Sunday, April 19, 2009

Finding the strength to open our arms

Kate Kooyman outlines case for comprehensive immigration reform

GRAND RAPIDS, MICHIGAN (April 18, 2009)--"Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free..." 

So it is inscribed at the feet of the Statue of Liberty, a promise to immigrants near and far hoping for a new life in the United States. But with a struggling national economy, can that promise really be kept? For that matter, has it even been kept over the past half-century?

At the "Doing Justice in This Economy" conference held at Oakdale Park CRC this morning, Kate Kooyman explored such questions in a facilitated dialogue about immigration with economics in mind.

Kooyman does community organizing work for the CRC Office of Social Justice and frequently visits local churches to discuss various justice issues. She also helps lead the Immigration Action Group at the Micah Center, a local grassroots justice movement promoting education and action in the community.

She opened the discussion by laying a Biblical foundation for her stance on immigration. "Sometimes when I go to churches I spend the whole time talking about what the Bible has to say about immigration," she warned the group. "Today, though, I'm hoping for more of a conversation."

That being said, she proceeded to borrow from the Old Testament. "When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as youself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God," he read, quoting words written in Leviticus.

"As we talk about dollars and numbers and statistics," Kooyman said, "we need to remember we are talking about human beings. God instructs us to treat (immigrants) with love."

To help put a face on the many statistics to follow, she invited Aaron Gonzalez, former pastor of Paz y Esperanza (Peace and Hope), to address the group. Gonzalez related several stories of congregants in his fold who were immigrants to the country.

Among other examples, he spoke about a pregnant woman who was abandoned at a grocery store by her boyfriend with their two children. "She didn't know anybody, had no (immigration) papers" said Gonzalez. Somehow--by the grace of God, perhaps--she ended up at Paz y Esperanza, where the community embraced her and she managed to attain a higher quality of life for her self and her children. 

"The gospel has this gift of changing people," he said.

While Gonzalez's narratives portrayed hope, they weren't without sorrow. "(Many immigrants) live in fear," he said.

Jeff DeJong, a teacher in the Grand Rapids Public Schools, could resonate with this insight. "I've learned in my classroom that you can't use the word 'immigration officer.' (The children) go silent like this," he said, motioning with his hand. "They all tense up."

"It doesn't help anyone to have 12 million people living here in obscurity," Kooyman added.

In order to set the record straight, Kooyman addressed a number of myths about immigration. Most relevant to the day's discussion were notions that immigrants presented a drain on the U.S. economy. 

She pointed out that the U.S. gains $140 billion each year in tax revenue through sales and income taxes doled out by undocumented immigrants.

Furthermore, immigrants complement gaps in the national labor force, performing many manual tasks that drive industry within the states.

Kooyman also shared a statistic that observed a four percent increase in wages for native workers in California, home to the nation's largest population of undocumented immigrants, in spite of economic recession nationwide during the time period the study was conducted.

Perhaps most striking of the facts Kooyman disclosed, however, pertained to a scholastic contest. "65 percent of math olympiad winners are born of immigrant parents," she revealed, drawing a murmur of surprise from those in attendance. She complemented this statistic with other findings pointing to the contributions immigrants make to the nation's infrastructure and enterprise.

A question was then raised about immigrants earning money in the states and sending it to their home countries, effectively depleting the US economy of its desired trickled down revenue.

"What about people buy products made in China?" countered David Rifenberg, of Muskegon. He explained that most present in the room likely sent money overseas by shopping at Walmart, buying many name brand products, and supporting industries that manufacture goods in other countries. Often, those dollars support the exploitation of labor forces in developing countries.

"We're very willing to send money over there to hurt, but not so willing to send money to help," Rifenberg observed.

Joel Lautenbach, a fundraising specialist for Christian Reformed World Relief Committee, also commented on the complexity and global interconnectedness of immigration and economics. "What I do to help someone in Cambodia," he said, "is tied into immigration in California."

Toward the workshop's conclusion, Kooyman detailed several recommendations for Congress as it considers proposals for comprehensive immigration reform. 

Among these points were dignified enforcement of immigration laws, establishment of a family-based system that values and protects the needs of families so often separated by U.S. policies, and an examination and unilateral response to root causes for immigration.

"I think comprehensive immigration reform is key to solving our economic crisis," Kooyman added. "One of the reasons we are strong is because we are diverse--we are a nation of immigrants," she said, conjuring up images of Lady Liberty and her declaration to the world's hopeful citizens. 

With that, Kooyman urged workshop participants to act on behalf of immigrants near and far. "We need Christians to get on the phone, write letters, make their voices heard," she said, presenting a slate of opportunities for involvement, including through advocacy efforts, prayer vigils, and support for immigrants' rights organizations.

Perhaps if legislators hear that voice, and if the U.S. can return to embrace that concept and find a way to welcome immigrants with more open arms, it will once again stand tall, offering a light to the world.

Brian Paff, The Micah Center

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