Listen: What Our Religious Traditions Teach Us About Dealing with Undocumented Immigrants
This fall, the Interfaith Center kicked off its Religion and Society series with “Amnesty or Expulsion: What Our Religious Traditions Teach Us About Dealing with Undocumented Immigrants.” Aurora Camacho de Schmidt, professor emerita of Spanish and longtime immigrant rights advocate, and Muslim student advisor Umar Abdul Rahman led the discussion.
Camacho de Schmidt has been involved in the immigrant rights advocacy community since 1980. She directed the Mexico-U.S. Border Program of the American Friends Service Committee between 1979 and 1986 and worked as a policy analyst until 1992. At Swarthmore, her research and teaching focused on the way the freedom and rigor of the literary imagination embody the struggles of marginal people in the Americas. She has also served as a volunteer translator in contract negotiations for the Kaolin Mushroom Workers Union in Chester County, Pa.
Prior to beginning work in religious life and pastoral care, Rahman practiced immigration and human rights law, specifically deportation defense, for a number of years in the Philadelphia area. He has studied various aspects of the Islamic faith in both traditional and academic settings in the U.S., as well as abroad. Rahman has also been an active member of the local Muslim community and is one of the founders of the Philadelphia chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the nation's largest Muslim civil rights organization.
Joyce Tompkins: Thanks, everybody, for being here tonight for our first ever Interfaith Center Religion and Society series talk. Today we're talking about immigration and particularly on what our religious traditions can teach us about how to deal with undocumented immigrants and the whole question of immigration. I'm very pleased to welcome today our two speakers, Umar Abdul Rahman, who is our Muslim student advisor and a former immigration attorney, and Aurora Camacho de Schmidt, who is a professor emerita here at Swarthmore and also an immigration activist. Without any further ado, I'm going to hand it over to Umar. This whole session is his brainchild. Thanks, Umar.
Umar Abdul Rahman: Thanks, Joyce. I just wanted to first start off by thanking the co-sponsors, the Lang Center, also the Intercultural Center, the IC, International Student Services, we have Jen here representing, Peace and Conflict Studies and Latin American and Latino Studies.
Now, in general, just like Joyce said, this the inaugural event for the Religion and Society Series. We're basically hoping that this will be a once a semester series where we essentially deal with a pertinent issue and try to analyze it from a religious angle, have our advisors share thoughts from their religious traditions, and also we plan to invite experts like we have today in Aurora, who will break down an issue and explain that to us. I'll follow up with Aurora and also try to add a little bit about the immigration angle as well.
In general, I also have to thank actually the president of the Hartford Seminary, Heidi Hadsell. It was one of her classes that gave me the inspiration to start this series. It was a class in Christian ethics. I was the only Muslim student, but it was a great class even for me. Basically, we similarly took different issues that were relevant in society and analyzed that from a Christian ethic, and she's a Christian ethicist.
What was really nice was listening to some of the pastors and the Christian leaders in that class draw from their tradition, and I found that to be very inspirational and nice. Then we also read the pope's encyclical, and it was so relevant and it dealt with so many relevant issues that the professor afterwards encouraged those of us who were at liberal arts colleges and universities, encouraged us to try to do something similar, analyze these issues from a religious perspective. That's what we're hoping to do.
Then in general, religion obviously is a motivating force for so many people, and so just analyzing that angle would be helpful for many of us. But even if somebody's not religious, if some of you are not religious, it's still helpful to know what the religious position is on different issues, particularly because when it comes to this issue especially, you have some of the biggest opponents from the religious perspective or people who would consider themselves religious, so it's nice to have an idea of what religious scriptures say on these different issues.
Then just in general finally, just choosing this issue, it's such a pertinent issue these days, and many people have said that it's our civil rights issue, or at least one of the main civil rights issues of our time, and so I think it's very important that we deal with it. Without further ado, I'll ask Aurora to come up and give us some background information about the issue and also share as well from her religious tradition if she'd like to.
As many of you know, Aurora Camacho de Schmidt, did I say that right, was a professor emerita here at Swarthmore in Spanish and Latin American and Latino studies, and she's also been an activist for the immigrant cause going back to the 80s. We're really honored to have her join us and share with us. Thank you so much.
Joyce: Thank you very much.
Aurora Camacho de Schmidt: Thank you. It is so good to be here and to see the faces of students and also of our friends. Thank you very much, Umar. I think it is a wonderful idea to have a discussion on immigration. What I thought I would do is to present to you some demographics and also some pictures of the movements for and against the presence of immigrants in the United States and also then to show you how young the population is and what that means for our future, the immigrant population.
Then I would like to share with you some of the reflections that I wrote about why we welcome immigrants and why the law that was passed in 1986, signed into law by President Reagan, did violence to the religious beliefs of the organization I was working for, the American Friends Service Committee. It went to court to say, "This law is in violation of our religious belief in the equality of all people and in the need for everybody to have decent work and working conditions, and we do not want to discriminate against people who through no fault of their own have not been able to acquire the necessary documents to be in this country. Their situation is such that they deserve to be hired."
Needless to say, that case did not win favor with the courts. We lost in court. I was a co-plaintiff, and my argument was that I had not done anything to earn a green card, which I still have. I am a resident alien, which is a very strange label to have in my many identities. I think I like emerita professor better than resident alien, but I am a citizen of the country where I was born, Mexico, a very grateful resident in this great country and also a very rabid critic of what it is doing with immigration and what it is not doing with immigration as well.
I am totally partisan, and I am probably not so much an activist as an advocate. I see every day people who are in the field working with people. I don't work directly with people except on occasion. I also wanted to have you look at the words. Because my field is literature, I tend to look at words, and amnesty or expulsion and how we have polarized those two possibilities. I'm going to say that I would be neither for one or the other but for integration, and I will explain why.
Amnesty etymologically has to do with the word amnesia in English. You know what amnesia means? Forgetfulness, total forgetfulness, so to receive amnesty is to say I have forgotten about what you did to me that was so offensive. I remember very well what was written by Subcomandante Marcos at the time of the armed insurrection of indigenous people in southern Mexico when President Salinas offered amnesty to the people, and he wrote, "Why do we need to be pardoned? What are we to be pardoned for?"
He's speaking on behalf of the people who were to receive amnesty, "For not dying of hunger? For not accepting humbly the historic burden of disdain and abandonment? For having risen up in arms after we found all other paths closed to us?" He goes on and on, "For being mainly indigenous, or should we ask pardon from the dead, our dead, who died 'natural' deaths or of 'natural causes' like measles, whooping cough, break-bone fever, cholera, typhus?" He goes on and on, "Who can grant pardon, and who can receive pardon?"
Amnesty is the forgiveness of a felony or a misdemeanor, a breaking of the law, and I maintain that people who cross the border out of a need for survival have committed a crime in the eyes of the authorities of the United States but not a crime of malicious intent. They did not intend to harm anybody. They felt compelled to do that, so I am all for amnesty if we understand how that needs to be modulated, changed a bit in its meaning. It's not a forgiveness for a crime like other crimes. People were forced to do what they had to do in order for their families to survive.
Look at the demographics of the presence of immigrant people here. The total population of the United States, a huge country in terms of its population, and the foreign born, it is not at an all time peak. At the time of the early 20th century there was an even higher percentage of foreign-born people in the United States. This is a time of Ellis Island. This is a time of tremendous labor migration because of the rapid industrialization of the United States and the poverty also in Ireland, in Italy, in other countries in Eastern Europe.
Unauthorized immigrants, undocumented people are 11.2 million, and these are very trustworthy figures. It's funny, in the 1980s we didn't have trustworthy figures. People would say, oh, maybe 3, maybe 6 million people, but these are very carefully calculated estimates. One in every 20 workers in the labor force is an undocumented person. These are very significant numbers now, and it is no wonder that people who didn't know this was happening in their country and don't like their country to change very rapidly are alarmed, especially in a state like Pennsylvania.
The amount of people is roughly the size of Belgium, so imagine having the size of the population of Belgium inside the United States, the void of rights without any kind of recognition of their existence even. Not only they don't have rights, we don't know who they are, where they live. We do not know a lot about them. In Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania is not a state where Mexicans have been coming for a very long time. They came early in the 20th century to work in Bethlehem in the steel industry. That steel industry is gone.
Some of the descendants of that group of migrants is still living there with Spanish names but not with the Spanish language alive, but Pennsylvania began receiving a lot of people who came as migrant agricultural workers, and then they began to stay when the mushroom industry became year round. They are located just a few miles away from here, 45 minutes away in Chester County and in Berks County. Our total population is almost as big as the undocumented population of the United States. There are many more foreign born than undocumented people, but 1.3% in Pennsylvania is now undocumented, and where do you think they would live mostly in the state of Pennsylvania, where would they go?
Speaker 4: In like the inner city areas.
Aurora Camacho : That's right. They are in south Philadelphia, and after we finish here I'm going to go to south Philadelphia for an altar de los muertos. It's the Day of the Dead today, so I will be visiting with people. The foreign born are, look at that very interesting fact, mainly from Asia, not Mexican, not Central Americans, although those are the people we see the most, but mainly from Asia, from India and China as well as other countries.
I want to just show you, because the population of Latinos and Asians tends to be very young, the expected ethnic composition of the United States in mid-century will dramatically change, and white people will cease to be even half of the population. They will be less than half of the population, and the majority of the people in the country will be what we call people of color, of a great variety.
I do believe that this will make us not weaker but stronger if we can begin to sow the seeds of equality in this population, but so far this is not happening, quite the opposite. Children in the Latino population, undocumented population are growing without the benefit of security. They are afraid. They are afraid that their parents may not come back because they may be deported, and that is because in 2012 400,000 people were deported all over the country, 2 million people have been deported by President Obama back to their countries.
Here, I want to show you how Sophie Cruz is being escorted by a policeman on her way to see Pope Francis. The policeman grabbed her from the other side of a barricade because she said that she had a letter for the pope. This policeman very kindly escorted her and then lifted her up, and she gave Pope Francis a letter that said of course, "I want you to ask the president of the United States not to take my parents away. I want to stay here." She lives in Los Angeles.
She's from an indigenous group in Oaxaca. A very large group of people are in Oaxaca from her ethnic group, Mixteco. They have their own language. She is a wearing a huipil, a beautiful garment all embroidered. Her letter is easy to read on the internet. I like that she is called Sophie, not Sophia, which would be the Spanish name, and Sophie shows how she's already beginning to adapt to a new society. Her parents gave her an English name, not the Spanish version of that name. That's so significant for us.
We have two grassroots movements. Usually, when we think of a grassroots movement, we think that it's a social movement to ameliorate things and to improve things, but not always. This is not always the case. On the one hand, there is the misinformed and anti-immigrant movement. They think that there are 23 million immigrants, illegals they call them, but we know that there are less than half of them.
In our own state of Pennsylvania in Hazleton, the community was up in arms to get rid of immigrants in a very, very rough way, in a very strong way. We have seen that happen even closer to us in Kennett Square in Chester County, where people did not want to rent housing or sell housing to the people who work in the mushroom plants and who have made that community very wealthy indeed.
Then there is on the other side an immigrant rights defense that is also grassroots and that is really diverse with a lot of people from all sorts of groups, political but also people of faith who have joined the movement as allies. Here in Philadelphia you have the New Sanctuary Movement, which is an interfaith movement, very strong and very active. We also have the other side of Hazleton. After one of those terrible demonstrations, the immigrant people would come together with candles, with prayers, with songs outside city hall saying, "We are also building this community in a very peaceful way."
The Supreme Court made a 4-4 decision on whether or not to uphold President Obama's proposal to grant delayed deportation or delayed action to the parents of citizens or legal residents, and that would have affected about 5 million people and to continue with the Dream Act and continue sending people who arrived as children in the United States to colleges and universities. Because the Supreme Court decision was 4 and 4 since we are missing one Supreme Court justice, the decision went back to the lower court, which had placed an injunction on the executive actions of President Obama, and so we didn't have the relief that we were seeking for these people, but we say they still hope.
To me, it is so interesting that I do not see people furious and angry, but I see even smiles and a certain amount of energy and joy. They are there, and one is asking, "[Speaking Spanish 00:19:33] DAPA," whatever happened to DAPA, the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans. They still hope, and they continue to advocate for their families. I am impressed by how many of these posters feature children, don't destroy our future, keep my family together, and a day without Trump. This is a play on A Day Without Mexicans, which is a documentary that was made in California and it is really interesting, a few years ago.
What would happen to the state of California, which was really built up by immigrant people, Mexicans largely but also many people from even Japan and the Philippine islands and China. It's funny that they take that and also A Day Without Sunshine, which was a documentary made by Edward J. Murrow, famous journalist, about the orange grove workers in the state of Florida, mostly Mexicans at that time. They are now mostly Guatemalans.
Then the protests for the Dream Act, which are always beautiful and imaginative, and the person who says, "My dreams are not illegal," is one of our students who graduated from Swarthmore. Here is a young man from China at Berkeley about to be arrested, and here are the dreamers righting the word dream on the beach of Miami. Here is a massive demonstration that's actually 2006 in Los Angeles.
We don't have people coming out to the streets in these numbers, but potentially it is possible to rebuild that capacity. I want to tell you something about the case that we presented in court. I don't want to take the time of other speakers, but what we felt was that, first of all, going to court was not a result of a theological analysis. We didn't write our beliefs on a piece of paper and then said, "Well, those beliefs really make us go to court."
Going to court was a very spontaneous response to something that we saw as a great calamity because employer sanctions, the centerpiece of that legislation, was going to create enormous problems for undocumented people in not being able to secure work or in being at the hands of employers who would not be very careful with them. They would be able to say to them, "You know, I'm taking a risk. I can be fined because I'm employing you, so therefore I'm going to pay you below minimum wage," and so on. A lot of abuse has happened under that legislation, as we thought.
We want to think of immigrants, first of all, in our meditation as subjects and not as objects, as people who are active, as you saw in the pictures, in their own journey toward liberation. We feel that we are their allies, the allies of undocumented people, and so we engage them. I think that the most important belief, if I wished to pinpoint one, is that we are called to love our neighbor, and to love our neighbor as ourselves is to create a field of equality.
You are here because of historical forces that have made this country really a magnet for cheap labor, and the very same forces that are sending jobs out of the country are the forces that magnetize, if you will, poor workers who come and deliver themselves as a gift at the footsteps of the employer and say, "Here I am, what can I do for you?" It's a flexible force. It's a great labor reserve. Capital needs this kind of labor reserve to be successful, and Latin America at the moment is supplying a lot of it, but not alone, not the only area.
We have lots of quotations here that I would love to read to you, but there is no time, but one of them, it comes from the black theologian, James Cone, who meditated a great deal about the civil rights struggle in the United States led by Martin Luther King and many others. He was in the seminary at that time, and he recalls how his professors instilled in him the sense that God was a God of history and that every time we make a new level, a deeper level of contact with God, it is because historical forces have taken us there to a point where we see God's hand acting in history.
I know we usually think of God, God the creator, and we admire God's creation in the beautiful colors of autumn, especially now, but God is not only the creator of space, God is the creator of time and very present in historical developments. We want to say that what we are witnessing is a new moment in time, and Yahweh, somewhere Yahweh says through Isaiah, "Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing. Now it springs forth. Do you not perceive it?"
We are never going to have a country that looks like it looked in 1950. We are never going to have a Europe that is pre-end of the 20th century. Although there is a lot of nostalgia about that time, some of that nostalgia is for a world that did not exist, at least did not exist for everyone, or it existed on the backs of a lot of people and hurt a lot of people in order to be that pristine, that pretty or that comfortable. We see a new time, a time of tremendous mobility of human populations, and a time that will not roll back, and so what do we do with people?
We look at how the biblical faith turns the world upside down. There's a whole chapter on this full of quotations on how, I mean, the Song of Hannah, "Strong men stand in mute dismay, but those who faltered put on new strength." I start with a quote by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the writer from Colombia who received the Nobel Prize, and in his speech he talked about Latin America saying, "We, faced with oppression, plundering and abandonment, respond with life." I have that quotation here because I think that undocumented migration is when people who have been faced with oppression, plundering and abandonment respond with life, it is an act of life to cross the border in the midst of so many dangers, in the midst of such an open-ended journey through the desert with a jug of water and a change of clothes and dangers untold.
We talk about the power of transformation of undocumented immigrants, and here I quote Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a man whose faith cost him his life, and in the Jewish tradition he saw elimination. He as a Christian, as a professor of theology in the United States and going back to Germany at a time of tremendous danger, and of course he did not survive being that he was against the Third Reich. He wrote, and we still have his writings, "We have learned to see the great events of the history of the world from beneath, from the viewpoint of the useless, the suspect, the abused, the powerless, the oppressed, the despised--in a word, from the point of view of the suffering."
Then we go into the history of suffering of immigrants, and I quote some lawyers in Supreme Court decisions commenting on Supreme Court decisions but the lawyer part, Umar is the expert here as well, but suffering people are very present in the scriptures, in the Hebrew scriptures. God says to Job, "I was a father to the needy, and I took up the stranger's cause." In Judith, we read Judith saying to God after she has been able to survive, "You are the God of the humble, the help of the oppressed, the support of the weak, the refuge of the forsaken, the savior of the despairing," but we the community of believers take that role that God commands us to take.
The change announced in the name of God by the singer of the book of Isaiah is a change of radical newness, pushed to the brink of death, the people are to recognize and give voice to suffering and then leave suffering behind because after all, the prophecy is one of hope. I continue in the booklet with quotations that have to do with welcome, welcoming the stranger, and especially I spent time with the book of Ruth because it contains a very beautiful story where Ruth and her mother-in-law, Naomi, have to migrate because they have lost their husbands and they are destitute. Women would be destitute without their husbands, and they have to return to their countries, to the country of Naomi, which is Judea.
Ruth will now be the foreigner there, but God saves them both by giving a husband to Ruth and therefore descendants for Naomi's family. The blessings of fruitfulness come with that migration and the commitment that Ruth expresses to Naomi, "Where you go, I go." When Naomi says, go and stay with your family here in the foreign land where they have taken place, and she says, "No, where you go, I will go. Where you dwell, I will dwell, and your people will be my people, and your God will be my God," a total commitment to her mother. From there, then life is opened in the form of the fruitfulness of her womb. She, for Christians, will be one of the ancestors of Jesus. I have to let you talk.
Umar Abdul R.: I just wanted to go over some helpful information as well. Some of this is based on practicing as an immigration attorney and then also just conversing with friends trying to just dispel some myths and just give you some important information about undocumented immigrants. Aurora covered a lot of this, so I'm going to skip a lot of what I had, but just one important fact about the figure that's often quoted, 11 million. It's generally been pretty constant at 11 to 12 million, but I think recently it was even said that it's dipped to its lowest level since 2003 for multiple factors, but it's not really the inflated statistic that a lot of people, especially on the far right, give. I know I looked in some publication and they were saying 30 million, so they have a tendency of really creating fear when they shouldn't.
Now, in general I think something important to keep in mind is also, and a lot of you, you might already know this, but I think it's helpful for those that don't, but just the idea of an undocumented immigrant and what makes somebody undocumented, there are two major ways that this would happen. One would be entry without inspection. That's the terminology that's often used in the law, EWI is what's used. That's when somebody crosses through the border, which is obviously what a lot of people envision. Then of course the other case would be when somebody overstays a visa, so that's common as well.
With an overstay, there are more opportunities to adjust status and to gain status. You tend to be in a more vulnerable position if you cross through the border. Then what oftentimes happens at the border is if people get apprehended, they'll be given a hearing, and if the person's fearful, they won't attend that hearing. They're just scared that they'll get a removal order, but what ends up happening then is they'll get an in absentia removal order again them. At that point, the person's in a really vulnerable position, so ICE, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, can pick them up wherever they are and just send them back right away, so they're really at the mercy of an immigration officer if there's a valid passport. Those are just some important facts to keep in mind. Let's see, some other information I want to just share.
A question that I often get is why don't undocumented immigrants go through the regular immigration process that brings everybody else here, and you find that a lot in the election cycle of people saying, "They should wait in line with everybody else," but the reality is that they don't tell you that there isn't really a line for somebody that fits this profile. There's a line for people that have family members in the US already. They can petition. Somebody with an advanced level of education could get a petition for them or a certain skillset, but rare, and these days it's a lot more difficult even for people who are well educated.
Back in the 70s when my parents came, there was a need for immigrants in certain professions, and that's what made it kind of easy for a lot of people to come. But a lot of people just fail to realize that the people that are coming oftentimes as undocumented are people that have limited education and a limited skillset, and so there isn't really another option for them. You find this confirmed in the statistics in the fact that 50% of the people that come have no high school diploma.
The law, it is elitist in the sense that people that do have a more advanced skill or education, they are favored in the law itself. There are technically on paper some visas for people that would fall under the label of unskilled laborers, but in reality it's really just on the books. For a permanent visa or for permanent status, in that respect I think there's only 5,000 that are available, so it's very limited. The opportunities for such people are extremely limited, and I'm sure many of you already know this.
A couple of other facts, Aurora mentioned this as well, but the reasons why people come, it's essentially for a better life. They're escaping violence and poverty and poor conditions which wouldn't rise to the level of asylum or in some cases is for an actual asylum case, in which case there is a way to get status here, but that's some important information, I think, to keep in mind.
Some other helpful statistics I thought that I would share would be the fact that $18 billion is spent on immigration enforcement, $1.84 billion spent on the detention of immigrants; 83% of people deported from the US were not given a hearing before a judge, and so it's some pretty alarming statistics. It costs $23,480 to deport somebody or remove somebody, is the term they use these days.
Then oftentimes you have these myths out there that undocumented immigrants are a drain on the economic system or the healthcare system, and a lot of these myths don't really add up. All of them are problematic. The fact that immigrants don't pay taxes, there've been a lot of reports released that contradict this. $11.64 billion is paid in taxes from undocumented immigrants in state and local taxes as well as property and sales taxes, even in federal taxes. A half of undocumented immigrants pay federal taxes, and a billion is acquired. It would go up to 2.1 billion if they were given status. Those are some helpful facts, I think, that we should keep in mind.
Then there's also this myth about how undocumented immigrants are criminals, and obviously that's been perpetuated lately, but the reality is the statistics don't confirm this. The fact is that undocumented immigrants have a lower crime rate than others, and so that's also refuted by that. Then, we could go on and on. I don't want to get too much into this. Just in general, actually one thing I would also recommend if somebody does want to learn more about the issue, there was a really nice film that was made called A Better Life. That was a really nice film about this issue, and I think it was a famous Mexican actor, Demian Bichir.
Aurora Camacho : Yes.
Umar Abdul R.: That was a great film, and I think that really puts it in perspective for a lot of people that might have misconceptions about this. There are also a couple of other really nice television shows I watched. Al Jazeera had a special on this when it was Al Jazeera America. They had, I think it was called Borderland, and they had some people from all over the spectrum follow in the footsteps of certain undocumented immigrants, some of whom, I think many of whom, if not all, had actually died crossing. They had to follow their footsteps and trace back where they came from, why they left from various countries they left, in this case it was mostly Mexico or persons from Central America. It was a pretty alarming episode, and I think that's a worthwhile TV program to check out.
In general, the facts actually show that as a whole the American family actually benefits from immigration itself, including undocumented immigrants, by a slight margin when it comes to economics. Of course, there have been some reports, or actually people do concede and acknowledge, that in certain areas the cost would outweigh the benefit, purely economics of course. We're dealing with just pure economics, but in general, as a country taking into account federal, state, and local issues, undocumented immigrants actually benefit the economy and benefit Americans.
There was an interesting point made by a writer for NPR, and he basically said undocumented workers represent a classic economic challenge with a fairly straightforward solution. Overall, the benefit, he said, the benefit outweighs the cost despite certain small localities where the cost would outweigh the benefit, but the solution is pretty simple. You can transfer funds from the federal government to those localities that do have a greater burden, and he said one common proposal is to grant amnesty and then after the taxes are collected you could redistribute that. That was, I thought, a very worthwhile point, and others have even said all the money that's spent on enforcement could be used for this purpose as well. There are solutions that are out there, but people on the far right have a convenient issue to use for their purposes.
I wanted to now just talk a little bit about the Islamic approach, or what I found from the Islamic tradition related to this issue just briefly, and then I'll just make some closing comments. Then we'll return to Joyce and Adam and then just open it up. I hope we can hear from everybody and have a nice, fruitful discussion about the topic. In general, what comes to mind in the Islamic tradition for me, there were two verses, one related to how languages and colors are assigned, human beings' languages and colors are assigned for mankind. I believe that's in the 30th chapter of the Koran called The Romans.
Then another common verse in the 49th chapter, it says, "Oh mankind, we created you into nations and tribes so that you might come to know one another." Verses like this as well as the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad in his life really indicated the importance of not really judging people based on skin color or where they were born. Evidence like that really tends to support the cause of immigrant rights.
Specifically, in the Prophet's life, there were two incidences that would be helpful to look at, two instances. One was when the early community after being persecuted, they actually went to Ethiopia, Abyssinia, and they saw a refuge with a righteous Christian, Cain, and so the community did have the experience of actually having to leave Mecca and go to Ethiopia for that purpose.
Then of course what's even more common in studying the Prophet's life in the early Muslim community was the entire community of followers of the Prophet had to leave Mecca for Medina because of persecution again, and there were locals there that embraced their co-religionists. They actually were called the helpers, and the people that came were called the Muhaji or Muhajirin, the immigrants, so immigrants as well. That's very interesting in how the Prophet actually paired them together and created a network where the ones that were local actually took the ones that were coming into their homes, and they were supposed to treat them as equals. It was a pretty high standard. You had to basically share your wealth and so forth.
Those were things that came to mind to me from the Islamic tradition, and I know there are plenty of cases from the Christian and Jewish tradition as well. We talked about them in my classes, and we'll hear more. We heard from Aurora, and we're going to hear from Joyce and Adam as well. Really, I think I gave all those statistics about economics, but in reality I think those statistics don't really matter from a religious ethic because our religions tend to ask us to be more and to sacrifice. Even if immigrants were, and as I've shown, that's not really the case, most economists don't agree with that, but even if they were a drain on the economy, we still wouldn't be justified in turning them away because our traditions tell us to sacrifice, and we would be encouraged to do that.
Now, of course the idea of open borders comes up. Many people say, "Well, if you open the borders, terrorists will come in, and we'll be flooded with a mass group of immigrants, and the country won't be able to cope." But the reality is that even open borders, I mean, I don't really want to get into that issue or necessarily talk in detail about that, but in general many people say that in our past we did have open borders with the exception of certain racial quotas, so that would just be a return to our past in many respects.
The reality is even when people do talk about a more open policy, they're not talking about letting every single person in and saying that you can't vet people at the border and make sure they're not a security risk and so forth. Those things are really unfounded, and many people have addressed that as well. Really, in many respects with a more open policy you also would be able to send immigrants to areas of the country that need labor and that need immigrants. Nowadays, people just go wherever, and they tend to congregate in certain areas where they find others from their background, but it could be done closer to the way refugees are resettled as well. There are a lot of things to consider when it comes to these types of issues.
Then on a more macro level, of course what we're dealing with is more of the 11 million undocumented immigrants, but a lot of this analysis could apply to refugees and a lot of the crises that exist in the world at large. Of course, there's nothing wrong in saying that every country should contribute to issues like refugee resettlement. One country shouldn't have to deal with every refugee, but our country just tends to not do enough. It's other countries like Turkey or others that tend to take in a lot more refugees and have less resources, so I don't think there's anything wrong with having a collective solution of the world collectively, different countries.
I think it's also important to keep in mind that even from a religious ethic, if we're encouraged to support others as well in terms of on a macro level, we should probably be supporting other countries in their economics as well. That would actually help in this situation. Because most people don't want to leave their countries, we all know that.
They tend to come for opportunities, and oftentimes it's also been shown that when there is an open border, people do return to their countries. It's more of a fluid situation, whereas now because of the restrictions, people are forced to stay here. Whereas if there was more of a fluid border, people would be able to come and go and go back to their countries. Because they're coming for opportunities, but we should be working towards, I personally think, helping other countries in their economy as well. That would help in this respect.
In general, a lot of these facts aren't so relevant, like I said, when you look at it from a religious perspective. I think all of our traditions tend to err on the side of supporting people that are struggling and are oppressed, and I so I think that's what we're called to do. I'll turn it over to Joyce, and then we'll hear from somebody else.
Joyce: Actually, I'm going to invite Adam up to speak a little bit about the Jewish tradition and your perspective on this issue.
Adam: There were two main places that I was looking when I was thinking about the Jewish perspective on undocumented immigrants and refugees more broadly. One is Jewish tradition and text, and the other is Jewish history. I am really grateful to Umar for inviting me to do this. I was talking to him earlier that I just really got to do a lot of research and think a lot about how biblical concepts do or do not apply, how things have changed and what sources to go to. Thank you, Aurora, for building a foundation for me to add a little bit to.
Traditional sources have a lot to say about the ger, that's the Hebrew word, which can be translated as alien, sojourner, immigrant, stranger and usually, actually later in the tradition even in Ruth a little bit, the convert. It's a very broad term that encompasses all of these different categories of people that includes the immigrant and the refugee. The ger typifies the person of limited power in the biblical view, a person far from a king or a family structure that could protect this individual. Especially because this person is far from political power, the Torah, the Hebrew bible, commands proper treatment of the ger. It's a trope that you just see over and over and over again. There's a lot of concern about the ger.
The term first appears in Exodus chapter 22, verse 20, saying, "You should not wrong the ger, nor shall you oppress them. For you were strangers in the land of Egypt," or you were gerim, so it's popularly translated as strangers, generally the other, someone who's not privileged and doesn't have a system of power that's protecting them. On this verse there's an 11th century Jewish commentator, Rashi, who says about this idea, "If you wrong the ger, they can wrong you back and say to you, 'You also came from somewhere else. A pot does not call the kettle black.'" That's our parlance for a weird Talmudic expression. It's like the thing in you, you shouldn't be pointing out in someone else.
That idea brings us, I think, really nicely into a reminder of the collective historical experience, certainly the collective Jewish historical experience, of displacement and exile, so I'll just turn to history for a moment too. Through this lens, through a historical lens, a lot of folks have noted parallels between the current debate over Syrian refugees in particular and others seeking refuge in the US and the plight of European Jews fleeing German-occupied territories before World War II, including my own family.
Jews were seen at the time as harbingers of dangerous ideologies, including communism and anarchism, or as spies who might infiltrate the country. Jews have heard the same messages that are now casting refugees at large and certainly Syrian refugees as potential foreign agents bent on sowing chaos and disrupting the American way of life. The reasons for the opposition to opening our borders, welcoming the stranger or the ger then were the same as they are for rejecting refugees today, we can't afford it; we should look after Americans first; we can't accept everybody; they'll take American jobs, and they are dangerous.
Against this voice, Jewish tradition and history really challenges us to radical empathy. That's really what I take away from the exploration that I've been doing in reflecting on the topic today. Exodus 23:9, one chapter after the verse I quoted before says, "A ger you shall not oppress, for you know the soul of the ger," the nefesh, the life, the soul of the ger, "since you were gers in the land of Egypt." This verse and so many others that I won't bring today says, in my interpretation, that the first step to creating a truly open and welcoming society is to extend the horizons of our hearts beyond the boundaries that these doubts sow in us.