Immigration Reform

Immigration Reform
Rev. Fred L Hammond
6 June 2010 ©
Our Home Universalist Unitarian Church

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

These words attributed to the sonnet “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus are forever attached to the Statue of Liberty as the welcome to immigrants from around the world to New York Harbor.  Words that now reflect a more schizophrenic approach to immigration than a unified beckoning welcome.

Our history with immigration policies as a nation is abysmal.  We have a love/hate relation with immigrants.  We love them when their presence benefits us.  We hate them when we fear their presence will harm us.

There were essentially no restrictive immigration laws when our nation was founded.  Most of the immigrants to this nation were either of European descent who came here willingly or of African descent forced here as part of the slave trade.   Either way, we welcomed them because we needed their labor to aid in the growing of the country.  There were few laws restricting immigration with the exception of convicts in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The first law that seriously curtailed immigration was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.  This reversed the 1868 treaty with China that encouraged immigration to the US.  Immigrant Chinese were essential to the building of the railroads that connected the Pacific and Atlantic coasts.  Once this task was completed the Chinese were hired to work in the orchards of California’s growing fruit industry.

But when the Chinese exclusion act was passed, it was the Mexicans that began to be recruited to assist with the harvests in the southwest.  It was Mexican immigrants that made up to 60 % of the workforce that built the California to Mexico railway.

After the Mexican revolution in 1910 with failed results in delivering the promises of that revolution, Mexicans again began to enter the US.   We wanted them.  They helped build our economy.  When the US fought in World War One; it was the Mexicans that came to our rescue to work in our fields harvesting our crops, to work in our factories as machinists and plumbers.  We welcomed these immigrants and many came by simply crossing the border.

But there were labor disputes.  The Mexican workers were not treated fairly by their new employers and the Mexican government then intervened.  It was an early version of the Bracero program that came later.  Mexicans had to have a contract with the US ranchers for them to come into the states to work.  But with this new agreement there also came the establishment of the US Border Patrol in 1924. The free flow of immigrants from Mexico that had existed since the southwest was a part of Mexico was being challenged.

The global depression that came in the 1930’s slowed down migration from Mexico because there was no work to be had anywhere.  But with World War Two, the US once again opened its borders to Mexican workers to come and work in its factories and agricultural industries through the Bracero Program.  Mexicans were given temporary work visas to work in the US, a portion of their wages were withheld by the Mexican government to ensure that they would return to Mexico.  These were funds the participants in the Bracero Program never received and no explanation was granted.   More than 4 million Mexicans came to the US to find work and to ensure that American farms would continue to produce foods.

Unfortunately, the contracts they signed were in English with exploitive conditions.  For example, they were only allowed to return to Mexico in case of emergency and with written permission of their employer.  They were not allowed to leave the employ of one employer and work for another and with a portion of their wages withheld the benefit to the Mexican’s families never quite materialized. This program was a little better than indentured servitude.

The Bracero program continued after World War Two because the farmers were concerned of labor shortages.  The immigrant worker program could not keep up with the increased demand for farm help and farmers began recruiting undocumented workers as well.  Public opinion was turning against immigration and in 1954, President Eisenhower initiated Operation Wetback.  The derogatory term Wetback is based on one method of crossing into the US via the Rio Grande.  The intention was to round up undocumented persons and deport them back to Mexico; however, many of the deportees were re-processed as Braceros and returned to the farmers.  The practice of the round up included stopping “Mexican-looking” people and asking for their citizenship papers this angered many Mexican American citizens.  The operation was discontinued after one year because of the protests of profiling. The program deported 80,000 people and claims credit for an additional 1.2 million people who voluntarily returned to Mexico.

The Bracero program became politically unfavorable and was discontinued in 1964.  The immigration act of 1965 removed the racial quotas set in 1920.  This coincided with rapid population growth and economic decline in Mexico resulting in an increase of Mexicans crossing the border looking for work.  The passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 while giving amnesty to 2.3 million undocumented Mexicans also brought to an end the circulatory nature of immigration from Mexico.  There was an increase of militarization of the borders so many undocumented Mexicans once here decided to stay here instead of seasonally returning home.  “As Princeton sociologist Douglas Massey pointed out to the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2005: “From 1965 to 1985, 85 percent of undocumented entries from Mexico were offset by departures and the net increase in the undocumented population was small. The build-up of enforcement resources at the border has not decreased the entry of migrants so much as discouraged their return home.[1]

In the aftermath of Katrina, Louisiana and Mississippi saw an increase in the trend of Mexican immigrants with the lure of construction jobs and an “emergency federal decree temporarily suspending immigrant-enforcement sanctions.[2]

And there you have it, as long as we see visible benefit from the labors of undocumented workers we will suspend immigrant enforcement sanctions.  But once that visible benefit is gone or the economy goes sour, then all bets are off.  The undocumented become the scapegoat for all that is wrong in Arizona, in Kansas, in Mississippi, in America.

There continues to be a benefit for America to have undocumented workers here.  As long as that benefit remains, we will not be able to come to grips with undocumented immigration.   Consider the benefit to Adams County, Pennsylvania where its orchards produced over 330 million pounds of apples and over 18 million pounds of peaches all harvested by Mexican migrant workers.  They are paid by the bin filled, about $16 per bin. The more bins they fill in a day the more they are paid. This is hard work and therefore only the strongest and fittest survive this line of work.   The result is cheap apples and peaches.  The farmers there state that “there is absolutely no way whatsoever that they could harvest these crops without the Mexican migrant workers.[3]”  Who would harvest them?  Who would purchase apples and peaches if they suddenly cost $5-$10 a pound?

The cost of food is cheap in part because of migrant workers, many of them immigrants, many of them undocumented willing to work for low wages.  We benefit.   In 2004 a crack down in the Western part of the US on immigrants caused a shortage of workers harvesting lettuce. It was considered a less of a loss to leave the crops to rot in the fields resulting in a loss of 1 billion dollars than to hire American workers to harvest them.[4]

A 2007 White House report stated that while immigrants depress the wages of high school drop outs, immigrants actually have increased wages of native born workers by $37 Billion a year.[5] The New York Times reported that immigrants pay into social security $7 Billion a year, money that they will never see. Further, the Social Security Administration figures this amount into their yearly budget.  We benefit.

So what about immigration reform?  What would a fair immigration policy look like?   John F. Kennedy in 1958 said, “Immigration policy should be generous; it should be fair; it should be flexible. With such a policy we can turn to the world, and to our own past, with clean hands and a clear conscience.”  [John F. Kennedy A Nation of Immigrants (1958)]

Well there is one more thing that an ideal immigration policy must have.   Dan Stein, Executive Director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform believes that it should also have clear objectives.   He states that “What the public wants is 1) a stable population size, 2) a healthy economy, and 3) a sense of national cohesion based on shared values and a common language.”[6] These three components should be the basis of a sound immigration policy.

It is estimated that the US could easily be at half a billion people by mid century.  We need to examine how immigration might impact that population growth.  Dan Stein suggests one possible way is limiting the immigrant’s family members that can also migrate.

The skill set the person has to contribute to a healthy economy is another avenue that should be considered.  Other countries consider what their employment needs are before granting visas to immigrants. There is flexibility there.  Consider the contributions these immigrants have given to the United States in the past decade: Steve Chen, founder of Youtube,   Jerry Yang, co-founder of Yahoo, and Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google.  The digital skills that these three alone brought to the US have created companies that are household names.  Having immigration policy that focuses on skills that promote economic health should be important.

We, as a nation, are pluralistic in nature.  We have come together under a set of principles that govern this nation. They are written into our most sacred national documents.  We need to educate these ideals to the immigrants that come allowing them in some way to assimilate into the culture.  Currently, it is reported that 75 % of immigrants learn to speak English with in ten years of their arrival.  The demand for English as a second language courses far outweigh the supply.  Yet, it is crucial that at least one common language is spoken. Yes, I know that there are academic advantages for everyone to speak two or more languages fluently.  But there must be a way for a nation to communicate to each other with ease about its ideals, its hopes, and its dreams.

This is where we come in as people of faith.  Our faith is a covenantal one where we seek to adhere to a set of principles that we believe have practical daily applications to our lives.  We are diverse in our theologies.  We believe that many paths lead to the truth.  Yet, we are able to come together because those principles, those ideals teach us to hold the other with dignity and respect.  They teach us to seek to be in right relationship with each other. They teach us about justice and fairness.  They teach us about democratic process.  They teach us about how we are all interconnected and how our actions here impact on others somewhere else.  The majority of what we teach are values that Americans accept and treasure as part and parcel of the American Dream.

Rev. Paul Langston-Daley of the Glendale Arizona church wrote about his experiences at the Rally on immigration in Phoenix on May 29th.   He said, “In the end we arrived at that copper dome, a small group of bright yellow shirts, standing shoulder to shoulder with Catholics, labor unions, Black Baptists and most of all with families. We were tired and hot but pleased to have finished the whole distance and to see the crowd gathered, covering the statehouse lawn, spilling across the street to a small park in the sun. Our presence was felt and known there. We, Unitarian Universalists, came from as far as Boston and New York, Minneapolis and New Orleans, from all over California and from right here in Arizona. We stood together with tens of thousands to call for an end to racist legislation and to ask our federal government to create and pass comprehensive immigration reform NOW. Our blazing yellow [Standing on the Side of Love] shirts made a statement- a statement about who we are, and what is important to us as religious people. At lunch …, a colleague told us she overheard some people saying “Hey,
look over there, it’s the Love people”.

The Love People.  That sums up our calling in a nut shell.  We might not get this immigration reform exactly right.  We might find ourselves with just as many questions about immigration and about the laws passed that target groups of people as we did before.  But we can stand in love as we grapple the questions that arise from our history of ambiguous relations with the immigrant.  We can stand on the side of love because this is who we are; the Love People.  Blessed Be,





[5] citing




  1. Brilliant, loving, and very welcome words ~ thank you, Fred! Will share these on my FB page….

  2. Excellent history lesson. The United States has a love-hate relationship with unions and blue collar workers, too. When they are making things, building things, and contributing to a healthy economy they are tolerated. But when big corporations want bigger profits, they want to get rid of the unions or disempower them. There must be a kind and gentle way of helping illegal immigrants get home safely or find a safe legal way to stay in this country and work. When in the country illegally, they are vulnerable to mistreatment, slave-treatment, and because they are not here legally they cannot go to the authorities for help. It’s a crime. There has to be a kinder gentler way.

  3. re: “Most of the immigrants to this nation were either of European descent who came here willingly or of African descent forced here as part of the slave trade. Either way, we welcomed them because we needed their labor to aid in the growing of the country. ”

    You may want to reconsider those two sentences. I can’t imagine seeing their masters as “welcoming”.

    Bill, at the risk of sounding patronizing but this is not my intent, sometimes words are used in their most broadest sense and not by their most narrow definition. And sometimes words are used in context to the times in which they were referring and not by current understandings. This is the case with the use of the word ‘welcomed.’ Were the enslavers hospitable? No, absolutely not. But was their labor seen as necessary to the economy, yes very much so, and in this sense their labor was indeed welcomed. Even some of the immigrants who came willingly to these shores were not received hospitably but were ‘welcomed’ for their labor.

  4. per m-w’s def of Welcome,

    Etymology: Middle English, from Old English welcumian, wylcumian, from wilcuma, noun
    Date: before 12th century

    1 : to greet hospitably and with courtesy or cordiality
    2 : to accept with pleasure the occurrence or presence of

    To say Africans brought in bondage to America were “Welcomed” reads weirdly disconnected from the reality of slavery.

    I favor the free movement of Labor, Services, Goods, and Capital. Anyone with a legitimate offer of a job ought to be free to come to the United States. Alien greaduates of US Universities ought to have a green-card stabled to their diplomas.

    But the experience of Africans in Amercia a very different story, and one their very aware of when it comes to this issues. Those two sentences are real stumbling blocks for the rest of your analysis because they create a bizarre image of slaves being welcomed by their masters at the wharf. It’s just a hard obstacle to get over or around in your post.

    Bill, re-read definition number 2 above and apply it to white America late 18th / early 19th century. The white slave owners welcomed the idea of slavery to support their economy. They accepted ‘with pleasure the occurrence or presence of’ slavery. Was it right? No. Am I stating it was right? No. Am I stating that the slavers were hospitable in their treatment of the slaves? No. I asked you to read the word in its most broadest meaning. You are stuck in using definition number one while I am using definition number two. Regardless of how repulsive you might find it to be and as painful as that truth is, the word is the correct word for how we received slavery in this country.

  5. There will be always pros and cons on the issue. As I told you before, I know that a lot of time and research went into preparing this. Thanks Fred for the hisotrical overview. I’ll link to it in my blog.

  6. Fred, Thank you for this excellent history lesson and present understanding of where we stand.

    In faith,

  7. Fred, I linked to this history on my own blog a few days ago. And just toady another UU minister, Jeanne Pupke, told me that I had two posts that talked about FAIR in very different ways. I than blogged about this discovery today. Thought you might want to know. Link is:

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: