As our class explores and practices public theology this term, another assignment (in addition to this blog) has been to write an op-ed on the subject of 'freedom'. This is my draft. Feel free to comment!
The American melting pot has boiled over in this year's immigration debate. Earlier this election year, an opportunistic House leadership raised the specter of 15 million illegal Mexican immigrants (heavens, what a number!) having anchor babies, stealing our jobs, and avidly consuming social services. Divisive partisan opinions were fed by irresponsible media commentators. While our elected officials used immigration as a talking point in their road show, the issue of what to do became more pressing in local communities around the nation. The fear and anger fed into public discourse became embedded in small and midsized communities as ethnic hatred.
We're talking about hating people based on their skin color, their language, their national origin. Too strong? Perhaps. But the vehemence of these commentators, of individuals who feel their livelihood is at stake, indicates more than just strong feelings. These aren't just words. They cement opinions, which generate actions.
The fear or indifference at the root of hate is a precursor to violence – the type of violence that allows one group to work for the elimination or exit of another. Our national conversation about immigration has developed into talk of restricting access to human services and mass expulsions. The term ethnic cleansing used to apply to other countries, other communities. South Africa under apartheid. Yugoslavia. Sudan. Congratulations, America. Welcome (back) to the club.
In response to the federal government's failure to act to stem the flow of immigrants, the mayor of Hazleton, Pennsylvania proposed an ordinance (which the city council passed 4-1). It penalizes employers and landlords who hire and house illegal immigrants. It hasn't gone into effect yet, but almost overnight, with no notice, a city of 30,000 or so lost thousands of residents. Five thousand people, as best as they can figure, just picked up and left.
News reports indicate a once-thriving street of shops and restaurants has fallen quiet; For Rent signs populate neighborhoods, rather than people. What's just as bad is a spike in discrimination complaints. Some report a trend of increasingly overt hostility towards Hispanics, regardless of immigration status. The ordinance has left people free to hate – based on neighborhood, nationality, skin color, English proficiency.
The mayor of Hazleton says that illegal immigration is destroying small town America. In response, a struggling community chooses measures that exile 15% of its population; shutter vibrant, successful businesses; and increase racial hostility. Forget about the problems allegedly caused by illegal immigrants. Hazleton's elected leaders are doing quite a good job of destroying the city on their own.
Unfortunately, ethnic hatred also spreads. Following Hazleton's lead, at least 40 other communities in the United States are considering laws aimed squarely at pushing undocumented immigrants out of town. The measures, and their authors, are indifferent to their effect on law-abiding families, on United States citizens who are guilty simply of having the wrong skin color and the wrong ancestry. Officials claim that they are simply responding to the critical problems they face as a result of illegal immigration. They speak of gangs, murders, drugs. They claim that these laws are targeted against illegal immigrants of any nationality. The reality is that no population group has a monopoly on violent elements. And no population group has a monopoly on their ability to contribute to community life.
Sadly, we are adept at racial profiling, pulling people over for 'driving while brown', firing them for speaking Spanish in the workplace, assuming that they are illegal or undocumented because they happen to be less proficient in English. Sadly, Hazleton and other communities across the US are free to destroy themselves, in the course of trying to purify themselves. We are free to buy into the hatred seeded by cynical politicians, commentators, and those who ought to know better. We are also free to make other choices.
If America's greatest resource is its freedom, then we ought to exercise it sustainably. A sustainable freedom recognizes our interdependence. It obligates us to build community, not sever connections. Such freedom urges us to offer welcome to the stranger and sojourner in our midst. It seems there is more wisdom to be had from the young. The students of Hazleton Area High School just proposed a diversity club. They're calling it Unidos. Among its goals? Fostering dialogue between social, cultural and economic groups. Now that's a club we need to join.
Note: this op-ed was accepted for publication (in edited form) by the Janesville Gazette. See their 11/21/06 print edition.