"I didn't know they were illegal," he explains. "Other companies hired undocumented guys, I knew that, but that was other companies. I'm not other companies. I didn't know. They gave me some papers, I glanced at them; they looked good. What do I know? But they [Department of Homeland Security] expect me to do border security! Why don't they secure the border so I don't have to?"
That was how "James" (not his real name), a small independent contractor in town, talked about his arrest by ICE (Immigration, Control, and Enforcement) agents almost two years ago.
As it happens, a month or two before his arrest, he'd come to make a bid on repairs to our roof. It was a routine visit, just another bid to a potential customer. Reminded me of my own father and grandfather, also independent contractors: straight talking, no nonsense, accepting the status quo with a laconic shrug of the shoulders. Now, James seems less inclined to support the status quo.
Nationally, ICE had conducted high profile raids on large companies employing hundreds of undocumented workers. These raids, it was felt by some, were counter-productive since they garnered too much national attention. Perhaps they reasoned it would be better to go after small businesses, leaving a smaller footprint, something a sleepy public would be less likely to notice.
Probably true for the public, but for James that small "footprint" was closer to a savage kick in the stomach: $300,000 in fines, five months of prison, and the arduous task of salvaging his business, to say nothing of his life. Even more devastating, those who worked for him were deported, effectively "disappeared" from a local economy - families, faith communities, markets, friendships -- they helped to create.
Today, out of prison but still wearing an ankle bracelet to monitor his movements, James sounds both betrayed and confused -- a far cry from the man I met 18 months before.
Indeed, his arrest signals a crisis in a cherished American narrative: skilled worker, honest by most standards, person of prayer, a family oriented business owner. He seemed to be the epitome of American notions of middle class freedom.
Or he would be, were it not for the ankle bracelet. . . .
In the Book of Acts, Paul appeals to King Agrippa to believe in the gospel, wishing that he, the king, would "become such as I am - except without these chains" (26:29b). Paul understood the reality of prison: Captivity was more norm than exception.
Unsurprisingly, the metaphor of freedom and captivity figures prominently in Paul's exhortations: "For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery" (Galatians 5:1). Paul also speaks of a mysterious "thorn" in his side from which he wanted but did not receive release. Paul takes this thorn "captive" to his true bondage to Christ and Christ's uncompromising freedom (2 Corinthians 12:7-9). This captivity to God's love freely given, and not the chains that kept him, would supply the pattern for his life.
What sort of freedom? According to Paul, Christ's freedom rejects the pursuit of selfish indulgence and community devouring competition. Instead, Paul calls for a Christ-like love for one another.
Significantly, unlike James who felt betrayed by the system, Paul reported little or no shock at his imprisonment, as if he understood the deeply flawed nature of the system to begin with.
Which makes me wonder: Is the middle class as free as it imagines or is it just a well-paid captive, a guard for the prisoners, profiting from a system that wants the veneer of justice but not its substance? To what extent does the middle class give lip-service to freedom, while wearing an all-controlling "ankle bracelet" of captivity to a consumerist identity that, always, like a self-destructive addict, goes for the good deal?
Why will we continue to buy from WalMart and McDonalds, no matter what it costs others? Why do we not demand better from the legalized -- and for that reason all the more criminal -- behavior of corporate America?
John Kenneth Galbraith, an economist, remarked, "Under capitalism, man exploits man; under communism, it is just the opposite."
People who self-identify as disciples of Christ must once and for all break with any notion that capitalism is somehow a "benevolent" system or even a "neutral" one. To some extent that's the easy part. More difficult will be translating moral indignation into meaningful economic alternatives, the very stuff of loving our neighbor. It's not impossible, but it does take imagination. Significantly, it means expanding our economic vision from the consumer mentality to that of the community builder.
Café Justo, a coffee company located in the borderland between the United States and Mexico, represents one example of community oriented economic vision:
Café Justo's mission is to deliver the highest quality . . . fresh roasted coffee to our customers at a price that is fair and just. We work to create a bond between the members of the coffee growing community in Salvador Urbina and our customers throughout the world.
Its business model rejects the lop-sided focus on an isolated consumer and his or her tastes, or aiming to dominate markets. Instead, Café Justo aims to transform dehumanizing patterns in the global financial system into intensely local and profoundly "catholic" (i.e. "universal") economies of care and wisdom.
Over the Fourth, James will be wearing an ankle bracelet, a sign of our collective captivity to a financial system. Because he wears it, he will he will have more in common with the deported than the free; but he will also have more in common with Paul than the emperor.
Perhaps, over this Independence Day, we can symbolically wear that ankle bracelet with James, wearing it in order to actively undermine its power over our nation and world. How? Buy locally. Visit the farmers' market. Get to know a farmer. Ask questions about employment practices. Seek alternative models of economic activity. Advocate for the economic and political rights of the poor. These may not remove the thorn of captivity, but they do contribute to the bonds that hold us together as a human family, namely, the cords of loving kindness -- a "captivity" worth embracing!