When Rev. Virginia Jarocha-Ernst went to the Dominican Republic as part of a Social Justice tour led by Kevin Lamastra of Friends Beyond Borders, she was looking for a deeper understanding of the immigration issues here in the United States following joining in the protest of SB1070 in Arizona on July 29, 2010. In this post, she shares some of her experiences- Ed.
The first city we visited in the Dominican Republic was Sosua, a place of beautiful Caribbean beaches and coral reefs. The coastline is a string of gorgeous resorts and upscale condominiums looking out on that ocean view. But behind those towers of luxury, the city shows a very different face. Sosua was introduced as the epicenter of the international sex trade. Prostitution is legal and one of the few sources of income. Young women and girls, dressed to seduce, roam the streets and bars looking for foreign men. Male prostitutes look for women and hope to create relationships that might bring money later from long distance relationships begun on vacation. Although a legal way to earn a living, prostitution results in sexually transmitted diseases, unintended pregnancies, and the risk of abuse and loss of dignity that comes when our bodies are objectified and used.
The Dominican Republic shares an island with the country of Haiti. Here Haitian refugees live in even more extreme poverty. Left nationless and homeless by last year’s devastating earthquake, their presence is “illegal” in the Dominican Republic. They used to come to the Dominican Republic to cut sugar cane, but that industry has disappeared. Haitians are distrusted and suffer the fate of those at the very bottom of an already poor economy. Potable water, healthcare and education are scarce. Many of the children we met were orphaned by the earthquake in Haiti.
My visit to the Sousa dump was just as shocking. I went climbing through great mountains of stinking trash to help cull a few plastic bottles to sell. By any measure this is not a life, but it is the life of these displaced people. Later the same day, we visited a community where Haitians performed a Voodoo ceremony for us. There, their Haitian culture, their pride in who they were and their power as a community created a stark contrast to their pitiful labors in the dump that morning.
The struggle for fair treatment and dignity in this lush tropical landscape is intense. And these problems are not unrelated to the flood of immigrants coming to our shores. One of the reasons that we enjoy such relative prosperity is because we make a profit from the cheap labor in these developing nations. Our national policies encourage corporations to exploit cheap labor overseas. The sad thing is we benefit from this exploitation, though it is hidden out of our sight.
To see immigration enforcement as the answer is to look at the problem from the wrong end of the telescope. The cure that states like Arizona have chosen for an influx of immigrants is militaristic and punitive, stressing the illegal, rather than the immoral, dimension of this complex problem. Yes, workers are here without the proper papers. But our immigration system is unwilling to create paths that are legal. Too many are suffering, not from what is illegal but from what is deeply immoral. It is immoral to earn a living on a dump. It is immoral to be forced to sell your body to feed your children.
The battle to change this broken system is not at the border. In fact, the border fight is an intentional distraction from the real problem. The real problem is unchecked greed by those who profit from the unfair distribution of wealth and power. If we had the will, we here in these United States could create fair labor laws for all workers, laws that check the worst impulses of uncontrolled corporate entities. We could exert our influence and power in the international community and demand that people share their resources within their own countries and across borders. We could demand fair treatment of all workers. We could use our influence to create freedom and opportunity in the Dominican Republic, in Haiti and Mexico and all of the nations south of our border.
The beautiful vision inscribed on the Statue of Liberty is worthy of our defense:
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 battle for such justice will not be won by imprisoning farm workers or creating higher walls with ever more deadly defense systems. It will not happen by racial profiling and by tearing families apart. This great cause of ever-widening freedom and justice will be advanced in the halls of justice, where human laws and human rights are upheld. I pray that the yearning to breathe free is not stifled here at home and in lands far from our sight. I pray that I will not profit from another’s suffering. I pray that the borders we defend are those lined with freedom and a welcome and expansive justice where we, too, may lift up our lamp beside the golden door!
Have you or your congregation looked at “the other end of the telescope”? What have you learned about the conditions that cause people to take enormous risks to come to the United States? Share your stories with us! –Ed.
Rev. Virginia Jarocha-Ernst is minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Monmouth County.