"The old avocations by which colored men obtained a livelihood are rapidly, unceasingly and inevitably passing into other hands; every hour sees the black man elbowed out of employment by some newly arrived emigrant, whose hunger and whose color are thought to give him a better title to the place." -- Frederick Douglass, "Learn Trades or Starve" (1853)
The Obama Administration and a bipartisan group in the Senate are making serious turns to tackle immigration reform. In addition to declaring that as citizens "our rights are wrapped up in the rights of others," the president's State of the Union address spoke of securing borders and decreasing the wait timeframe for the American residential legalizing process. Some 12 million women, men and children across these United States await with baited breath to see what political deals will be made to construct either a pathway to citizenship or pave a road to deportation hell.
What is intriguing about the immigration conversation is that pundits tend to frame the argument in an us-vs.-them fashion. Using rhetorical scare tactics, proponents for and against are not shy about disrobing a "more of them means less for us" stratagem. While much of this ploy has centered on how the massive number of "non-citizens" will subtract resources from persons of European descent, there is now a political stream that avers even sending "border breakers" to the back of the citizenship line will still reduce jobs among African-American low-wage earners. Words from Booker T. Washington, W.E.B DuBois, A. Philip Randolph and the quote from Frederick Douglass, among many others, are now resurfacing as a clarion call for African Americans to think long and hard about getting on the "brown" bandwagon. Yet, none of the language from the aforementioned historical figures specially addresses Latino immigration.
One must note that the arguments within the African American community are not monolithic. From the likes of Cynthia Tucker who purports that there is no connection between high black unemployment and immigration to the Black Alliance for Just Immigration which parallels immigration rights momentum with the Civil Rights Movement, there really is no clear, dare I say, black or white answer among African Americans. For some this citizenship conversation and border openness is a class issue, and for others it is a point of mutual social justice as African Americans and Latinos are subject to the evil of racial profiling.
As an African American biblical scholar, I would tend to see what the Bible has to say about borders, foreigners and receiving and welcoming all. What I have found at the intersection of immigration, African Americans and the Bible is that people have a desire to belong. All of the dialogue about immigration must take into account what it would mean for the undocumented to have papers affirming their belonging to a place where they want to be. Multitudes have torn down geographical barriers to get to this land. They have stayed, settled and nested here because they believe they belong here. While bloggers, critics and buffs debate the how-tos of immigration reform, at the heart of the matter is the human need for belonging, for a sense of security through identity.
Genesis 15 records Abram having a conversation with God about his identity crisis. Abram is childless without any heir to carry on his name. He is in a void patrilineal state. He does not have anyone who is of his seed. He does not have a child, particularly a son, who can stand in his familial gap. While he has much cattle and property, Abram longs for more. He pines for relationship with a descendant that will give him a sense of belonging and identity. God assures Abram that he will have an heir, but God also informs him of an innumerable amount of progeny. There will be many who will come through and belong to the house of Abram.
Paul in his letter to the church at Philippi speaks of a "citizenship in the heavens" (Philippians 3:20). While addressing a group who has endured some political difficulty, Paul, as one with Roman privileges, dares to suggest that even such civic clout is not to be taken so seriously. He maintains that he belongs to a community, a nation whose benefits are more glorious.
While neither text can be seen as offering a pro or counter argument for immigration reform, what they do offer are perspectives of what it means to identify with people and places. The texts provide a glimpse into human tendencies to be in relationship. Abram's desire to have an earthly heir and Paul's polemic regarding heavenly citizenship both point to a common core of communal responsibility and mutuality. For Paul's listeners the community, the citizenry they must model in the Roman Empire is reflective of the same in God's kingdom. In turn God's promise to Abram speaks to ideas of extended family and "seed as countless as the stars in heaven." Both passages resonate of the African Ubuntu way of life, I AM BECAUSE WE ARE. You belong to me. I belong to you. We belong to each other.
In his speech on immigration reform in January, the president stated: "Unless you're one of the first Americans, a Native American, you came from someplace else. Somebody brought you." If, sans the Native Americans, all are "aliens," then perhaps African Americans should as the anthem "We Shall Overcome" declares "walk hand in hand" with Latino immigrants. If there is a human longing to belong, whether through familial bloodline or due to civic struggle, then one can see "black and brown together." Maybe? Will this be a path for America's immigration policies? Or will other misconstrued words of Douglass carry the day:
"White men (Latino men) are becoming house-servants, cooks and stewards on vessels ... so that the blacks can scarcely find the means of subsistence."
Editor's Note: ON Scripture - The Bible is a series of Christian scripture commentaries produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks. Each week pastors from around the country will approach the lectionary text of the week through the lens of current events, providing a religious voice that is both pastoral and prophetic.