Monday, November 05, 2012

Why the Bible told me to vote for Democrats...

Two things jumped out of the newspaper for me yesterday:

First, a small bit reporting that former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, an ordained Southern Baptist minister, warned Christians that their vote "will affect the future and be recorded in eternity" and they must cast a ballot that will "stand the test of fire."

Second, a full-page ad by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association imploring "Vote Biblical Values Tuesday, November 6." The ad, signed personally by Billy Graham himself, advises that this may be his last election. "I believe it is vitally important that we cast our ballots for candidates who base their decisions on Biblical principles and support the nation of Israel." He goes on to clarify that this includes voting for those who protect the sanctity of life and support the "Biblical definition of marriage between a man and a woman."

Well, my apologies to the reverends, (the latter for which I have a great deal if respect) but the not so subtle indication that good Christians should vote for Republicans is not only further damaging to the Church by continuing to bind it to a brand of conservative politics which is overwhelmingly rejected by younger generations of believers and nonbelievers alike, but it really isn't supported by the Bible much at all. At least not how I read the Bible.

For all the highly publicized talk about gays and abortion, of which there is very little mention in the Bible, there is very little public discussion about wealth and poverty, the gap between the rich and the poor, and the values that should guide our decisions about economic policy. And on these topics the Scriptures have quite a lot to say:

In summary, Jesus seems to have a fairly strong opinion about the rich, and it's not super favorable.

In Luke 16:19-21, Jesus tells the parable about the Rich Man and Lazarus. The former has nice clothes and lives in luxury every day. The latter is a beggar laid at the gate of the Rich Man, longing to eat from the scraps of his table. The Rich Man dies and goes to hell, but Lazarus is escorted by angels to heaven. The Rich Man pleads for mercy, and Abraham basically tells him, you had your chance to follow Moses and the prophets, but you blew it, and now you're in hell.

In Matthew 25:31-46 Jesus gives us a visual of Judgment Day, when God will separate people as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. (Cake-themed spoiler alert: Sheep go to heaven, Goats go to hell.) He welcomes the sheep into heaven saying "For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me." The (righteous) sheep scratch their heads and say, um, God, we don't remember doing that for you. God replies "Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me." And to the goats, who apparently did not do these things for the least of these, He says, well, go to hell.

Now, neither of these passages, spoken directly from the Son of God, paint a picture of a God who is a squishy-feely deity of moral relativism. This is pretty blunt. The world may have chosen winners and losers in the economy, but God has chosen differently. Christ’s pending arrival on Earth is heralded by Mary in the Magnificat as a reordering of society by God: "He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty." Luke 1:52-53 There are no asterisks here for the poor who are not working hard enough, or the poor who are expecting a handout. There is no praise for John Wayne-type rugged individualists, or capitalistic survival-of-the-fittest heroes. Apparently, those guys can go to hell. Beggars ascend to the table of Abraham in heaven and those who help the least of these--even people in prisons--are rewarded in eternity.

Does this mean all rich people are bad and going to hell? No, but they have an uphill road to get in to the Kingdom of God. When a young man with great wealth came to Jesus asking what he must do to get eternal life, Jesus reviews all the basic commandments with him (don't murder, steal, or commit adultery, honor your parents, love your neighbor as yourself) but the fellow keeps pushing. I've kept all those commandments, he says, what else must I do? "If you want to be perfect, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then, come follow me." Matthew 19:21 Not the answer the young man was hoping for, and he walked away sad. "Truly I tell you," says Jesus, "it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven." Matthew 18:23

Why is this? Well, we all have to make a choice: God or Money. "No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money." Matthew 6:24

If indeed whatever we do for the least if these is what we do for God, then America has been pretty hell-bent on serving money instead of God over the last 40 years. Under President Eisenhower, the top marginal tax rate was 91%, under Kennedy, 71%, and in 1981 Reagan reduced that from 70% to 50%. Today it's only 35% for regular income, not capital gains or inheritance. What did we get for this? In 2007 right before the crash, the top 1% held 33.8% of the entire nation's wealth ($3.3 trillion), The next 9% held 37.3%, the bottom 90% all held only 28.5% of the nation's wealth. In fact, this analysis, done by the Fed, left out the top 400 wealthiest individuals who, alone, held $1.3 trillion in wealth, which is more than the entire bottom 50 percent. That's pretty messed up.

From an economic standpoint, it is a little hard to see how consumer demand and economic growth could be maintained with the vast majority of Americans competing over a shrinking sliver of national wealth. The answer was credit, and the rich got richer loaning money at high interest rates to the not-rich for mortgages and second mortgages. They bundled and resold the mortgages in poorly regulated transactions, all the while telling us that we could have whatever we wanted, whenever we wanted.

From a Biblical standpoint, the degradation of the poor as lazy and immoral is extremely at odds with how Jesus saw the world, especially when used to justify tax and economic policies that concentrate wealth and power to a few while increasingly ignoring those in need. Luke 6:20–21, 24–25; Luke 21:1-4; Luke 14:12-14 Nor is the exploitation of the poor looked upon favorably. Few sermons are preached on it anymore, but the Bible clearly calls usury (i.e. charging interest on loans) a sin. Exodus 22-25, Leviticus 25:35-37, Deuteronomy 23:19-20, Psalm 15:5, Ezekiel 18:17. And in this case, when the crash came, the wages of this sin took out a few 1-percenters, but devastated the lives of thousands upon thousands of 99-percenters. Indeed, we have all been struggling through the consequences ever since.

So when President Obama and the Democratic Congress passed historic legislation to regulate consumer finance and the banking industry, I don't see it as a loss of freedom, I see it as Biblical. When President Obama and the Democrats passed the Affordable Healthcare Act to extend health insurance to millions of Americans who couldn't afford it before, I don't see it as Socialism, I see it as Biblical. And when Paul Ryan's budget proposes massive cuts to services to the poor to pay for tax cuts for the wealthiest, I don't see that as Biblical, and you should not either.

And don't EVEN get me started on how some Republicans talk about immigrants. Exodus 22:21, Leviticus 19:33–34.

Mind you, the most basic tenant of being a Baptist, especially an American Baptist, is soul freedom, or the "priesthood of the believer." In short, each believer has the responsibility to read the Bible, pray to and listen for God, and use their own mind and reasoning to reach their conclusions about God's will. We have no Pope and very little doctrinal hierarchy, so Baptists do not traditionally believe in insisting on uniformity of religious thought. However, the public hasn't seen a very good demonstration of this basic tenet of Baptist faith in the last 30 years, and that is largely responsible for the record decline in membership and attendance in most Protestant churches by those age 35 and under.

So, with that in mind, let me say that I truly respect the views and passion of those who self identify as pro-life. When it came time to decide whether we wanted prenatal genetic screening for either of our pregnancies, my wife and I chose to pass. Abortion was never an option we would have chosen, regardless of what those tests could have told us. But, if someone in the government had made that choice for us, I think we would have felt less free.

Let me say that I understand the desire by many Americans to keep Society looking like it has since they and their grandparents were children. The national decline in the percentage of married couples is appalling, and saddening. Today, 40% of children are born out of wedlock, and the rate is far higher among minorities, with terrible long-term economic consequences. But the culprit for this decline in the institution seems more likely to be heterosexual cohabitation rather than the desire of same-sex couples to have the rights, responsibilities, and protections of marriage. I haven't heard too many sermons or stump speeches about the evils of "shacking-up" lately. Nor is there universal agreement as to the meaning of the few verses in the Bible to which some will point to justify their condemnation of homosexuals. Moreover, King David and King Solomon (who I am pretty sure are included in the pantheon of Saints) apparently didn’t get the memo about the Biblical definition of marriage between one man and only one woman. For that matter, neither did Joseph Smith, apparently.

Let me also say I respect those who want to make sure that government is not wasteful and inefficient and that government should not use more resources than are needed.  It is absolutely true that not every problem can or should be solved by government.  But I reject the idea that government of the people, by the people, and for the people, is inherently evil.  Nor do I accept the myth of poverty that pervades political talk these days.  Yes, we can afford to invest in infrastructure, combat global climate change and above all properly educate our children.  The resources are there, they've just been concentrated into the hands of too few.  Raising top marginal tax rates to the levels of the Clinton administration--or even the Reagan administration--won't turn us into Communists and it won't hurt the top earners all that much.  If a budget is a philosphical document or a statement of values, let our federal budget reflect not the values of Gordon Gekko, but rather the actual philosphy and values of Christ:  We take care of one another, especially the least of these.
So, being true to the core Baptist tenet of soul freedom, I have to say that I believe other Christians can study the Bible, pray to and listen for God, and reach a different conclusion in their faith and at the ballot box. But please, Reverends Huckabee and Graham, don't tell me that your reading of the Bible and how it applies to today's politics is the only right way.

I have yet to see any Biblical support for the economic policies of Republicans. Perhaps that can be the topic of future full-page newspaper ad. I suspect, however, it could barely fill a footnote.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

12. Today was a good morning...

So, it's been over a year since my last blog post! That's what having a kid will do for your spare time, I suppose. The following is a rough draft of a piece I've been asked to write up based on a presentation which I gave at a Board meeting for the Metro Organization for Racial and Economic Equity. Please let me know what you think:

Today I woke up to the news that Sonia Sotomayor has been nominated to be the next Justice of the Supreme Court. If you watched five minutes of the news, then you already know the remarkable details of her background: Child of immigrants from Puerto Rico, raised by a single mother in a public housing project in the Bronx. She then went to Princeton on a scholarship, then law school in Yale. From there she started a remarkable legal career.

Also remarkable, of course, is the story of the man who had nominated her, President Barack Obama. If you haven’t heard the details of his life by now, you’ve probably been living under a rock. And regardless of your political standing, you have to acknowledge that it’s a remarkable story. Suffice to say, there are many parallels between his life and that of Sotomayor. So, what made possible their paths to power and success? There are certainly many things that contributed to their successes, but you can’t even begin to honestly to look at their stories without bringing up the huge role that education—and especially higher education—has had on their unlikely rise to prominence.

It’s no accident that education is one of the primary issue focuses for the Metro Organization for Racial and Economic Equity (MORE2). Education is what makes stories like Obama’s and Sotomayor’s possible, and we want more stories like that to happen in America. Clearly, education creates role models. Much has been written and discussed about what kind of impact the election of Obama would have on millions of young African-Americans. For generations, so many have often looked at the circumstances of their lives—and the realities of society—and decided that success just wasn’t going to happen for them. For too long, too many have just shrugged and said, “Hey, man, it’s still America, isn't it?” Similarly, I have seen so many of my Spanish-speaking clients bring in their children—some about the age of my son—and wondered how and if they will ever overcome the challenges they already face. Too often, I have found myself looking at a client’s child and thinking, “He’s already five miles behind where my son is starting right out of the blocks.” What kind of impact could the example of a Latina Supreme Court Justice have on my clients’ children?

I have a client named Gerardo who I’ve represented for several years on many different cases, including a large civil case against an out-of-state subcontractor who stiffed him and about 50 other immigrant workers for work done on the Great Wolf Lodge in KCK. We litigated for three years to obtain a decent judgment amount, and then another year to try and pierce the corporate veil of the now-defunct corporation which this subcontractor left behind before he started another corporation. That part of the case didn’t go our way, but over the course of those several years, I got to know Gerardo pretty well.

Gerardo has four children, the youngest which was born just a few months apart from my son. The first time I represented him on some minor traffic case several years ago, Gerardo told me that his oldest daughter, who was 10 at the time, had started saying that she wanted to be a lawyer when she grows up, because the family was always talking about how “El Abogado” was always helping them. Recently, this oldest daughter became a client of mine. She apparently hung out with the wrong people at school, and now has a juvenile felony and a few misdemeanor convictions to her name. And she has dropped out of high school, although working on her GED will be part of her probation. And, as I learned at my last court appearance with her, now she’s also pregnant. Obviously, all of this bothered me, and I wonder what happened between those times. At some point, between 10 and 17, she must have looked around her urban core neighborhood and school and concluded that becoming a lawyer just wasn’t possible. Why bust your tail if it’s never going to happen?

I also worried about what kind of example she was setting for her two younger siblings who are in school below her. I asked her about this, and to my surprise she said that they’re really good students, that they’re studying all the time and getting good grades. So what changed between her and her siblings? Maybe her siblings heard that there’s actually some hope, that there’s a reason to stay in school and work hard. I’d like to think part of it may have had to do with the passage a few years ago of the Kansas In-State Tuition Act, which says, look, children of undocumented immigrants who were brought over when you were too young to have a say: If you go to high school here in Kansas for at least three years, and you graduate having maintained a B average, you can qualify for in-state tuition to go to a State University or Community College. Of course, in-state tuition is still a huge challenge for these kids—just ask any of the other Kansas residents who qualify simply because they’ve lived in Kansas for a year or more—but the Act makes going to college just somewhat possible. It gives children like Gerardo’s a reason to stay in and graduate because there’s something for them on the other side. That’s why the MORE2 Board has supported the In-State Tuition Act and why our Education Task Force continues to advocate that the Act stay on the books in Kansas.

The Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act is different from the Kansas In-State Tuition Act. It wouldn’t give anyone in-state tuition—that would be left up to the states. The DREAM Act would say that if these same kind of students with no criminal record go to college and get at least an associate’s degree or more, they can be placed into a different line—not ahead of anybody—but in a different line to become legal permanent residents and eventually citizens. Same deal if you go into the military instead of college.

Now, the DREAM Act makes a lot of sense on a whole lot of levels, not the least of which is economically. Students who go to college and then get a normal status will be paying a whole lot more in taxes than if they stay undocumented and drop out of high school. And, they are a lot less likely to become one of my clients. Of course, this is statistically the case for all other groups as well, and that’s one of the reasons why MORE2 believes so strongly in better access to education—it doesn’t just benefit the student, it benefits all of us.

Then there’s the whole role-model effect: Just as Obama and Sotomayor can inspire other young people of color to do great things, a young person seeing siblings and family members and friends go to college and get good jobs and start a business can have a snowball effect—the reverse of the negative snowball effect we’ve seen in our communities for far too long.

For all of these reasons, the DREAM Act has bipartisan co-sponsorship and support which has increased each year that it has been introduced to Congress, and we’re hopeful that it will be successful this year. However, there are some people who really oppose it, and I’ve thought a lot about why that might be. One reason might be that if you are someone who has generally adopted very negative and harsh stances against any kind of comprehensive immigration reform, this bill really is very problematic for you. If you are advocating that we should spend millions of tax dollars to stop and hunt “The Illegals” and also pass laws that give them inferior rights and services, then you have to justify these expenditures and the social costs of such policies. If your whole argument is that “The Illegals” are criminals and killers and rapists and disease-bearers and societal drains and are otherwise just a really vile and horrible group of people, then the very existence of these students kind of pops that rhetorical bubble. How can you continue to claim that all undocumented immigrants are so horrible once these students are allowed to show the nation just how successful, productive and brilliant they can be once given the chance?

So, the MORE2 Board has voted to approve the following position on the DREAM Act:
· The Board of MORE2 endorses the DREAM Act.
· We believe that we must act on our values to preserve a vital asset: an educated group of promising immigrant students who have demonstrated a commitment to hard work and a strong desire to be contributing members of our society.
· We believe that this legislation, which provides a path to U.S. citizenship for hardworking and talented immigrant students who have been raised in the U.S., is critical to improving the pipeline from high school to college and proving meaningful employment.
· We believe that punishing students indefinitely and irremediably for decision made by adults many years ago stands in sharp contrast to American ideals. With the DREAM Act, Congress would legally recognize what is de facto true: These young people belong here.

Please join us in supporting the DREAM Act by communicating your support of this bill to your U.S. Senator and Congressperson.

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Sunday, January 06, 2008

11. Shooting themselves in the foot...

Kansas passed a great law a few years ago that would allow students who came over without documentation with their parents as children to get in-state tuition at a Kansas Regents university or community college if (1) they attended a KS high school for at least 3 years and (2) they maintained a B grade average. Now, this doesn't actually give them any scholarship or grant money, they just have to pay in-state tuition like anybody else would who meets those criteria. (Actually, you only have to live in KS a year before enrolling to become eligible for in-state tuition, so this law actually creates a higher bar for undocumented students to become eligible.)

The anti-immigrant types have been after this law for years. Kris Kobach, while running for Congress on an anti-immigrant platform against Dennis Moore in 2004, was hired by the Federation for American Immigration Reform (an anti-immigrant group with the not-just-a-little-ironic acronym "FAIR") to sue the state on behalf of US Citizen out-of-state students. Of course, first they had to find some students willing to be named in the lawsuit, since there really weren't any complaining to begin with. The lawsuit was eventually dismissed due to "lack of standing," which essentially means that a plaintiff can't maintain a lawsuit if they are not personally being harmed. (For example, I can't sue Donald Rumsfeld for the war in Iraq just because I'm a taxpayer annoyed at having my tax dollars being spent overseas, etc.)

Moore beat Kobach handily, winning Johnson County outright for the first time in his congressional career. Despite this obvious rebuke on both the legal and political levels, the anti-immigrant types still flock to Kobach and about a year ago that part of the conservative wing of the Kansas GOP got him elected as State party chair.

Of course, as a Democrat, I'm just tickled. Such Republicans are shooting themselves in the foot, and they will be limping from it for more than a generation to come. Latinos are the fastest growing electoral demographic in the nation, and whatever gains Bush made among them in his two elections have completely evaporated as looney anti-immigrant types like Kobach and Tom Tancredo continue to blast away against them. What these foolish anti-immigrant Republicans don't realize is that there are thousands of mixed-status families in Kansas and America. Along with citizen classmates and friends, we have a generation of new voters who will only remember that it was Republicans who were trying to hurt and destroy their fathers, mothers, friends, and cousins, etc.

As a Kansan and an American, however, such policies are really sad and frightening. I know a lot of young clients who graduate from high school who have spent their whole lives here in Kansas City but can't get a drivers license. Without the promise of something better for their future, what motive does a young undocumented high school student have to learn English, stay in school, work hard and achieve to the best of their ability? Those who do believe that there is a possible benefit for buying into the system and playing by the rules end up being positive and productive members of society, and many find a way to legalize eventually. Those who don't believe they can benefit by buying into the system usually give up on following the rules. Sadly, without any hope of a better tomorrow, that's when I get to meet them as a criminal defense attorney. If young people become a problem for our society, that hurts all of us.

Of course, if you base your policies on the idea that all these new immigrants are lawbreakers and evildoers, then then it comes as no surprise that your prophesy becomes self-fulfilling. However, those of us who actually know some Latinos and recent immigrants know that if given the opportunity, our young people are capable of doing amazing and positive things for our community and our nation. Since they were not adults when they crossed with their parents, they should not be punished for their parents'decisions. Nor should the rest of society be punished by polcies which thwart and squander their potential.

The Kansas In-State Tuition law, and the comparable DREAM Act that was proposed at the federal level, hurts nobody and benefits all of us--unless, of course, you see a new generation of young Latino voters as a threat. I do not, nor should our politicians, nor the American people.

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Sunday, September 16, 2007

10. America is better than this...

After spending the last five years representing hundreds of families with different immigration statuses, I am alarmed by both the litany of falsehoods being repeated about my clients by groups like the Minutemen and the really bad laws and policies that are enacted when people believe such claims. The anti-immigrant crowd works hard to convince the public that they should fear and hate my clients. They claim that my clients are to blame for most our national problems, that they are invading us to break our laws, rape our daughters, spread leprosy, massacre our youth and that they threaten our cultural identity.

Of course, those with firsthand knowledge of recent immigrants—friends, family members, and others who work and live with them—know that these claims are ridiculous. Ask any of my clients and they will tell you: They came to work and to help their family, a motivation no different than that of my ancestors. Unfortunately, many otherwise good Americans are deceived into believing the claims of the Minutemen and are then often convinced to support a host of “kick-the-immigrant” laws and policies, even when such policies offer no positive benefit to society.

For example, Kansas and Missouri legislators were convinced that taking away the ability of undocumented immigrants to get drivers licenses would “crack down on illegal immigration.” Years later, that action clearly has not resulted in fewer immigrants, but has resulted in higher case loads for the police and courts, more uninsured drivers on the road, more hit-and-run accidents, and a new demand for fake insurance cards and even licenses.

Similarly, the recent “deputizing” of the Missouri Highway Patrol for immigration enforcement will result in some deportations, but it is also making my clients more fearful of all law enforcement. Local police already combating the “Stop Snitchin” culture in their criminal investigations will face a new reluctance from thousands of Kansas City residents to report crime and to cooperate with police. That hurts all of us.

Most of my foreign-born clients come to me wanting to follow the law in as many ways as they can, yet find themselves thwarted from doing so—much to the detriment of everybody. Rather than helping to integrate our society, “kick-the-immigrant” laws hurt families, divide communities and create criminality where there was none before. Predictably, groups like the Minutemen then turn around and blame immigrants while claiming that they themselves are merely “supporting the rule of law.” Like Jim Crow, Apartheid, and other bad legal systems that preceded them, “kick-the-immigrant” laws and policies cannot be justified without appealing to our fear, ignorance and prejudice against another group of people. That’s really all the Minutemen have to offer us, and that’s what makes them unacceptable in our halls of government.

Many reasonable people can disagree over what the best national immigration policy should be, but attacking the immigrants themselves separates the Minutemen from mainstream civic organizations. Simply put, America is better than this, and area voters have consistently stated so at the polls. Politicians and policymakers should take note.

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Friday, June 15, 2007

9. Here goes a slippery slope...

This just in from the Kansas City Star 6/15/07 Pg. A-1:

"The Kansas City Council registered its disapproval Thursday with Frances Semler’s controversial appointment to the parks board, but Mayor Mark Funkhouser is not backing down. In a highly unusual move, the council voted 9-3 to urge Semler to resign, or if she refuses to do so within a week, to ask the mayor to recommend her removal. She has been the target of criticism because of her involvement with the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, a group that opposes illegal immigration but that some view as a violent vigilante hate group.
The council resolution was a symbolic rebuke of one of Funkhouser’s first major acts as mayor, but it is not binding. A parks board commissioner can only be removed by the council upon the mayor’s recommendation.
Funkhouser said he would listen carefully to the divergent views on Semler “and do what my judgment tells me to do.”
Earlier, Funkhouser acknowledged that Semler offered to resign, but he rejected her offer.
“I told her to hang in there,” Funkhouser said, amid a growing clamor to drop her.
Semler said Thursday she was disappointed by the council’s action and was frustrated by the controversy.
“My main focus is the inner city. This is summer, and we need to give kids something to do,” Semler said. “I don’t want to be divisive. I want this to go away.”
Semler’s appointment to the Board of Parks and Recreation Commissioners has caused outrage within the Hispanic, black and Jewish communities because of her membership in the Minuteman group...."

Of course, this was ALL over the conservative radio talk shows here in town, basically bashing those protesting the appointment and calling it no big deal. Besides, why should anyone have a problem with a public official being part of a group that advocates enforcement of our immigration laws? I could have called in, but instead I e-mailed the following response:

The Southern Poverty Law Center recently published a list of what it determined to be 144 "nativist extremist" organizations across 39 states, meaning groups that target individual immigrants rather than immigration policies. For the state of Kansas, it lists three (3) such groups:

1. Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, Emporia
2. Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, Kansas City
3. Minuteman Civil Defesne Corps, Wichita


There can be many good faith disagreements over what the best immigration policy should be. However, groups like the Minutemen are not mainstream civic organizations. These groups are trying to justify policy that is bad for all Americans by attacking and villifying a group of 12 million people, even though most haven't even met or spoken to any of them. The appointment of a member of the Minuteman is troubling, as it reflects a move to gradually get members of hate and extremist groups into civic positions of power. The KCMO Park Board may not be much of a position of power, but one has to wonder: What exactly is it that Mark Funkhouser is defending here? Would it be different if the appointee were a member of a more recognized hate group, such as the Aryan Nation, but was otherwise "competent?" What about a member of an anti-Semitic group who is otherwise nice around everybody else? What about a member of a group that supports Hamas or Hezbollah?

This is not an issue of free speech or free association. This is a democracy and we elect officials who sometimes appoint other officials. The electorate gets to voice its opinion over the appointments made by elected officials. Mayor Funkhouser simply needs to clarify whether this appointment reflects his beliefs or just a lapse in judgment.

Those of us who find the establishment of such a group in our city appalling certainly have the right to express how unacceptable we find having such a person in public office. And if we don't take a stand, we've seen where this leads.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

8. The Immigration Debate: Thinking Beyond "LEARN to speak ENGLISH."

Recently, my mother called me about an obnoxious editorial in the local newspaper from our old hometown, The Beloit Call. Because she also works with immigrants and their children in the nearby Great Bend School District, she was upset almost to the point of tears. Naturally, I volunteered to respond:

Dear Editor,
While I appreciated the emotional honesty of Charlene Watson in her Sept. 18, 2006 Ramblings, I was dismayed by the huge amount of misinformation Ms. Watson conveyed. Unfortunately, much of the debate I have heard over immigration policy has been just as disconnected from the reality of the clients I have served as a bilingual attorney. I have met hundreds of Spanish-speaking families in the last several years, including both legal and undocumented immigrants. It would be wrong of me to characterize all members of any group—much less all undocumented immigrants in our country. But I can say that most I have met are hardworking, kind, generous, devoted to family, and entrepreneurial. Many are deeply religious.
Recently, I began asking my clients why they came here. Not surprisingly, it wasn’t to get drivers licenses, college education, public benefits, or health care. Nor was it to “intimidate” Americans or to “take over our country.” Everyone answers the same—they came to work. And work they do—many in jobs that simply aren’t being filled otherwise. The reality is that we simply do not have enough workers to fill all the labor-intensive jobs that are out there. Some California farmers are losing entire crops for lack of workers to harvest them. Entire industries—construction, hospitality, service, meat packing, landscaping, and some sectors of agriculture—depend on immigrant labor.
Ms. Watson expressed concern over Social Security. The reality is that many undocumented workers are doing the work to earn Social Security credits, but those credits are applied to other people’s numbers. While this creates a record-keeping problem, it pours millions of dollars into the system which will never be collected by the workers who did the work. Take those workers and their contributions out, and you will speed the collapse of Social Security. Add a few million otherwise law-abiding younger workers to the system, and you could probably save it.
Ms. Watson claimed the influx of European immigrants of the 1900s were much different from today’s immigrants. In reality, earlier immigrant groups were similarly attacked and maligned. It is well known that many worked long hours in dangerous conditions. Just like immigrants of today, many were exploited. Are we proud of this? Ms. Watson praises the notion that today’s immigrants “HAVE no rights in this country.” In reality, they do. They have the right to be paid for work they have actually done, to work in safe conditions, and in some cases to sue those who have wronged them. Would Ms. Watson prefer an America where this were not so? I recently sued a construction subcontractor who cheated my client and about 50 others out of several weeks pay for labor performed at Great Wolf Lodge in Kansas City, Kansas. If contractors like this can get away with not paying these workers, what kind of workers will they be more likely to hire on the next project? Allowing immigrant workers to be exploited simply gives employers an economic incentive to hire them instead of domestic workers.
Ms. Watson repeatedly emphasized the need for immigrants to “LEARN to speak ENGLISH.” In reality, there is certainly no lack of desire from my clients. Better English skills mean better work opportunities and less risk of being exploited. The rate of English-learning among recent immigrants is no different than that of immigrants in the past. Generally, the older first-generation adults struggle and the second generation children pick up English rapidly at school. Most adults would love to speak more English, but either don’t have time to take classes because of long work hours or can’t find enough English classes to meet the adult demand.
While Ms. Watson claimed past immigrants “did not expect this country to meet their needs,” I am certain my ancestors at least expected that there would be enough opportunity to make a better life. Were their motives so different from those of today’s immigrants? As for handouts, most of my clients are not interested. Most aren’t eligible for public benefits anyway, so they expect none.
What Ms. Watson fails to address is why illegal immigration is happening in the first place. This isn’t an American issue—France, Spain, and many other nations are facing similar debates. So what’s going on? The answer was in Ms. Watson’s hands as she complained over instructions printed in multiple languages: Globalization is affecting business and lives all over the world. Many products sold here are sold in other countries too. If companies want higher sales overseas, they have to make their products and services available internationally. When traveling abroad, one can find U.S. companies—Subway, Sam’s Club, and Home Depot—competing with local businesses. For better or worse, free trade agreements like NAFTA created winners and losers. Some of the losers—like Mexican subsistence farmers who couldn’t compete with foreign agribusiness—are now working on American farms, construction sites, hotels, and yes, McDonalds. We love getting to sell our products elsewhere, but are somehow shocked that this should ever have consequences felt here at home.
There is one clear difference between immigrants of yesterday and today: Back then, most of our ancestors had almost no immigration restrictions on the books to be concerned with. By contrast, today’s immigration laws have broken up thousands of good families that were formed here in America—far more than any other “family values” issue typically raised at election time. Instead of attacking immigrants and destroying families, we should be supporting immigration reform based on America’s best interests, not on fear and misinformation.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

7. We can still be...

Shortly after 9/11/2001, I wrote the following article for the University Daily Kansan at KU. For one reason or another it was never published. At the time, I was somewhat opimistic of the possibility of good coming from the attacks. Perhaps someday, it will be part of a vision to a more hopeful future for our country...

David Grummon
"Why should I be proud of America?" a friend asked me after September 11. I thought a lot about the question. Sure, we call America the "Leader of the Free World," and the "Land of Opportunity," but we also know our nation has a dark history. America was born a racist and divided land, giving only white landowning males voting rights, while thousands languished in slavery. Our leaders relocated and decimated hundreds of Native American populations. Even after slavery ended, Jim Crow laws made African Americans second class citizens. During World War II, our government hustled Japanese Americans into internment camps.
We’re the only nation to use the atomic bomb on civilians. We sometimes supported ruthless dictatorships to win the Cold War. More recently, we have enforced human rights when it served our interests while turning a blind eye to abuses by our allies.
So how can I still pledge my allegiance to our flag, or sing "I’m proud to be an American"?
Pretty easily, actually, despite the sins of our forefathers. Our history’s not entirely dark. We’ve saved the world from global tyranny more than once. We’re among the world’s largest contributors of humanitarian aid. We’ve changed the world in many positive ways in the last century.
I’m proud of many recent acts of bravery by Americans. Not enough can be said of New York City firemen and police during 9/11, nor the hundreds of volunteer workers who searched for survivors nor the average Americans who fought to retake control of a highjacked airplane, sacrificing themselves to save others.
But America’s true greatness is neither defined by the past, nor by bravery in crisis. Our greatest pride in America should come from the promise of its future. This is what really sets us apart. With each generation and every challenge, America is always becoming more American. We learn from past mistakes and struggle to reach the promise we call the American Dream.
That struggle hasn’t been easy. Usually, calamity and upheaval have pushed us to become a better country. It took the Civil War to abolish slavery and turn a loose conglomerate of states into one nation. It took the Great Depression and World War II to transform a stagnant society into the vibrant, prosperous world power which shaped the last century. It took the social upheaval of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement to make us realize, as Dr. King put it, that we had not yet reached the day when we would "live out the true meaning of our creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal….’"
Over a year ago, as we sorted out our Presidential election, people accurately described America as "deeply divided." We saw enemies among each other, whether it be Government or Big Business, the religious or the non-religious, Hollywood folks or back woods folks. We found so many things to hate and divide us, our nation seemed to be falling apart.
These things don’t seem to matter as much anymore. I don’t believe God is the author of evil like we saw on 9/11, but God can transform tragedy into an opportunity for good. I think we have a chance to start over again, to learn from our mistakes, to become the nation we always wanted to be, and to get closer to the American Dream than we ever have before.
So how do we reach for the American Dream in the wake of such a crisis? We should learn from our mistakes, the biggest lesson being that we cannot afford to hate anymore. Not hate towards liberals or conservatives, not other religions, not homosexuals, not Arabs, Muslims, Jews, foreigners, Hippies, Capitalists, or Tree Huggers. It’s alright to disagree—that’s democracy—but hatred gave us September 11, and Americans that engage in hatefulness now should be ashamed. Nor can we ignore injustices that create hatred. While we bring terrorists to justice, our leaders are wise to address the root causes that leave desperate people open to manipulation by madmen.
We should not let the lives lost on 9/11 fade away without meaning. Will our nation rise up against fear and terror by seeking a more perfect union, or will we continue to rip ourselves apart? Let the legacy of this tragedy be not only victory against the hatred of others, but also redemption of our own American Dream.