Three weeks ago I flew to Phoenix and then drove to Tucson with about half of the UUA Board of Trustees, including UUA President Peter Morales and UUA Moderator Gini Courter. On Monday, in company with about 40 UUs, I crossed the border into Nogales, Sonora, and spent the day with groups that provide services to recently deported migrants: food, clothes, medical supplies, transportation back to their homes. On Tuesday, 6 of us returned to serve meals and visit a women’s shelter in Nogales, while the rest met with groups that work with migrants in Tucson. We had a chance to talk with migrants who had been recently deported, to understand why they try to cross into the U.S. repeatedly through the hostile Sonoran desert and mountains, often at the cost of their lives. All of them say the same thing, that they come not for themselves but for the survival of their families.
On Wednesday we returned to Phoenix for our Board meeting, from Wednesday night through Sunday morning. About half that time was spent with allies who work with migrants and Hispanic communities. We learned about the U.S. immigration system: how economic conditions in Mexico have been affected by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), largely destroying the native agricultural industry in Mexico; how migrants have been funneled into the most hostile stretch of the U.S. border in a policy known as “attrition through enforcement”; how migrants are arrested without due process and held in private prisons; how border patrol activities destroy the fabric of communities for citizens and non-citizens; and how deported families are split up and returned to different locations along the Mexican border, without identification, money, or medications. We learned about the work that needs to be done, from voter registration to political action to building support systems for those affected by deportation – including children who are U.S. citizens but whose parents have been deported. We learned that this is not a political debate, but a human rights issue.
We also did more typical Board work, preparing a business agenda for this year’s General Assembly in Charlotte, NC, and preparing for next year’s GA in Phoenix. And on Sunday we worshipped with Valley Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Chandler, Arizona, before heading home.
The background for this Board meeting was set last spring, when the Arizona legislature passed SB 1070, a bill that called for harsher methods to enforce immigration laws, including detaining people who “look like they might be illegal.” Many of the most questionable provisions of that bill have been invalidated; but it helped to raise the level of rhetoric and invective around immigration. Other states are now introducing similar bills, making it clear that this is an issue throughout the U.S.
By last spring, the 2012 General Assembly had already been scheduled to take place in Phoenix. The UUA Board recommended that we boycott Phoenix in 2012; but Arizona congregations and others in the UUA proposed that we go to Phoenix and do justice work instead. This resulted in a GA business resolution that asked the Board to establish an immigration ministry and to plan a “justice GA” in Phoenix for 2012, with minimal business and with accountability to historically marginalized people, especially those who might be endangered by attending General Assembly in Arizona.
As Gini Courter remarked during our Board meetings in Phoenix, a boycott would have been a lot less work. Instead, we are working to establish an immigration ministry, both in Arizona and elsewhere, and to create a justice GA that promotes effective and sustained change. We are helped by a newly formed UU Accountability Group that includes people of color, Hispanics, gays, lesbian, bisexuals, transgendered, differently abled people, young adults, youth, and allies.
It’s becoming clear that we need several things to be effective witnesses in Arizona and in our own communities:
- Theology grounded in love, justice, faith, humility, and mission.
- Willingness to work closely with allies and other faith communities, following their lead rather than promoting our own agenda.
- Commitment to educating ourselves.
- Cooperation among our Board, staff, GA Planning Committee, and congregations.
We especially need to engage our congregations. We need a theology of love and justice in all of our congregations, not just in Arizona. We need to learn and work together, explore our mission, lift up the work we’re already doing, and engage with others.
I have a vision: of UUs going to General Assembly in Charlotte this year, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Unitarian-Universalist merger; of expanding our congregational capacity for justice work; of going to GA in Phoenix in 2012, to see something new in our movement.
I hope you’ll join us.
UUA Trustee from the UU District of Metropolitan New York