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"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."

The famous inscription on the Statue of Liberty is an inspiration to many, but in 1886, the year the lady with the torch was dedicated, the Cleveland Gazette, an African-American newspaper in Ohio, called the idea of liberty enlightening the world from the United States “ridiculous in the extreme. This government is a howling farce. It can not, or rather does not protect its citizens within its own borders.” The paper suggested the statue should be shoved into the ocean until “the liberty of this country is such as to make it possible for an inoffensive and industrious colored man to earn a respectable living for himself and family, without being ‘ku-kluxed,’ perhaps murdered, his daughter and wife outraged, and his property destroyed.”


Today, the sincerity of the statement is being challenged again as America deals with the quagmire of illegal immigration. As always, there are at least two sides to the story. On one hand, there are those who maintain that illegal immigrants are a boost to the economy. Illegal immigrants are routinely paid lower wages which keeps production costs down and, in turn, helps consumers save money. There are an estimated 2.6 million illegal immigrants working in California alone, 200,000 of them in San Diego where Erik Larson of the city’s Farm Bureau insists that the five billion dollar a year agriculture industry is absolutely dependent on migrant workers.


“The avocado trees that blanket the hills of Fallbrook and Valley Center, those all go away without farm workers,” Larson says. “So do the oranges here in San Pasqual Valley, the nurseries of San Marcos and Vista, the Carlsbad flower fields.” Construction and tourism are also dependent on low-wage workers. The opposing arguments include the charge that illegal immigrants, though benefitting the upper classes who employ them as everything from farm workers to maids, are an economic burden on the middle class who are saddled with the cost of their education and health care. Immigrants, they insist, are also taking jobs away from Americans. “The workers who face the most competition from illegal immigrants would be U.S. workers who haven’t completed high school,” said UCSD professor Gordon Hanson. “That’s less than 10 percent of the total labor force.”


Conservative columnist Pat Buchanan is clear about where he stands on the issue, and his concern goes beyond the question of economics. In 2006, while promoting his book, State of Emergency, he told Time that “If we do not get control of our borders and stop this greatest invasion in history, I see the dissolution of the U.S. and the loss of the American Southwest - culturally and linguistically, not politically - to Mexico.” He went on to say that the U.S. was in danger of becoming more like the Roman Empire, “a conglomerate of races and cultures held together by a regime.”


So what are we to think of those who provide humanitarian aid to people crossing the U.S./Mexico border?


For John Fife, economics and cultural concerns are not the issue. Human lives are. In addition to risking arrest, those attempting to cross the border put their lives on the line. Death from exposure is common, and some respond to opportunities for employment only to find themselves victimized, sometimes sold into slavery, often as prostitutes, with no legal recourse due to their illegal status. For Fife and others, the Statue of Liberty’s promise is less important than Leviticus 19:34: “The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself.”


Reverend John Fife served for 35 years as a minister at the Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona. Like the late Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., who chose to do more than preach against injustice from the pulpit and took the fight for civil rights into the streets, John Fife sees suffering and tries to alleviate it. In 1985, when the U.S. government welcomed refugees from Eastern Europe but withdrew the welcome mat for those fleeing death squads in El Salvador and Guatemala, Fife posted a painted sign outside his church that read: THIS IS A SANCTUARY FOR THE OPPRESSED FROM CENTRAL AMERICA. The sign marked the official beginning of the Sanctuary Movement, an organization founded by Fife whose members included more than 500 churches, all dedicated to helping refugees cross the border and find freedom from the oppressive governments of their homeland.


Remembering those times in an interview with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now, Fife justified his actions. “People fleeing the death squads and the repression and the massacres of entire villages in El Salvador and Guatemala were arriving at this border. The whole international community informed the United States government that they were refugees entitled to at least temporary asylum until conditions changed in their countries and they were able to return.”


No good deed goes unpunished, however, especially when politics are involved. The United States government was providing political and economic support to the very regimes running the death squads, and, as a result, their victims were denied refugee status by the U.S.


“When they picked them up on the border or in communities across the United States,” Fife explained, “(they) were placing them in detention centers, flying them back in handcuffs, and turning them over to the very guys who tried to kill them in the first place.”


The Sanctuary Movement was a “new underground railroad” that moved people from the border to safety, sometimes to Canada where the rights of refugees were respected.


The government infiltrated the movement, and Fife and others stood trial on charges that they had violated federal immigration laws. “This is the first time in the history of our nation that the government has acknowledged under oath that it has infiltrated church worship services and Bible study sessions with paid agents,” Fife told Time.


In 1986, after being sentenced to five years probation, Fife told the judge, “We had no choice. None of us ever had a choice. Our only choice was whether we wanted to sell our souls.”


When defending himself against criminal charges, Fife pointed to the Refugee Act of 1980 which grants safe haven to those persecuted by their government. Fife had even written a letter to then Attorney General William French Smith in 1982, informing him that his church was opening its doors to Central Americans. Fife never received a response.


Although the judge in the case believed Fife and his fellow defendants had acted illegally, he also acknowledged that they had been motivated by humanitarian concerns. Fife challenged the verdict, however, and insisted that the United States government was breaking the law by denying refugee status to those fleeing political persecution in Central America.


“Bottom line in all of these activities,” he told Goodman, “is the government’s failure to observe human rights standards and the lives of literally thousands of poor, desperate people . . .”


Among those Fife attempted to help was a 15-year-old boy whose family had been executed by Death Squads in El Salvador.


“The haunting thought that came to me was if that was my boy, what would I want the church to do?”


At the conclusion of the trial, Fife said, “I don’t think the trial has changed anything. After the government spent $3.5 million and two years of time on this case, the only effect has been that the sanctuary movement has doubled and redoubled in strength.”


Fife is working to make his words prophetic. In 2002, he was one of the founders of the Samaritan Patrol, a coalition of religious leaders in Tucson working to prevent the deaths of immigrants crossing the U.S./Mexico border. As their web site explains, they embrace Faith-Based Principles for Immigration reform and focus on the following themes:


• Direct aid that extends the right to provide humanitarian assistance
• Witnessing and responding
• Consciousness raising
• Global movement building
• Encouraging humane immigration policy.


The government is now using death in the desert as a deterrent to crossing the border, Fife says. “That’s a gross violation of human rights, this policy, this strategy of deterrence by death. And to resist that, we have volunteers out in the desert to try to save as many lives as we can.”


Government policies relating to illegal immigrants are often ambivalent. When the second Bush administration proposed amnesty for illegal immigrants in 2004, a record number of immigrants died as they attempted to cross the Arizona border with dreams of being welcomed into the U.S.


“We’ve created an incentive to take foolish risks,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies. Crossing the Sonoran Desert, immigrants died from intense heat, or froze in the frigid cold of the Baboquivari Mountains. “What they’ve done is created this gantlet of death,” Fife said. “It’s Darwinian - only the strongest survive.”


Even Border Patrol agents charged with enforcing laws against illegal immigrants were horrified by the inhume conditions as they alternately arrested and tried to save the lives of those crossing the border.


“The hardest thing was, I sat with this 15-year-old kid next to the body of his dad,” Leon Stroud told The New York Times. “His dad had been a cook. He was too fat to be trying to cross this border. We built a fire and I tried to console him. It was tough.”


These days, many Border Patrol officers either look the other way or provide assistance to those helping immigrants because their priority is saving lives. Although he appreciates the Border Patrol’s respect for human life, Fife calls it “the moral equivalent of starting a forest fire and then going in to rescue a couple of people.”


For John Fife, there is no question that the United States benefits from the migration of workers between the United States and Mexico. “We ought to roll out the red carpet from this side of the line,” he told Democracy Now, “because those workers and their labor are essential for the well-being of our communities and our nation and our economy.”


The debate is far from over, but John Fife’s dedication to saving lives transcends all the arguments about economics and culture. As Daniel Strauss, a student volunteer observed, “It’s never a crime to save someone’s life.” Perhaps those words should be inscribed on the Statue of Liberty.

by Brian W. Fairbanks

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