April 27 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print


Time for words of welcome

DANNY SWEENEY of Justice and Peace Scotland reflects on a recent visit to Washington DC where he investigated the plight of migrants and found a country where many are putting up walls — By DANNY SWEENEY

We had a non-stop programme, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way. For two days I was based out of the Methodist Building; a stone’s throw from the Capitol Building—home of the US Congress.

The situation for migrants in the US is quite different to the UK. Here the majority of refugees enter as asylum seekers and are granted refugee status, whereas in the US there is a long tradition of refugee resettlement, where people already granted refugee status are resettled in the US.

In the US refugee resettlement has traditionally enjoyed bipartisan support with around 80,000 a year being accepted, and refugees seen by both Democrat and Republican as ‘good’ immigrants in the tradition of Ellis Island.

This long tradition however is now under threat.

When coming to power Donald Trump immediately capped intake for the current year at 40,000 and all agencies tell us that they will be unlikely to see more than 20,000 resettled this year. More than one agency told us they expect that they will see a complete ban next year.

Away from the political capital, in Pennsylvania, the cities of Lancaster and York serve as the frontline of a battle over migrant rights. Lancaster is the ‘Refugee Capital of the US,’ taking in more people per capita than anywhere else.

Lancaster has a 300-year tradition of welcoming outsiders, going back to the foundation of the state by William Penn, who famously said: “Strangers are welcome as there is room enough for all.” Penn envisioned a place where immigrants would always find themselves accepted and included, something reflected in the language of the state charter.

More recently, Lancaster found itself near to where Vietnamese refugees were sent in 1975, making it possible for the local community to sponsor their release from detention. It is a point of pride for many in the town to know their own family histories, and they ‘remember both what it is to be welcomed, and to welcome others.’

In York, the site of York County Prison which holds both criminals and immigration detainees, PIRC (Pennsylvania Immigration Resource Centre), an advice and advocacy group, helps detainees.

PIRC came about after Bill Clinton’s administration decided to detain survivors of the shipwrecked Golden Venture in 1996, ostensibly in a bid to dissuade human trafficking.

PIRC workers have seen their workload increase under Trump as ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) officials have increasingly, aggressively, targeted ‘deferred action’ individuals (those who had been told they would be OK to remain while immigration issues were resolved). Empowered by Trump’s rhetoric, ICE as an agency is considered to be completely off the leash.

Greisa Martinez Rosas had little legal rights as a child, but she has recently found her voice. She is one of the DREAMers; those who were bought to the US ‘illegally’ as children and are now in a legal limbo. Their fight for rights has been going on for several years, but gained global attention when Trump tried to make passing the DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act conditional on funding for his proposed border wall with Mexico.

Ms Rosas shared her experiences of growing up undocumented and the fears that came with it, but also of how she came to realise that she had the ability to take action, and find a voice.

Recent months have seen various days of action at the Capitol, including by Catholic leaders; showing their willingness to be arrested and detained alongside and in solidarity with the DREAMers.

Another group who have engaged in solidarity is Bend the Arc; a Jewish organisation rooted in the tradition of social justice. I met Rabbi Jason who unpacked how the Jewish people in particular recognised their tradition of being displaced and persecuted. While it is Muslims who are currently being targeted in much of the US, the Jewish community sees a precedent in their own history.

Bend the Arc gained headlines following the first attempt by Trump to impose the Muslim travel ban when the group issued a statement noting that ‘people have been put on lists because of their religion before, and it never ends well.’

Greisa, Jason, and others, including House Representative Emmanuel Cleaver (a Missouri Congressmen and a Methodist minister) spoke of their fears of an existential threat to the US, and its history of migration posed by the current US administration.

The situation in the US is much worse than is generally appreciated in the UK, with private detention centres being paid to meet quotas for detention, and profiteering from a federal policy to pay per day for the length of time they can detain people; even if a determination to release the detainee has been made (this includes the GEO group, which manages Dungavel detention centre in South Lanarkshire).

This land of immigrants has a rich Catholic history. Washington DC hosts both the National Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, the US national shrine, and the crypt where Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, prayed for help for the workers and the poor, just before she met co-founder Peter Maurin and began their work, which was recognised by Pope Francis when he visited the US in 2015.

At the National Mall there are monuments to various presidents, but, more importantly for me, one to Dr Martin Luther King Jr, the great US prophet of Christian non-violence, who like so many others found himself martyred for his witness.

Many of those fighting for migrant in the US identify with Dr King’s tradition of civil rights; these are communities who are part of the US, not outsiders or aliens, they are there, working, worshipping, being part of communities and see the struggle of African-Americans in continuity with their own.

It is undeniable that migration is the great challenge of our generation, and this became even clearer as, shortly before I headed home, the story broke of the Windrush Generation controversy. Just as the DREAMers brought to the US as children now face deportation, we’re seeing reports of Commonwealth citizens who came to the UK from the Caribbean as children on their parents’ documents now being hounded out of work, home and country as a result of the UK government’s ‘hostile environment’ policy.

The release of Gaudete et Exsultate by Pope Francis during the visit also felt very prophetic. In the 100-page document Pope Francis calls on us to see holiness and the love of Christ in the poor and marginalised, especially within refugee and immigrant communities, which he has championed throughout his papacy.

The Catholic community in the US has always been seen as a close ally on immigration, and the US Bishops’ response when accused of self-interest in filling the pews has been adopted and used by other Faith groups: “We care about them not because they’re Catholics, but because we are.”

I left the US both hopeful and fearful. Many people I met spoke of ‘the Resistance’ tot he current US administration. For many, Trump’s policies, and the emboldened far-right, are impacting them in very real ways, as communities and traditions of welcome are destroyed. Those whose beliefs are antithetical to our values as people of Faith are organised across borders. We have to do the same to proclaim our values and practise them in our communities, and communicate them to our political leadership. At a time when 65.6 million people are displaced, more than at any other point in human history, we are seeing the rise of a populist rhetoric against them.

I saw last year in Calais, France, where migrants live in awful conditions, how the UK is failing so many young people, now stranded in northern France. Across the continent and beyond the world is building walls, not bridges.

It was, therefore, an empowering feeling to sit, a matter of metres from the heart of US political power sharing stories with so many people whose Faith compels them to resist the hatemongering and fear targeted against the undocumented, the DREAMers, Muslims, and refugees.

It was empowering, too, to hear of Christians, Jews, Muslims and others prepared to amplify the voices of those impacted, and stand in solidarity with them.

Two messages have come back with me and inspire hope. The first comes from the abolitionist Theodore Parker, paraphrased by both Dr King and Bend the Arc: “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”

The second comes from Sojourners, a Christian community and media platform whose members I met and whose poster is now on my office wall back in Scotland: “‘I pledge to protect and defend vulnerable people in the name of Jesus.’ Matthew 25.”

– Danny Sweeney is social justice coordinator for Justice and Peace Scotland.


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