Moving beyond Hospitality

[1] Anyone who calls him or herself a Christian should seek compassionate, just, and wise immigration reform. Millions of undocumented aliens are forced to live in the shadows of the law hungering for someone to bring them the good news that they are more than objects of a hostile national debate. In spite of the rhetoric which relegates them to non-personhood, they are humans created in the image of God. For this reason, the Church Council of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) should be recognized for living up to its Christian responsibility when it took a public stance and adopted a social policy resolution during their November 2009 meeting. ELCA are welcomed as allies en la lucha for justice. But as we celebrate ELCA commitment to living out the Gospel message through praxis, actions — not just flowery words — allow me to push the discourse in new directions. Only by challenging our good intentions might we come to better grasp the complexity of the present immigration situation.

[2] All too often, when we discuss immigration, it is from the social location of residency or citizenship, from the security of this side of the border. In this brief article, I will attempt to cross over the artificial wall erected. Not just the physical wall that acts as a bloody scar where First and Third World chafe against each other; but also the invisible wall that separates Hispanics from the rest of the dominant U.S. culture. To live on the borders can literally mean living in the cities that are located along this artificial line. But the borderlands are more than just a geographical reality — they also symbolize the existential reality of U.S. Latina/os. Most Hispanics, regardless of where they are located or how they or their ancestors found themselves in the United States, live on the borders–borders separating Latina/os from other Americans exist in every state, every city, and almost every community, regardless as to how far away they may be from the physical wall. Borders are as real in Chicago, Topeka, or Minneapolis-Saint Paul, as they are in San Diego, Nogales, or El Paso. To be a U.S. Hispanic is to constantly live on the border, that is, the border that separates privilege from disenfranchisement, that separates power from marginalization, and that separates whiteness from brownness. Most U.S. Hispanics, regardless of where they live, exist in the borderlands.

[3] Because these borders are a social construction, I respectfully need to challenge the ethical concept of hospitality as used by the ELCA. According to the social policy resolution, the commitment to immigration reform is based on the core conviction that “hospitality for the uprooted is a way to live out the biblical call to love the neighbor in response to God’s love in Jesus Christ” (page 1). Often, the virtue of hospitality is invoked as the proper response when dealing with the stranger in our midst, identified as the documented and undocumented immigrant. Hospitality is usually balanced with a call for law and order. As the social policy resolution points out, “This church therefore acknowledges the rule of law and the role of government in facilitating orderly migration and integration, and in preventing migration that might be dangerous or harmful to host communities” (page 2). While we all may agree with the “rule of law,” the question left unanswered is whose rule of law?

[4] If truth be known, because of the United States’ historical violations of the rule of law, many Latina/os are here due to the borders crossing them. Mexican land was taken by a militarily superior nation who invaded for the express purpose of seizing another people’s territory. The justification of this massive land acquisition was based on a false theology that conceived the dominant Euroamerican culture as chosen by God, God’s new Israel. This romantic form of jingoism known as “Manifest Destiny” taught that God had manifestly intended Euroamericans to physically take possession of the entire continent. Like the Promised Land given to Israel of old, Euroamericans, due to their so-called racial superiority, were entrusted by God to tame the wilderness.

[5] A military onslaught by the puissant North led to Mexico’s capitulation and to the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, which ceded half of Mexico’s territory to the United States. This land included gold deposits that would be discovered in California in 1849, silver deposits in Nevada, oil in Texas, and all of the natural harbors (except Veracruz) necessary for commerce, hence enriching the United States while depriving Mexico’s future ability to create wealth. The fact remains that many were already here. As often stated, it was the borders that crossed them. Others traveled north, crossing the border created through U.S. military power.

[6] Still, I want to explore why the virtue of hospitality is probably not the best way for Christians to approach the present immigration situation. This becomes obvious when we ask: why do they come? And why do they continue to come? “They come to take away jobs and use up social services created for real Americans.” “They come in search of the American Dream hoping to find a better life for themselves and their families.” These are the two most common answers given. Both answers are wrong. The real reason “they” keep coming is bananas and our refusal to deal with the role bananas play. Our refusal to move beyond the virtue of hospitality is another factor. Both contribute to much of the misinformation surrounding the current immigration debate.

[7] Before 1870, most Americans had never heard of bananas. Two individuals, Lorenzo Baker and Minor Keith are credited with being the first to introduce bananas to the American consumer. By 1880, they, along with Andrew Preston, joined forces to create the Boston Fruit Company. By 1899 Americans were consuming over 16 million bunches a year, literally going bananas over bananas. That was also the year that Boston Fruit merged with United Fruit to create the notorious United Fruit Company, the largest banana company in the world, with plantations throughout Central America, South America, and the Caribbean.

[8] Around this time President Theodore Roosevelt started talking about “gunboat diplomacy.” Roosevelt was describing how the full force of the U.S. military was at the disposal of U.S. corporations, such as the United Fruit Company, to protect their interests. Let’s use Guatemala as an example of how U.S. foreign policy and U.S. business interest worked together to create the present immigration situation. When Manuel Estrada Cabrera, the Guatemalan dictator, gave the United Fruit Company free rein to own land so the company could grow bananas in 1901, the U.S. military made sure United Fruit Company’s interests were well protected. Not only was Guatemala under the control of U.S. companies — hence the term “banana republic” — so was almost every nation along the Caribbean Sea (along with several South American countries).

[9] By the 1950s, 70 percent of the land in Guatemala was controlled by 2.2 percent of the population, with only 10 percent of the land available to 90 percent of the mostly indigenous people. Guatemala’s predicament was the established norm throughout most of Latin America. Most of the land was unused, and owned by large landowners. Jacobo Arbenz was eventually elected president through a free and open election. He implemented modest land reforms to deal with this injustice. However, he ran into one insurmountable problem. The United Fruit Company was a major holder of unused land. The U.S. response was to launch a covert operation that overthrew Guatemala’s democratically elected government and replaced it with a military dictatorship under the pretense that Arbenz was a communist. This act led to a thirty-six year civil war where hundreds upon hundreds of thousands died or disappeared.

[10] Of course Guatemala is not the only country whose government was overthrown to install brutal dictators that would protect the business interests of U.S. corporations. Almost every country along the Caribbean has been invaded by the U.S. at least once during the twentieth century (my own country, Cuba, was invaded four times to protect U.S. sugar corporate interests). The result of U.S. installed “banana republics” created poverty, strife, and death in all of these countries. Inevitably, resistance to U.S.-installed “banana republics” manifested itself as fight or flight. Hundreds of thousands were killed or disappeared, while millions fled north. Those from El Salvador and Nicaragua immigrated because of U.S. wars conducted in their country, either by supporting the oppressive regime (as in the case of El Salvador), or funding the rebel forces (as in the case of Nicaragua).

[11] This brings us back to the question at hand: Why do they keep coming? When the U.S. military provided the freedom for U.S. corporations like the United Fruit Company to build roads into these developing countries to extract, by brute force if necessary, their natural resources and cheap labor, some of the inhabitants of those countries, deprived of a livelihood, took those same roads back to seek their livelihoods. They come following what has been stolen from them. They come to escape the violence and terrorism we unleashed upon them. We have an immigration problem because for more than a century, we have exploited — and continue to exploit — Latin America. To practice the virtue of hospitality assumes the “house” belongs to the one practicing this virtue who is sharing her or his resources with the Other who has no claim to the possession. But it was through the resources and cheap labor of Latin Americans that the house was built, hence, they have a claim on the house. The virtue of hospitality masks the complexity caused by the consequences of a century of U.S. foreign policies. Due to U.S.-sponsored “banana republics” throughout the twentieth century, this is also their “house”! Rather than basing immigration reform on the virtue of hospitality, I would suggest that the ELCA, to be more historically accurate, further wrestle with the Christian responsibility of restitution.

Miguel De La Torre

Miguel De La Torre is Associate Professor of Social Ethics at Iliff School of Theology, Denver, Colorado. He is the author of Trails of Hope and Terror: Testimonies on Immigration (Orbis, 2009).