chance for fortune and a new life. But the new arrivals soon asserted their primacy and xenophobia took over. All previous classes of immigrants were persecuted by the latecomers. It's not a pretty picture.

Today, ironically, vigilant Minutemen patrol the southern border of California to ferret out illegal Mexicans (you can read a local story about them here) and a nativist wing of the Sierra Club tried unsuccessfully to persuade the environmental organization to blame immigrants for the destruction of nature epitomized by hydraulic mining. If there were any justice in international politics, Mexico would take back California.

Today I expect that the dozens of dark-skinned men who stand around outside the San Lorenzo Lumber Company on River Street every day looking for day work will be gone. And the men I see everyday on bicycles, because our governor wants to prevent them from driving, will have joined the others on the march from Beach Flats to San Lorenzo Park. I will rejoice in their solidarity and wish them well. In the not too distance future, they and their kinspeople will be in the majority in this state and I will hope that they will welcome me, the stranger at their door.

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