By Wayde Marsh, Duke Divinity School Intern
This past Tuesday, more than 200 people celebrated the career of NC Council of Churches Executive Director George Reed before his retirement at the end of this month. While I have only known George for about two weeks, I have seen the positive impact he has had on North Carolina in his years of service. At his retirement luncheon, I was blessed to hear accounts from legislators, religious leaders of many faiths, friends, colleagues, and family members about the humble leadership of George throughout his life, but especially in his prophetic leadership at the Council.
One theme many speakers emphasized was how George was a prophetic and honest leader who always spoke hard truths through kindness. This is a skill I hope to one day possess and one I have thought about as I begin my internship with the Council this summer. Working with the immigration and farmworker rights programs, I have already learned many hard truths about the state of immigrants and farmworkers in North Carolina. As I learn more, I am constantly struggling with how to share these truths with others kindly but honestly.
One such example of struggling to challenge injustice kindly has come to me already. I learned just this week about an advertising campaign in California that uses the desperation and stress of the severe drought to spread paranoia about immigrants. In April, Californians for Population Stabilization (CAPS) released a 30-second ad, airing in Sacramento, Los Angeles, and San Diego, insinuating that immigration is the cause of the Californian drought. Recent studies have shown that the total cost of the drought in 2015 alone is around $3 billion. Agricultural sectors of the economy expect to be hit the hardest as the drought rages on into the summer. Farmworkers are in an increasingly vulnerable position as farmers are forced to lay off workers in the face of such massive losses, and many are not eligible for support in this environmental and economic disaster.
In response, the state has begun issuing fines to residents deemed “water wasters.” Unfortunately, such measures seem to be ineffective for the biggest users of water, those who can absorb the additional cost of the fine, while the most vulnerable in California’s economy have access to less and less water. Gov. Jerry Brown has been pushing for higher fines and for ways to empower local governments to enforce water conservation measures more effectively, so that the wealthiest wasters of the precious water supplies are incentivized to ration and the poorest have the water they need to survive.
The situation in California is dire. Whole valleys have gone dry and forests, once lush and expansive, have been shrinking and dying daily. CAPS has decided to capitalize on this severe situation, using it as a tool for spreading lies about immigration in California. The California Department of Finance has released a statement casting doubt on the claim made by CAPS that 98% of California’s population growth is from immigration and has instead pointed out that foreign migration to California has actually been in decline. CAPS’ six-figure marketing budget will ensure that their anti-immigration message reaches more ears than will the latest numbers from the Finance office, as CAPS uses this environmental emergency to breed fear and paranoia among a tired and thirsty populace.
The drought conditions have disproportionately harmed immigrant and farmworker populations in California. Employment opportunities have been cut through strains on the economy while water rationing fines favor those with greater economic capital and access to water. Meanwhile CAPS has magnified this harm by making immigrants the scapegoat for the drought. The claim may sound absurd, but we have seen far too many examples in history where scapegoating, no matter how absurd, has led to great injustices.
On the opposite coast, we are blessed not to bear the brunt of the drought, but that does not mean that anti-immigration lobbying groups cannot take advantage of strained economic conditions to manipulate statistics and scapegoat vulnerable populations. George has led the Council as it has identified and spoken truth to injustices all across the state in strong, but kind ways. Now as much as ever, North Carolina finds itself in its own dire situation. The challenge will be to identify these vicious campaigns as they start and to fight them with truth, compassion, and hope.
As Christians, we live and hope at the margins. As Christians, we must continue to be attentive to the ways that centers of power can use money and influence to confuse and disorient in the midst of crisis. As Christians, we must speak truth to CAPS and the injustices they inspire and we must protect immigrant communities from scapegoating.