Immigrants Like Us

Immigrants Like Us

The Christian Century Magazine, September 7, 2010

by Lillian Daniel


     We never knew much about my father’s side of the family, but on my mother’s side we knew a lot. We Calhouns are descended from Vice President John C. Calhoun, who is known in American history for having seceded from the Union, for his role in the Civil War and his support of slavery. It took me a while to realize that the rest of the world didn’t see history in quite the way my family did. For example, I was taught that only very ignorant and uneducated people ever referred to the “Civil War.” That was an oxymoron because John C. Calhoun had seceded from the Union; it could not be a civil war because there were two separate nations. It should be called, by people of education and distinction, the War Between the States or the War of Northern Aggression.

As a student I came to resent our family heritage. I was not proud of being descended from someone who was the standard bearer for slavery, and therefore on the wrong side of a great moral issue in our history. Unlike the generations before me, I was not raised in the South. I did not eagerly claim my branch on the Calhoun family tree.

     Perhaps because of that, my mother worked doubly hard to get me to see the contributions our family had made. She talked about the value of knowing one’s roots and appreciating one’s heritage, but I was not interested. So when I was 12, she decided to organize a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Scotland for a large group of extended family members, and to trace our roots in the Calhoun clan.

     Around that time Alex Haley’s book Roots was capturing the world’s attention. The story begins with the author’s trip to Africa to trace his ancestors, some of whom were slaves. Referring to our planned trip, my mother explained, “Why darling, it’s just likeRoots!”

“Oh it’s exactly like Roots,” I replied. “Except we’re tracing our roots back to the people who owned the slaves, who were on the wrong side of history and who are already covered in all the history books. But other than that, Ma, it’s exactly like Roots.” I can feel my eyes rolling as I remember my words.

     So a van filled with sarcastic teenagers, aunts and uncles from South Carolina made its way to a remote town in Scotland. Despite my jaded attitude, I naively assumed that if we came all this way, family would be waiting for us. They’d invite us into the manor house and serve us a dinner—or at least tea and shortbread. But the palatial manor house was also a museum, and we were asked to pay an entrance fee just like everyone else. Apparently Scotland is full of people related to the Calhoun clan.

We saw the gravestones of our relatives and traced them and the dates (back to the 1600s). Even a sulking preteen felt the connection to another world and to short, fragile lives. My mother had done a considerable amount of research. After finding our tartan she had us search guidebooks for references to the clan. She discovered that our clan motto was something that sounds like “conocolation,” which translates to “gather up on the hill.” So whenever our group was gathering anywhere, my mother would call out, “Conocolation!” and that became our tourist’s rallying cry.

     We asked a local about the word. He told us that our clan was known for “conocolation” because ours was the most cowardly clan in Scotland. Not only that, he said. The Calhouns were scoundrels who made their profit unethically. Apparently our clan’s prosperity came from forging letters with the names of other clans on them, and thereby goading them to fight with each other in the valleys. Our rallying cry was “Gather up on the hill!” so that we could hide while they battled, then swoop down and grab the spoils.

     My mother was very disappointed in this but had us continue to comb through guidebooks. Finally I found a paragraph that said that one of our relatives had been a member of Parliament. “Now that’s what I’m talking about,” my mother shrieked. “Tell us what it says!”

     “Mama,” I asked as I read the entry, “what does ‘expelled for sexual indiscretion’ mean?’” My mother lit a cigarette. “Give me that %$*!@ guidebook.”

     I reflect on this story because of course we are all immigrants, no matter how long our families have been in this country. We were all once strangers. Many African Americans were forced into immigration by slavery. Native Americans had their own migration patterns. Others came on the Mayflower, or in a truck or by walking through the desert, but all were immigrants at some point. The founders of my own Congregational tradition came from England in search of religious freedom. They were American immigrants back in a time when there was no such thing as a “legal” or “illegal” immigrant.

     But now things are much more complex. The issue of immigration is confusing and baffling to us as a society. It affects people in all parts of America, from our cities to our rural communities to the Midwestern suburbs where I pastor.

     One of the most controversial issues is the question of undocumented immigrants. Fired up about that, we often forget that most immigrants—about three-quarters of them—are here entirely legally with visas, or on the path to citizenship. The one-quarter who are undocumented total about 12 million, although it’s a hotly debated number, and difficult to prove.

     Of that 12 million, five million are children who are undocumented. Of course if an undocumented immigrant has a child in the United States, that child is a citizen. So there are millions of documented children connected to undocumented family members.

This places a burden on social services and on our already convoluted and confusing healthcare system. Often undocumented workers are paying taxes because they’re using a fake Social Security number. But although they’re paying Social Security and paying into Medicare, they will never see or benefit from the investment. Many request a tax ID number because they want to pay into the system.

     The American economy depends upon these workers. This dirty little secret does not get talked about very much, but most of us know people who work in industries that would collapse if it were not for the undocumented workers. They play an integral role in the American economy, whether we admit it or not.

     Add to the complexity the issue of children. Children are born here and have citizenship, but if their parents are undocumented, their parents can be deported and the families broken up. When a mother is deported, she faces a horrible decision. Does she take the child with her, or does she allow her child to stay in the United States and be raised by others? A mother in this situation may come back into the country again and again, risking everything in order to be with the child that she wants to raise in a better life.

Children who are not born in the U.S. but are raised here have no part in the decision-making. They grow up in this country and get to the point where they want to go to college, and they can’t get any financial aid. They’re stuck in low-wage jobs and unable to make it into the next level through education. Some are deported and sent to Mexico with no memory of that country. They are as out of place there as any foreigner would be.

     There are a lot of loaded terms that come up in the debate. Some people call undocumented workers “illegals,” taking an adjective and making it into a noun. In human history, when we take an adjective and turn it into a noun to describe people, it’s usually a way of dehumanizing them, of saying they’re not really people by taking the people word out of it. Most people who care about these issues prefer the term “undocumented worker” because it’s more respectful of the humanity that we all share, and draws attention to the work they do.

     One of the dilemmas is how to protect the native-born worker from unfair competition in this uneven playing field. There is no question that an undocumented worker will accept a substandard working condition and a much lower wage.

     Another dilemma is the so-called solution of the “guest worker,” which seems to create even more problems. The guest worker is given a visa to come into the country like a migrant worker, who comes and then leaves. The guest worker’s visa is attached to working in a particular place. But what if his employer is an unethical employer? What if it’s an abusive workplace? He cannot easily leave the abusive workplace because his visa is tied to that job. This leads to the creation of substandard positions. Few people blow the whistle on a bad situation because the worker doesn’t have full protection under the labor laws. But if we didn’t have guest workers willing to work in these substandard conditions, might these jobs become full-time jobs with benefits?

     The path to citizenship is a problem too. Often people say, “I have nothing against immigrants, I just want them to come into the country legally.” I challenge those people to research what it takes for a Mexican to enter the United States legally and gain citizenship. It’s almost impossible, even if you do everything right and win the lottery system.On top of this there is the issue of high-skilled human capital. The immigration debate affects our prosperity as a nation and our ability to keep jobs in our country. It’s not just that low-wage jobs are going overseas; high-end jobs are disappearing too. Many Americans work for companies that are moving research and design department overseas because the company needs U.S. visas for engineers in China and can’t get them.

Finally, let’s not assume that immigrants who clean the bathrooms in our hotels, drive our cabs and mow our yards began their careers in low-skilled jobs. Many come here with college and graduate education, with experience in engineering or medicine. But here they are considered unskilled. Yet they believe they can do better here than they could in their profession at home.

     Unlike migrants, who move in order to find work on a temporary basis and plan to move again, these immigrants want to move to a new country on a permanent basis, in order to make an entirely new life.

     On Sunday morning we read texts that are thousands of years old, sacred stories that trace the history of the Israelite people in and out of exile, and we remember how fluid those Old Testament national borders were. We might also remember that in the arc of history, much of America—Nevada, California, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas—was once a part of Mexico. Like the Old Testament borders, U.S. borders have always been relatively fluid in terms of commerce.

     But Americans tend to take a very short view of history. We react to what has happened most recently as though it has always been so and always will be. Our reactivity led to the immigrant backlash after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in 2001. In our pain as a nation, and in our terror that this might happen again, we slipped into a level of comfort with racial and ethnic profiling that we would not have tolerated before that incident. Suddenly it became OK with us if someone who looked Arab was pulled aside for extra questioning at the airport. We allowed that state of terror to render our core values sloppy. Fear can do that.

Isaiah wrote, “Woe to the legislators of infamous laws, to those who issue tyrannical decrees, who refuse justice to the unfortunate and cheat the poor among my people of their rights, who make widows their prey, and rob the orphan.” Woe to the legislators of infamous laws.

     People will often say that America is a nation of laws, and that we have to respect the laws that we have in place or everything will unravel. They apply this principle to immigration, saying that there is no excuse to break the law and enter the country illegally. Inherent in that point of view is the unstated assumption that our immigration laws are just and worth following—that our immigration policies are fair and worthy of that respect.

     But if you look at our history of immigration as a nation, it gives a much-needed perspective on our behavior in the past and on what the American people accepted as fair and just. Take, for example, the Indian Removal Act of 1838, that resulted in the “Trail of Tears,” with 70,000 Native Americans uprooted from their homes and their land at gunpoint. Consider the Slave Fugitive Act of 1850. If you helped a slave, you were violating a law that the majority of Americans accepted as just and fair.

     The Page Law of 1875 prohibited Asian women from immigrating to the United States. The economy was riding on the backs of male Chinese workers, who were building the railroad for very low wages, but our government didn’t want these men to settle here, form families and put down roots. Then came Executive Order 9066 of 1942, which gave the U.S. army the power to arrest every Japanese-American on the west coast. In that time period, 120,000 men, women and children of Japanese descent were sent to internment camps in isolated regions and kept under armed guard in one of the saddest stories in American history.

     All of this, of course, was legal. Now we have the situation in Arizona, a place that is near and dear to many of the snow birds in my Midwestern congregation. Under the new law, immigrants are supposed to be arrested without warrant if they appear to be undocumented. How can a person “appear to be undocumented”? In the debates about this law, proponents suggested that one could  recognize them “by their shoes.” There’s really only one way: by the color of their skin. The law’s obvious racial profiling raises tremendous ethical issues for people of faith.

     With 12 million undocumented immigrants, five million of those children, and a law that says we are supposed to turn each other in—are we asking our children to turn in their parents? Although this law will wreak havoc in countless families, many states are proposing similar laws. I wonder what our record is on these and similar laws, and how history will judge us? What would Isaiah say to us?

     We might ask ourselves if our own ancestors were any different from the immigrants crossing the border today. Although my mother’s side of the family got all kinds of attention, we paid little attention to the Daniel side. It was a low-key history of migrant farmers eking out a living, eventually buying a mule, slowly making their way to the middle-class. So no one was more surprised than I when a church member did my geneology for me, and discovered that a member of the Daniel family came over on the Mayflower.

I was thrilled to get this news, not because I wanted the pedigree, but out of a spirit of petty competitionwith my husband. He has long known that he is related to the Captain William Bradford of the Mayflower, and has mentioned this to us many times. So I was breathless as I told him, “I’m related to someone on the Mayflower too! His name is John Howland, he was born in 1599, and he was a cabin boy.”

     To which he responded, “Well, that would be the last time anyone in my family got to tell anyone in your family what to do.”

William Bradford is quoted as having called John Howland “a lusty young man.” As a cabin boy or a servant boy, he was essentially a young man with no encumbrances, no family along for the ride, no nothing. He had agreed to come over and to sign his life away as a servant until the age of 25. Only then would he get his shot at what the “American Dream.”

I eagerly read the last will and testament of John Howland and his wife, to see what became of them. They were evidence that the Puritans lived almost as long as we do now, often into their 70s—despite drinking beer for breakfast. John, now a landowner, wrote his will and testament in his own hand. I was struck by his priorities:

Know all men, to whom these presents shall come, that I, John Howland. . . will and bequeath my body to the dust and my soul to God that gave it, in hopes of a joyful resurrection unto glory. And as concerning my temporal estate, I dispose thereof as following. . .

     He goes on to list what he’s going to do with his fields and his property, almost as an afterthought to his more pressing spiritual concerns, and ends by saying:

I will and bequeath my dear and loving wife, Elizabeth Howland, the use and benefit of my now dwelling house in Rocky Nook, in the township of Plymouth aforesaid with the outhousing land. . . .I wish her to enjoy and make use of and improve of that land for her own benefit and comfort.[end indent]

     Clearly, he had come a long way since being a young, single immigrant on the Mayflower.

In her will, Elizabeth wrote,“ It is my will and charge to all my children that they all walk in the fear of the Lord and in love and peace toward each other, that they endeavor the true performance of this, my last will and testament.”

Elizabeth and John Howland wanted exactly the same things that we want. They wanted the same things that every immigrant today wants in that first generation: to own land and prosper on it, to see their children and their children’s children thrive. They knew that they were loved by a God who does not see national boundaries, but who would judge them according to their kindness and mercy.

In my church the American flag stands below the cross, as does the denominational flag— reminders that one day, when we meet our maker, we will be rewarded, not for how well we patrolled our borders, nationally or theologically, but for how gracefully we crossed the divides that separate one group of human beings from another. In Christ there is no Greek or Jew, nor male nor female, nor slave nor free.

     Ultimately we will not be judged for how well we followed the changing and sometimes unjust laws of a temporary nation-state, or for how well we patrolled borders that from the perspective of eternity will seem fluid and moveable. Instead, we will be judged on how well we followed the teachings of Jesus in Matthew 25: 35-36, 40: “For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you made me welcome. . .in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me.”I believe that the human spirit that compelled a young Englishman to sign up for duty as a cabin boy and cross the ocean for a better life in 1630 is the same spirit that compels a college graduate from Mexico to work as a hotel housekeeper, cleaning toilets and making beds, to send money back to her family.That mighty human spirit is a gift from God that is distributed equally and without partiality in the hearts of all God’s children. It will always triumph, ultimately, over cruelty and division, as long as we who believe in it stand up for our brothers and our sisters, for their dreams and for their families. Let freedom ring.


The Rev. Dr. Lillian Daniel
Senior Minister
First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
Glen Ellyn, Illinois