Dec 292018
Can the first 4 principles of Kwanzaa help us address the immigration crisis?

What can the first four days of Kwanzaa teach us about confronting the immigration crisis at the southern border?

Today is the fourth day of Kwanzaa, the African-American holiday from Dec. 26-Jan 1 that celebrates the resilience of the African-American community and encourages us to support one another as a means of improving our individual and communal lives.

This Kwanzaa the plight of Hispanic refugees at the border has been weighing heavily on my mind. It’s not just because I am both black and Hispanic; it is because as a human being I cannot look away from images of children being tear-gassed at the border and not feel compelled to action. I’ve been tear-gassed before. Tear gas tears at your eyes and lungs. It makes adults stop where they are and fall to their knees, gasping for air. At least adults understand what’s happening. A small child must just think she is dying, and she can’t understand why.

Each day of Kwanzaa celebrates a different principle.  We have celebrated Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work & responsibility), and today, Ujamaa (cooperative economics). Although Kwanzaa was created by an African-American professor for the African-American community, I believe that its principles can offer us a framework for thinking about and addressing the immigration crisis at our southern border.

Umoja means unity.  In 2019, unity cannot just refer to people who look alike or share a common heritage.  Acting with unity is how we reshape our nation’s principles to respect human life regardless of what side of a border it was born on. Unity is the only way we are going to make changes in our politics and our government. We need unity of the oppressed and of allies. We can’t allow ourselves to be pulled apart by the schisms that exist at the intersections of oppression; that is how the oppressor has always won. If we are to change the trajectory we are on, we have to try a new way.

Our nation’s leader has seen fit to shut down the government and put the livelihoods of over 800,000 government employers and contractors at risk so he can get $5 billion to build a wall to shut out refugees and asylum seekers from south of the border.  We cannot allow ourselves to be swayed by tactics that pit wage-earners against each other while the inhumanity of our current immigration system goes unchecked. Umoja requires the solidarity that beats back short term interests in exchange for long-term terms gains in human rights and dignity.

Kujichagulia means self-determination. Can we support self-determination for ourselves but not for people who are fleeing from persecution, gang violence, domestic violence and starvation?  It is the ultimate in self-determination to rise up from where you are and set out on a path unknown to an uncertain destination. Whether or not every person who presents herself at our border is allowed to stay, we should respect the humanity of each supplicant and applaud their desire and drive.

Ujima means collective work & responsibility. Ujima works hand in hand with umoja to get the job done. We move forward with the work, bound together by the unity of our shared goals and when many hands work, the job becomes lighter.

Ujamaa means cooperative economics.  We can support with our dollars companies that support the values we care about. We can support businesses and organizations that are actively working to change outcomes for families at the border. The Texas Tribune published an article in June with a list of organizations that are helping families along the border. The National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights published a list of rights organizations that are working to assist people on both sides of the southern border.

The principles of Kwanzaa aren’t just for people of African-American heritage.  Kwanzaa can teach everyone how to harness the power of the collective for the collective good.

Reading recommendations on children and immigration:

Mama’s Nightingale: A Story of Immigration and Separation by Edwidge Danticat, illustrated by Leslie Staub (this story is about a Haitian family)



Dreamers by Yuyi Morales (a child’s perspective on immigrating across the border)




La Frontera: My Journey with Papa by Deborah Mills, Alfredo Alva and Claudia Navarro, contributors (a boy travels across the border with his father)




Marwan’s Journey by Patricia de Arias, illustrated by Laura Borras (a family fleeing from war in an unnamed country in the Middle East)




I’m New Here by Anne Sibley O’Brien (immigrant children from three different backgrounds come together in a school, hoping to fit in in their new home)




Dedicated to 7 year old Jakelin Caal Maquin who died of dehydration and shock in Border Patrol custody on December 8 and to 8 year old Felipe Alonzo Gomez who died of the flu in Border Patrol custody on December 24. Both children were born in Guatemala.





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