reconciliation


I gave this speech at last night’s City Commission meeting.

John Bruciak isn’t the only one “caught in the crossfire,” to quote Commissioner Atkinson.  All of Brownsville is ducking for cover as racism, xenophobia, and hatred, spit from the lips of Tom Tancredo and Lou Dobbs are aimed at our beloved borderlands.  Even our city commission has become wounded with rancor.  Who among us will have the courage to stand up amidst the fray and fight for our land and our way of life?  I will tell you who: over 98% of the residents along the border wall route, that’s who.

 

This week, members of Border Ambassadors, CASA, and the No Border Wall Coalition have met with 123 landowners along the route of the fence and 121 of them (over 98%) signed the Mayor’s declaration, deciding they aren’t going to act scared anymore.  Given the will of the people, will this commission continue to capitulate, or will it stand up and fight for what it claims it wants: No Border Wall!?

 

And who among us will be the peacemakers, for as Jesus said, they will be called the children of God?  This wall was started by those who think the United States and Mexico are enemies, and it will be stopped by the peacemakers who recognize the brotherhood of mankind.  This wall is motivated out of fear, but as John said, “Perfect love casts out all fear.”  Who here is willing to love this country enough to stop it from building its own Berlin Wall?

 

I urge this commission to find the love, forgiveness, and courage to join the people of Brownsville.  Put aside your animosity and unite in our common fight.

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Today, I gave this speech to the Brownsville City Council Meeting during the public comment portion.  The Brownsville Herald ran an article on Sunday that said that the Mayor was betrayed by the City Council who went behind closed doors to allow the Army Corps of Engineers onto city land to survey for the wall.  It is in response to that that I wrote this speech-on the back, and in the margins of the agenda.   

Yesterday, Princeton University recognized five of my 8th grade students for essays they wrote on the topic “What would Martin Luther King say and do about immigration?”  Princeton opened this year’s essay contest to my students because they used my blog, nonviolent migration, as a resource for their contest.  These five students, Melissa Guerra, Yessenia Martinez, Abigail Cabrera, Vanessa Trevino, and Blanca Gonzalez were the only five students who had the faith to submit an essay and all were recognized by Princeton. 

I asked the rest of my 121 students to speak honestly about why they had decided not to write for the contest.  The overwhelming number of students responded that it wasn’t worth trying because they felt that because Princeton is in the North, they would prejudge their work since they live on the border.  This experience reminded me once again just how excluded these children feel.   Even though this wall will be South of most of my students, my students are smart enough to know that the same motive behind this wall is also shouting at them, saying, “You are not us; keep out!” 

These students, who started with such enthusiasm when the contest was announced, lost hope and they let their fears overcome their faith.  This broke my heart because I love my students, but your capitulation is something other than heartbreaking because you are no longer 8th graders.  We expect you to hold out hope.  We expect you to keep the faith.  We expect you to work for us, and let us fight this fight. 

At this time, we want to express our love… and forgiveness… to all the members of the commission.  However, as a result of your action, we must now find a legal way to undo what you’ve done so that my 8th graders don’t come to learn that you prejudged them too. 

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Stop the wall this spring break. 

A year and a half ago, Border Ambassador Jay Johnson-Castro went on a 15 day walk through the Texas communities that will be affected if the Secure Fence Act of 2006—already federal law—becomes a reality.  His walk, which he undertook basically alone, was covered by the BBC[1] and other international media, as well as multiple articles in the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express News.[2]  Hearing of the walk, Republican Governor Rick Perry (a proponent of the wall) held a press conference about border security in the tiny community of Rio Grande City while Jay was walking through town.

Why would one man require a response from such a powerful person?  Why would Governor Perry even care about one Don Quixote-like figure plodding through the long stretches of nothingness?  Why would the Houston Chronicle give its front page as a pulpit for a solitary nobody doing something so crazy?  These questions have elusive answers, but those familiar with the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 60s are better equipped to make sense of them than most.  Two clues are found in familiar phrases from that generation.  “Unearned suffering is redemptive,” which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. often said, and “You got to move,” a favorite phrase of the Highlander Folk School—who trained Rosa Parks and others—have oriented my understanding of why a walk can be so powerful.

Following that motto, “You got to move,” this spring break—from March 8th to the 16th—local educators and students, along with religious and civic leaders will walk 115 miles (13 miles each day for 9 days) from Roma to Brownsville as a form of nonviolent direct action.  We invite you to partner with us in an alternative spring break, by following this link.  http://www.mysignup.com/noborderwallwalk  There you will make a commitment to participate and input your information.  We will then contact you with the necessary details.

The purpose of this walk is to show support for local landowners who do not want to give the Army Corps of Engineers access to their property.  These landowners are facing litigation by the U.S. Government, and are acting very courageously in spite of this threat.  Many more landowners would resist the government if they knew they were supported.  A second purpose is to gain the attention of the nation, especially during this election year.

Through today’s New York Times,[3] land owner Eloisa Tamez’s plan for resistance was shared with a national audience.  Eloisa works closely with Jay Johnson-Castro in the fight to prevent this wall from segregating our community, but she isn’t the only land owner along the proposed fence route.  Now is the time to share her story, Jay’s story, and spread the message of our collective struggle.  Please join us and invite your friends, family, and neighbors to do the same.

The next three week’s readings come from Martin Luther King’s most influential book, Why We Can’t Wait.  In this week’s chapter, “The Sword That Heals,” Dr. King discusses many of the same principles that we have discussed in earlier weeks.  This time, the principles of nonviolent civil disobedience are told in their historical context.

 

Civil Disobedience

            One of the most persuasive passages I’ve read about civil disobedience comes from this chapter.  Dr. King wrote,

          There were no more powerful moments in the Birmingham episode than during the closing days of the campaign, when Negro youngsters ran after white policemen, asking to be locked up.  There was an element of unmalicious mischief in this.  The Negro youngsters, although perfectly willing to submit to imprisonment, knew that we had already filled up the jails, and that the police had no place left to take them.

            When, for decades, you have been able to make a man compromise his manhood by threatening him with a cruel and unjust punishment, and when suddenly he turns upon you and says: “Punish me.  I do not deserve it, I will accept it so that the world will know that I am right and you are wrong,” you hardly know what to do.  You feel defeated and secretly ashamed.  You know that this man is as good as you are; that from some mysterious source he has found the courage and the conviction to meet physical force with soul force.

            So it was that, to the Negro, going to jail was no longer a disgrace but a badge of honor.

When I read these paragraphs, I am completely convinced that nonviolent civil disobedience—when practiced widely—has more power to break the psychological shackles of unjust laws crippling our community than almost any other principle.  Moving across international borders to pursue happiness is not wrong!  We must stop acting like it is.  We must challenge (not just ignore) the laws that prevent that pursuit.

 

Constitutional Litigation

            In this chapter, Dr. King gave a summary of the various approaches for equality since Emancipation.  He started with Booker T. Washington’s admonition to work hard, moved on to W. E. B. Dubois’s call for education, explained Marcus Garvey’s ideas about racial pride and a return to Africa, and ended up describing the NAACP’s recourse to Constitutional litigation.  It is then that Dr. King said, “Nonviolent action, the Negro saw, was the way to supplement—not replace the process of change through legal recourse.”

            This quote brings me back to a problem I have been wrestling with for quite some time, without sufficient success.  What success can we hope to see in a civil disobedience campaign without Constitutional litigation?  This is difficult because of the plenary power doctrine, which says that Congress has absolute power of the area of immigration and the courts cannot overturn its legislation.  If the Supreme Court is unwilling to apply the Constitutional guarantees to immigration law, how damaging is that for us?  How necessary is litigation in the fight for rights in the United States?

Nonviolent vs. Violent Reform

            I love King’s quote here in pages 27 and 28, and just have to share it.

          Angry exhortation from street corners and stirring calls for the Negro to arm and go forth to do battle stimulate loud applause.  But when the applause dies, the stirred and the stirring return to their homes, and lie in their beds for still one more night with no progress in view.  They cannot solve the problem they face because they have offered no challenge but only a call to arms, which they themselves are unwilling to lead, knowing that doom would be its reward.  They cannot solve the problem because they seek to overcome a negative situation with a negative means….  The conservatives who say, ‘Let us not move so fast,’ and the extremists who say, ‘Let us go out and whip the world,’ would tell you that they are as far apart as the poles.  But there is a striking parallel: They accomplish nothing.

Let us not be guilty of the same accusation.  When I am properly trained, I plan to actually do what I’m talking about.  I plan to break the law and submit myself to arrest.  I am trying to get in contact with a law student who is organizing a civil disobedience campaign for this summer in the Arizona desert.  He plans to defy the law that makes it a felony to aid someone that a reasonable person would consider to be an “illegal immigrant.”  Given that people are dying in the desert, he plans to provide food, water, and a car ride to anyone who needs it.  I’m hoping he plans to get arrested.  If so, I’ll likely join him.

 

The African American Example

            Dr. King knew this day would come.  On page 31, King said, “The Negro saw that by proving the sweeping and majestic power of nonviolence to bring about the beloved community, it might be possible for him to set an example to a whole world caught up in conflict.”  He often said some variation of,

          When the history books are written in the future, somebody will have to say ‘There lived a race of people, black people, fleecy locks and black complexion, of people who had the moral courage to stand up for their rights.” And thereby they injected a new meaning into the veins of history and of civilization.

When I study history, I am compelled to say it – to quote it just like King said it.  When I study history, I am compelled to look at the sacrifice of the hundreds of thousands who marched, the thousands who were jailed, the hundreds who were beaten, and each person who was killed, and say ‘I will not let your lesson go unlearned.’

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From this week’s reading assignment, I have just two points and a question. First, I will reexamine how King determines what makes disobedience civil. Then I will make an argument about segregation and tokenism as it regards immigration. The question I’ll leave you with is about whether we are in a time of sowing or reaping.

In contrasting the differences between civil- and uncivil-disobedience, Dr. King says:

“In disobeying such unjust laws, the students do so peacefully, openly and nonviolently. Most important, they willingly accept the penalty, whatever it is, for in this way the public comes to reexamine the law in question and will thus decide whether it uplifts or degrades man.

“This distinguishes their position on civil disobedience from the “uncivil disobedience” of the segregationist. In the face of laws they consider unjust, the racists seek to defy, evade and circumvent the law, and they are unwilling to accept the penalty. The end result of their defiance is anarchy and disrespect for the law. The students, on the other hand, believe that he who openly disobeys a law, a law conscience tells him is unjust, and then willingly accepts the penalty, gives evidence thereby that he so respects the law that he belongs in jail until it is changed. Their appeal is to the conscience.”

King lists the qualities of civil disobedience as: peaceful, open, nonviolent, and accepting of penalty. King lists the qualities of uncivil disobedience as: defiant, evasive, and circumventing of the law; and unaccepting of penalty. King lists the outcomes of civil disobedience as: public reexamination of the law, and increased respect for law. King lists the outcome of uncivil disobedience as: anarchy, and disrespect for law.

 

King’s lifelong fight was against a system that prevented all people from freely associating with those of a different race in all aspects of life. In the United States of America from (roughly) 1896 to 1965, that system was called segregation. In South Africa until the mid 1990s, that same system was called apartheid. In the United States of America, that exact system is called restricted immigration. I cannot freely associate with those who I choose to if the government tells them they do not have a legal right to be here. I think we should come up with a name for restricted migration that makes this reality clear. Perhaps the term “national segregation” could work. I’m not sure, what do you think?

 

Understanding restricted immigration as segregation makes clear that a system which gives a few people permission to enter the United States, while denying hundreds of thousands of others, is a system of tokenism. Tokenism is also giving amnesty to the undocumented immigrants currently living in the country while blocking the way for others. Ours, instead, “is total commitment to [the] goal of equality and dignity,” and not just for those currently here. This is why Reagan’s amnesty plan failed.

Abraham Lincoln and the Reconstruction Congress well understood this principle. Tokenism for them would have been emancipating a generation of slaves while maintaining the institutions of slavery and the slave trade. Our situation is no difference. We are not fighting for the Mexican; we are fighting for the Chinese, the Japanese, the Indian, the Irish, the Italian, the Mexican, and whatever ethnic group will come next. To paraphrase Dr. King, God is not interested in the freedom of movement of black men and brown men, but in the freedom of movement of all men. Our goal must be unrestricted migration, not just because it is necessary for democracy, but because it is morally compelling.

 

My question comes from this line. “The current breakthroughs have come about partly as a result of the patient legal, civil and social ground clearing of the previous decades.” While there has been social ground-clearing, there hasn’t been any legal ground clearing (not for 125 years at least). My questions are these. Would civil disobedience be premature right now? Does the legal have to preceed the social? Dr. King’s movement came after the major legal battle to end segregation (Brown v. Board). Is something similar required before civil disobedience will be effective and useful, especially given that disobedient immigrants are not jailed, they are deported? Civil disobedience is designed to change unjust laws. Dr. King used it to change unjust local laws that were out of compliance with newly implemented federal standards. Immigration law is an unjust federal law. Do we need to advance international law before we use civil disobedience to challenge the more local, federal laws?

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In 2006, the Secure Fences Act was passed in both Congress and the Senate. The funds have since been approved, and the entire project is merely pending a few token studies concerning its impact on the environment, its feasibility, and its pecuniary implications. How did we arrive at such a place in American history?

The whole nation has been crying out for immigration reform since well before the 1960s. JFK heard their voices, but he was killed before he could radically change the quota system. Since then, restrictive immigration laws have been tightened and roughly enforced on our nations’ southernmost border and in our reluctance to accept asylum-seekers (refugees in other countries).

Our borders are places of violent clashes, deportation, and imposing fences.

Our legal immigrants are forced to become pochos, forced to forget their homeland in an effort to distance themselves from extralegal citizens the government and the media has vilified and quietly deported.

“Illegal” immigrants live in terror, working low-wage jobs, foregoing medical care, and paying extortionate rates for normal amenities in an effort to remain in a country which disrespects them and the country they left behind.

The entire nation cries out for immigration reform. Even the politicians could hear it on Capitol Hill. They could hear it, but amidst the din of partisan politics and the difficulty of making tough decisions on true immigration reform, both the Democrats and the Republicans opted for an easy way out, a symbol of border security and “immigration reform.” The wall was passed overwhelmingly by most major politicians, including my own Texas senators Cornyn and Hutchison, as well as mainstream presidential candidates such as Obama and Clinton.

And so here we are today. Brownsville, Texas, will be studied later on this month so that construction of the wall can begin in 2008. The symbol of a wall, laughable and medieval and impossible to believe, looks as if it will be coming next year unless the citizenry of the United States can raise its voice once more, refuse to be distracted by “token” gestures of immigration reform, and demand a real solution instead of this expensive “tokenism.”

Victor Hugo famously said, “There is no greater power on earth than an idea whose time has come.” The idea of immigration has been a long time coming, and it must be nonviolently urged to the forefront of American thinking.

The clearest fight for true immigration reform and against pseudo-solutions is the proposed border wall on our southern border. As Martin Luther King, Jr., outlines in “The Time for Freedom has Come,” we must do this by three key steps. First, any efforts to halt the construction of the border wall must expose the moral defenses of pro-fence politicians. The moral element never figured into the border wall monologue, but if this fence is to be stopped, a dialogue must begin which addresses the moral element of such a symbol of separation. This blog site is a beginning, but it must be preached from the pulpit and headlined in our newspapers. It must be sung over webcasts and it must be written in informed letters to our politicians. The moral element is clear – a Mexican border barrier signifies mistrust, racism, and nationalism – but the message has not been clearly voiced nor loudly proclaimed.

The second keystone concept of nonviolent resistance for King is that it must weaken the morale of its opposition. If well organized, a national boycott against key companies or an illegal immigrant strike could certainly weaken the morale of an opposition which secretly welcomes illegal contribution to our national GDP but publicly denounces extralegal workers. This contradiction has existed for decades, and its demise must be one of the main aims of any nonviolent movement.

Lastly, a nonviolent call for true immigration reform and no border wall must work on our nation’s conscience. So far, deportation detention centers like those at Raymondville, Texas, and the processing centers like the one at Port Isabel, Texas, have worked largely under the radar of human rights groups and national publications. It is difficult to prick the nation’s conscience without media coverage. We must no longer wait for the Associated Press to run a feature article on a single immigrant in a single detention center. These violations of basic human rights must be forced into the public eye via nonviolent demonstrations. Illegal immigrants should no longer suffer in these places alone and unnoticed. The Bible beckons us to be a “voice for the voiceless,” and nonviolent demonstrations should aim to translate these muffled calls for help from Spanish or Sudanese to an English which will awaken the once-great collective conscience of our country which has been lulled to sleep these 45 years.

BY working on the American conscience (and by this I mean all the Americas), by weakening the morale of supporters of immigration tokenism, and by exposing the moral defenses of those who would call for a Mexican border wall, nonviolent resistance will not only block the construction of the wall but will fluently call for reconsideration and reconstruction of our nation’s outdated, provincial philosophy on immigration. But we must begin by countering the wall; to ignore this physical representation of bad immigration policy would make us akin to the priest in the parable of the Good Samaritan, plotting a sermon on brotherly love as he strides past the bleeding wayfarer. The time for this idea has come; the time is now.
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