I recently returned from Congressman John Lewis’ Faith and Politics Pilgrimage to Alabama and was deeply moved by the experience. Fifty years ago, courageous Americans stepped out of their comfort zone and confronted an unjust segregation system that not only debased black America, but white America as well. I was struck by the intimate stories of complacency toward an immoral social norm by white businessmen and the church.
I was amazed by the bravery of the black youth that saved a floundering downtown economic boycott in Birmingham, despite the water hoses and dogs of Bull Conner. I was entranced by the bravery of two black students willing to face a hate filled Gov. George Wallace and a thousand others at the college doors in Tuscaloosa. I was overwhelmed with Dr. King’s epiphany at the kitchen table in Montgomery late one night that he must conquer his fears and do what is morally right. I was in awe of the marchers on the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma that knew they faced violent opposition on the other side, but marched and suffered horribly anyway.
Much like then, America now faces another soul searching moment surrounding an outdated, irrational and dehumanizing immigration system. One hundred years ago, America took all comers to its shores. Now, our byzantine immigration system encourages would-be immigrants to put their livelihoods on the line in order seek the American dream. It makes criminals out of business owners and farmers for hiring folks to do work that no one else will do; work that Americans benefit from and take for granted everyday. And, it generates an unconscionable trade in human beings and human rights violations that operate in dark shadows, often beyond our legal and law enforcement systems.
The discussion about immigration is not about documented and undocumented immigrants. It is about the very nature of who we are as Americans — our beliefs, our morals and our need to share the unalienable rights our immigrant forefathers bequeathed upon us 238 years ago. The loud lack of acceptance among a vitriolic few diminishes hope in aspiring Americans and undermines the progress we have strived for since our country’s inception. Is this our Christian theology? Are these the values of our Declaration and Constitution? Is this how we raise our children?
Merchants and farmers whisper to me that they need and value their employees as individuals and they are critical to the fabric of a recovering American economy. But these voices must be raised loudly and convincingly in your community, in the papers and with your state and federal representatives. As Dr. King often quoted, “Evil triumphs when good men do nothing.”
While individual churches and their charities have exhibited great acts of kindness toward many vulnerable families that have immigrated to our country, the leaders of organized religion must collectively demand an end to an unjust system — a system that separates husbands, wives and children for years; a system where getting to the “back of the line” means waiting twenty years; a system that allows a two caste system for workers rights in this country. I am pleased to see young people, particularly in Latino communities, begin to step up like the African-American youth did 50 years ago. Their bravery in stepping up without legislative guarantees, and solely on the president’s executive order on the Dream Act, is courageous. They captured America’s attention with their votes in this last election. Without Mano y Mano in Woodburn, Ore., and thousands of youth oriented groups like it across America, we would not be having the discussion of Comprehensive Immigration Reform today in Congress.
What remains is for Congress is to have our own epiphany. To do right no matter the political cost and march across that bridge despite some vehement opposition at home. As Dr. King said in his letter from his Birmingham jail cell, “Injustice anywhere, is a threat to justice everywhere. ... Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere in this country.”
Kurt Schrader represents Oregon’s 5th District in the U.S. House of Representatives. This op-ed piece was first posted March 11, 2013.