Inspired by César Chávez and the Chicana/o civil rights movement of the 1960’s, I am walking El Camino to declare that Jesus loves and cares for immigrants, and that our broken immigration system desperately needs to be reformed.
On March 17, 1966, Chávez and the farmworker community embarked upon a famous march from the Central Valley to Sacramento. Unknown to most people, this march was centered upon Christ and was a self-styled pilgrimage, or “peregrinacion.” Drawing from popular Latino religious tradition, Chávez called the march, “Penitence, Pilgrimage, and Revolution.” In further religious significance, the pilgrimage was led by a priest in full clerical garb and a banner of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Chávez and the farmworker community arrived in Sacramento and concluded their pilgrimage on Easter. At the steps of the capitol, they called upon Christ for justice through prayer and the celebration of mass.
In the words of Chávez:
But throughout the Spanish speaking world there is another tradition that touches the present march, that of the Lenten penitential processions, where the penitentes would march through the streets, often in sackcloth and ashes, some even carrying crosses as a sign of penance for their sins, and as a plea for the mercy of God. The penitential procession is also in the blood of the Mexican-American, and the Delano march will therefore be one of penance—public penance for the sins of the strikers, their own personal sins as well their yielding perhaps to feelings of hatred and revenge in the strike itself. They hope by the march to set themselves at peace with the Lord, so that the justice of their cause will be purified of all lesser motivation.
Jesus heard their cries. In 1970, the powerful grape growers conceded to union contracts guaranteeing humane treatment, better wages, and increased benefits for agricultural workers. The Christ-centered organizing efforts of Chávez, Dolores Huerta, and the United Farm Workers led to the first successful unionization of farm workers in United States history.
I am excited to participate in El Camino because it reminds me of the powerful pilgrimage of César Chávez. Christ heard the cries of the farmworkers, and I am certain that He hears the cries of my immigrant sisters and brothers today as well.
Like the farmworkers of the 1960’s and 70’s, millions of undocumented immigrants are being exploited today for their cheap labor. Undocumented immigrants account for 4.3% of the U.S. labor force—about 6.3 million workers out of 146 million. They are clustered in construction, agriculture, the service sector, and domestic work, and they contribute more than $400 billion per year to the nation’s $13.6 trillion gross domestic product. Unauthorized immigrants, moreover, supply billions of dollars each year to Social Security and Medicare through payroll taxes and have been credited with keeping Social Security afloat.
Although an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants supply upwards of 400 billion dollars per year to the national gross domestic product, and contribute hundreds of billions of dollars more to federal and state coffers through tax contributions, the U.S. government granted only 4,762 unskilled labor visas to all immigrants from every country in the world in 2010.
Moreover, even if it wished to grant more than that, it is limited to a maximum of 10,000 unskilled worker visas annually for all nations across the globe. On paper therefore, the U.S. government claims that the nation has but a small shortage of unskilled labor which requires supplementation through the awarding of a miniscule number of unskilled labor visas. In reality, however, it depends upon, and exploits, the cheap, supplemental labor of more than 6 million undocumented immigrant workers.
Fairness, indeed, biblical justice, requires that the U.S. government recognize the manifold economic contributions of immigrants by granting them a concomitant number of work visas and/or legal residency status. To refuse to do so is biblical exploitation (Deut.10: 17-19; Ex. 23:9; Matt. 25: 35-40). The failure to provide immigration relief constitutes biblical oppression, for it perpetuates a system in which 11 million immigrants are exploited for their multi-billion dollar economic contributions but denied basic civil and human rights. Stated another way, although undocumented immigrants already participate as economic citizens of this nation, they have not been granted the concomitant rights of political citizenship. Even worse, despite their vast economic contributions, undocumented immigrants have been scapegoated for the economic woes of our nation and are being manipulated in the national discourse for short-term political gain.
This is why I am taking part in El Camino—to make it unmistakably clear that the continued exploitation and scapegoating of my undocumented sisters and brothers must not continue. We need compassionate immigration reform now. Jesus loves and cares for immigrants, and so do I.