2010-09-23 / News

Church forum examines national immigration issue

By Geoff Campbell

Gwen and James Keller Photo by Geo ff Campbell Gwen and James Keller Photo by Geo ff Campbell The Reverend James Keller began last Sunday’s immigration forum with an activist’s retrospective.

In 1969, he said, his Lawrence, Mass.-based Presbyterian congregation included a large number of new immigrants. Other nearby churches also recognized a growing need to support the area’s immigrants and created an ecumenical ministry of which they named Keller the executive director.

It was a position that he held for 19 years.

But in 1989, Keller got another perspective on immigration. He and his wife, Gwen, moved to Cuernavaca, Mexico – about 90 minutes outside of Mexico City – to work at a Presbyterian retreat center.

There, he said, “We saw immigration from the other side.”

On Sept. 19, Keller brought his perspective to audience members in a forum hosted by Central Baptist Church. He addressed the principal issue of immigration with a simple question: “Why do so many immigrants come to the U.S.?”

According to Keller, the answer is often multi-layered and complicated.

Though the quick answer is to seek a “better life,” he said, the economic needs of the Mexican people became desperate as a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

NAFTA, he said, was entered into “presumably to improve life” for Mexico’s farmers and other workers. The result, however, “devastated the foreign economy of Mexico,” he said.

According to Keller, the free corn imported from the U.S. as part of NAFTA put hundreds of thousands of Mexican farmers out of work – and the factory jobs that were created by NAFTA proved to be only temporary, eventually moving to countries with even lower pay standards.

Keller added that the loss of jobs – and the farmers’ inability to sell corn at a profit – was made worse by the Mexican government’s 1991 repeal of Article 27, a 1912 law that insured generation-to-generation retention of property, but prevented the sale of land.

Farmers left without viable markets and no longer restricted from selling their land did so, he said.

The result was a narrowing choice. Many Mexicans immigrated to the U.S., he said.

While he was a resident of Mexico, “50% of the male population was in the U.S. working,” he added.

Martin Lepkowski, an active member of Witness for Peace, who attended the forum, described the tremendous challenges facing immigrants from central and south American countries. They now attempt the dangerous journey over the mountains and through the desert in search of a better life for their families, he said.

While attending an immigration rally in Providence on May 19, Revered Keller and four other R.I. ministers were encouraged to experience the immigration struggle firsthand by Gladys Gould of the Transnational Institute for Grassroots Research, Keller said.

The five-member delegation – including three members of the governing board of the R.I. State Council of Churches, of which Keller is a board member – traveled to Phoenix following the enactment of Arizona’s controversial immigration law.

The delegation’s discoveries, based on site visits and interviews, are summarized on a website dedicated to their visit: Partners in Witness in the Struggle for Justice.

Portions of their findings were made available in a handout at Sunday’s forum and included:

• People are desperate to change their family circumstances – they would literally risk death to start a new life or to be reunited with family.

• All immigrants are lumped together as “criminal aliens,” when the vast majority are simply poor people.

• Militarization of our borders and inhumane treatment in our courts, detention centers and prisons are disturbing.

• There seems to be little or no interest in understanding the circumstances leading to the plight of our neighbors in this condition.

• The impact of NAFTA, agribusiness in the U.S. and other corporate interests, and Mexico’s internal struggles are part of the story. Our wealth and addictions add to the ugliness.

Before he took questions from the audience, Keller cited several Bible verses that he said address the fundamental question concerning an individual’s response to the issue of immigration.

In summary, Keller advocated for individuals to “examine their hearts” and to commit to study and prayer on the issue of immigration and the treatment of immigrants.

One audience member asked, “Raising awareness is great, but what next?”

Keller replied, “Legislation. We need to provide a means to a fair and just system that will enable the 12 million undocumented [residents] to be regularized.”

When asked what the Council of Churches was doing, and whether or not it was effective, Keller said that the resolutions from the council will only be effective when the churches are better able to sensitize the people in the pews.

The final comment came from a member of the audience, a healthcare employee who said that he has seen the 2005 Deficit Reduction Act – meant to limit medical benefits to undocumented residents – backfire. He said that the DRA puts an unreasonable burden on poor and underrepresented U.S. citizens to provide documentation in order to receive medical benefits.

A cynical view, he said, suggests that creating the need for greater documentation increases income to agencies that provide the documentation, thus defraying the cost of the benefit.

He added that perhaps finding a solution to the immigration problem is not about greater compassion for a stranger, but a closer examination of our society and our motives.

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