Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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We all know what snow removal and garbage removal looks like. Funeral directors refer to the transportation of bodies to the funeral home as “removals.” Doctors remove skin cancers. Last week I watched another kind of removal. These were people – mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers – and they were being transported from the ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) detention facility in Broadview on the west side of Chicago to O’Hare airport where planes waited to fly them to uncertain futures, mostly in Mexico and Central America. Many Americans prefer to live with the comforting myth of the Statue of Liberty –
Give me your tired, your poor,
your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
Reality, however, is quite a bit different. The ICE website describes the work of the “Enforcement and Removal Operations” division which “identifies and apprehends removable aliens, detains these individuals when necessary and removes illegal aliens from the U.S.” For a chilling picture of the militarization of this process, watch the ICE video on their website: http://www.ice.gov/about/offices/enforcement-removal-operations/ And all of this, done in our name.
The Broadview Detention Center is a non-descript building in a bland industrial park on the west side of Chicago. Nothing about its appearance would distinguish it from its neighbors or suggest that it is anything more than another small manufacturing operation making machine tools. No doubt ICE wants it that way. The less people know, the less people see, the better. Early last Friday, as on every Friday, a faithful group gathered in vigil to pray and support another group of people being “removed.” This vigil was larger than usual, gathered in memory of a wonderful UCC pastor and leader, Bob Sandman, who went every Friday to join a small group bearing witness to the fact that what was being “removed” was not snow or refuse or corpses or tumors, but living human beings deemed illegal, undocumented refuse whose labor we often covet but whose presence we despise. We sang, prayed, raised hands to salute by name those who were being deported, and as the benediction was being pronounced, watched the vans and buses roll, busy with their weekly removal task.
Our government would like us to believe the removal process is all very humane and clinical, and that the refuse being removed are dangerous criminals. But they are mostly moms and dads, here because they can’t feed, house, and educate their families in their countries of origin. Every Friday they are “removed” while commuters rush by on the expressway two blocks away.
Most of us in this country, if our ancestors weren’t enslaved Africans or violated Native Americans, look back to an immigrant who, in his or her own day, was little more than refuse, ripe for removal. In 1717 Governor William Keith of Pennsylvania shared with the provincial council his growing concern over “great numbers of foreigners from Germany, strangers to our language and constitution,” fanning out into the back country “without producing any certificates, from whence they came or what they were.” The practice, he warned, “might be of very dangerous consequence.” These undocumented aliens were, of course, the ancestors of the current members of our UCC congregations in Pennsylvania and beyond. It’s good for us that this “garbage” wasn’t “removed.”
It is, of course, appalling that these removals take place in our name, hidden away in anonymous industrial parks. It is beyond disgusting that our own government chooses to refer to this as “removals,” equating human beings with refuse to be disposed of. And yet most of us, including me, hardly notice. “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 a citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God,” (Leviticus 19.22-24).
John H. Thomas