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  • Writer's pictureRick Burnette

Like a River

USA, Pais De Immigrantes
USA, a nation of immigrants

“But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:24).

In the Misión Peniel kitchen at 3:00 p.m. June 1, I’m alone, sorting eggs donated by an area farm. The building is typically buzzing on Thursday afternoons when the Cultivate Abundance staff and Misión Peniel team organize food to share the next day.

But today, I work alone because of a one-day immigrant worker strike called by organizers in response to a new state law.

Florida SB 1718, passed by the state legislature and signed by the governor on May 10, includes provisions such as limiting social services for undocumented immigrants, funding an expansion of the governor’s migrant relocation program and invalidating driver’s licenses issued by other states to undocumented people. The law also requires Medicaid-funded hospitals to ask for a patient’s immigration status.

Doing nothing to contribute towards fixing our nation’s broken immigration system, the law has generated widespread fear and anger, prompting some of Florida’s most vulnerable to flee to other states. Ironically, the economy of Immokalee and the entire state depends on hardworking immigrant workers, many of whom are underpaid and exploited.

Economics aside, it’s unfair and unscriptural to target immigrants. Perhaps we forget to consider the accounts of Abram and his household migrating from Haran to settle in the land of Canaan, the exodus of the Children of Israel, or how Mary, Joseph and Jesus sought refuge in Egypt. We might fail to consider the instability caused by conflict, climate change, famine, persecution, failed governance, unrest, economic disruption and threats of violence that drives global migration.

We must not underestimate how much xenophobia and racism motivate some politicians to refuse to cooperate towards creating a functional and just immigration system. Instead, Florida’s ramped up legal chaos only generates more stress for workers, employers, health care providers and others.

Florida families of mixed residence status are anxious. Inadequately documented parents now feel even more vulnerable about the possibility of being deported and separated from the rest of the family. If someone gets sick, she might be reluctant to seek medical attention due to the unnecessary immigration status question. And social services for non-citizens are already sparse. That’s why Cultivate Abundance, Misión Peniel and other ministries exist. We fill the gaps.

While SB 1718 is only the latest of political actions meant to appeal to those who are convinced that migration is a threat, it violates the spirit of God’s Kingdom in which strangers are welcomed, neighbors are loved and justice is pursued on behalf of the marginalized.

Peaceful marchers in Immokalee, Florida
Marching for justice

Once done sorting eggs, I’m ready to meet Ellen at a nearby field to participate in a brief rally – organized by local concerned citizens, including our coworker, Lupita – and engage in a two-mile march around Immokalee to protest SB 1718. Just as I’m opening the door, a downpour hits, leaving me stuck inside for 30 minutes. Fortunately, I brought my rubber work boots. As soon as the rain slacks, I slog off to the rally point.

Although it is hot and steamy, with dark clouds on the horizon, Immokalee residents and their allies are trickling onto the rally site.

I find Ellen as well as Pastor Miguel and his family in the middle of the field. Spotting other friends, neighbors and clients, we reconnect with Araldo, a young man who had been a volunteer in the Misión Peniel garden before leaving for college. Proud of his heritage, a Mexican flag is draped over his shoulders.

Other arrivals are holding signs, in English and Spanish, that affirm the essential role of farmworkers. American flags are held high, along with those of Guatemala, Haiti and other countries, reminders of our community’s diversity.

We try to estimate the size of the crowd. 700? Maybe 1,000? Not bad for a hot, rainy afternoon.

After the rally mobilizes the crowd, while sporadically shouting slogans for justice in Spanish, Kreyol and English, we slowly move towards Main Street before turning right onto Immokalee Road. As we pass businesses and side streets, others trickle in from adjoining neighborhoods. Bystanders shout encouragement while folks in passing vehicles blow their horns in affirmation.

About halfway through the route, we are astounded that the vast stream of people extends as far as we can see in either direction. Around us are young people with signs, banners and flags, mingled in with working folks; farmworkers, landscapers, roofers and builders. We see families marching together, including moms and dads holding babies with their older kids running alongside. Elders are keeping up as well.

crowd of peaceful marchers in Immokalee, Florida
Over 7000 community members marched in peace for justice

Despite being tired and sweaty, everyone seems in good cheer as we course around the western edge of town in common cause.

Almost to the end of the march we run into Greg from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. He reports that the CIW team has estimated at least 3,500 marchers. We later learn later that 7,000 participated in this event.

Making a final turn into the field, the multitude pauses for final words of encouragement and a powerful benediction offered by Pastor Miguel. As I make my way back to Misión Peniel before another round of rain, I realize that we have witnessed something very biblical.

Justice does indeed roll like a river.

Justice is like a river when the oppressed and their allies come together to flow peacefully through the streets in stream-like fashion, speaking truth to power and bearing witness through neighborhoods and business districts along the way.

We count ourselves privileged for the opportunity to join this mighty stream of Immokalee immigrants and workers in pursuit of justice, with the righteousness of their cause on full display.

And until society and its power brokers repent of their xenophobia and rescind the cruel policies they have created, then let the river of justice roll on.

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