Le Chambon, Mennonites and DACA

Read Zach’s piece written for The Mennonite magazine:

In mid-December 2006, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents carried out six immigration raids at JBS Swift meat packing plants across the U.S. One of these raids was carried out in my home town of Greeley, Colorado. Accusations of mistreatment by ICE agents during the raid quickly surfaced through local activist groups. One report told of an expectant mother who was held in an onsite cafeteria and was not allowed to use the restroom. After hours of detention, she eventually wet herself and was made to sit in her spoiled clothes until eventually being released.

Le Chambon, Mennonites and DACA

The raid came seemingly out of nowhere. The Weld County District Attorney at the time, Ken Buck, was notified of the raid the day it occurred. As the raid was taking place, families and friends arrived at the plant hoping to learn the fate of their loved ones inside but were given little information. Although protesters tried to block the gates to the plant, unmarked buses were able to leave with detainees, bound for ICE holding facilities in Denver. After all was said and done, 250 undocumented workers were arrested in Greeley and 1300 had been arrested across the country.

Local reactions to the raid were largely positive. Nearly half of the residents interviewed by the Greeley Tribune said the raid was good for the community. Buck spoke with a callous dismissiveness about the raid. The incumbent mayor at the time, Tom Selders, even blamed his lost reelection bid, which took place the following year, on his criticism ICE’s actions.

Some Greeley residents were deeply dismayed: the images of immigrants being loaded onto buses bound for detention facilities came too close to Alfonso Cuarón’s vision of the dystopic England portrayed in his film Children of Men, which had been released only a couple months before.

In 2006, I was a senior at a local high school and a child of two worlds–the son of a Mexican immigrant and an Anglo mother. A few days after the raid, I remember encountering two brothers, both a little younger than me, outside a fast food store. They nervously approached my friends and I wondering if we could buy them lunch. Their father had been deported in the raid and they’d been unable to contact him since. They were out asking for grocery money.

It has been years since I reflected on this experience, but considering this week’s decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) protections, I have had no choice but to relive those days at the end of 2006. I fear that such days may be upon us again.

The subject of Latino otherness was a central tenant of Donald Trump’s platform. He called Mexicans rapists, drug dealers and criminals on the first day of his campaign. Early in his presidency, that focus materialized in the form of an executive order that targets undocumented immigrants and ensures that they are “promptly removed.” This week, the subject of Latino otherness has materialized in the form of the decision to end DACA.

While this decision creates a deeply troubling, and possibly an existentially threatening, predicament for immigrants, it should also present an important dilemma for U.S. Christians in general and for Mennonites in particular. If the importance of The Martyr’s Mirror in our theological tradition is any indication, our heritage as a persecuted group looms heavy in our historical imagination. Since the execution of Felix Manz in 1526, Mennonites and their Anabaptist forbearers have known the feeling of being hunted and oppressed. Thousands of Mennonites and Anabaptists were sought out and executed throughout the sixteenth and into the seventeenth centuries. This somewhat unique history among Protestant traditions gives Mennonites and other Anabaptists a critical empathic schema for addressing oppression in our own day.

We should be careful not to underestimate the power of our historical imagination as a guide for action in our own time. According to the Holocaust Encyclopedia, hosted by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, French Huguenots on the Vivarais Plateau in Southern France, had a “collective memory of their own suffering as a religious minority” that gave them a “strong suspicion of authoritarian governments.” During World War II, many of these French Protestants refused to cooperate with the Vichy Regime, a regime that collaborated with Nazi Germany.

One village, the village of Le Chambon, lead a resistance movement that included harboring some 5000 people, including somewhere between 3,000 and 3,500 Jews. These villagers offered their homes for shelter, forged visas and travel documents, and helped guide refugees east to neutral Switzerland in an act of nonviolent resistance motivated by an empathic response that was grounded in their own history.

I don’t necessarily mean to suggest there is a one-to-one correspondence between all the players involved in Le Chambon’s resistance. Some would deem it irresponsible, for example, to draw comparisons between the Third Reich or Vichy Regime and the Trump administration.

Instead, my point is to suggest that the historical imagination, the stories recounting the lengths our ancestors-theological or biological-went to in order to pass their faith on to their descendants, provides us with a conceptual framework from which we can draw inspiration and guidance for action in our own day. We, too, know the plight of undocumented immigrants, the feeling of being chased by governing authorities, chained, and removed. The question is, “What is our historical imagination telling us to do in response to Trump’s new executive order?”

Here I would like to draw a one-to-one correspondence between the villagers of Le Chambon and what I believe our calling is as U.S. Mennonites in 2017, because, if it comes to this, what the villagers of Le Chambon did is exactly what I think we should do. We are called to resist the unjust practices that target specific groups of people with threats of deportation.

This is where our historical imagination guides us: we are not called to uphold the laws of the land when the laws of the land harm people, destroy families and dreams, and reduce people to “illegal aliens.” Our Anabaptist forbearers were also illegal, but they persisted. So now when we see our immigrant neighbors or immigrant members of our churches labeled as “illegal” or removable, we must be on their side.

In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. responds to anxiety expressed by eight white religious leaders from the South about his organization’s willingness to break laws. Dr. King maintains that an unjust law is, in fact, no law at all. “Any law that uplifts human personality is a just law,” he contends later in the letter. “Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.” Although the focus of his argument is directed at southern segregation, the principle remains true for legislation that would forcibly remove entire groups of people based solely on their documentation status: such a law is no law at all.

The questions for Mennonite churches now are: Will you march in the streets? Will you provide support for immigrant families? Will you speak boldly the Gospel of Jesus Christ that promised freedom from oppression and hope to the disenfranchised? Will you draw on our collective historical imagination and find the courage our forbearers did in the face of the powers that be?

Pray that we preach this Gospel boldly, for we must speak.