About and not with: the big failing of the immigration debate

When my father went through his interview for US citizenship, he talked so much about Jamestown and Williamsburg (where we had gone on vacation) that eventually the INS interviewer threw up his hands and said, “OK! ENOUGH!”

At least that’s the way my mother tells the story.

I remember the naturalization ceremony in downtown Akron when I was in second grade. I remember my pastor bringing the picture from the newspaper of all the new citizens up for children’s moment the next day. I remember taking the letter of congratulations to school, the one signed by Vice President Bush himself.

The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God. -Leviticus 19:34

I was an foreigner residing in this country, and because Firestone Tire and Rubber Company needed a noise and vibration specialist, my family was welcomed here.

So by some narratives, my father deserved to be here. But not my mother or me — she was a teacher and I was a toddler, and America already had enough of those on its soil already. We came with the package because America believes in families.

The interesting thing is, I’ve never met anyone who talks to me, is in relationship with me, who has heard any of my story, ever tell me I should not be here.

 

But there are a lot of people who don’t know me.

 

There are a lot of other people in this country because this country can make use of their skills — their skills on farms, their willingness to work hard for minimal amounts of money, their willingness to take on jobs that other people won’t take on. And they have families, too. They are caught in a complex catch-22: their work is welcome here, but they are not. Their work is welcome here, but their families are not. Their contributions, without which the American economy as it currently exists would absolutely and irrefutably collapse, are welcome, but their existence within our political system is not.

 

And the people debating their position in the United States don’t know them.

 

Over the course of my ministry I have come into relationship with a lot of undocumented immigrants. I have heard stories about what brought them to this country. I have been witness to how hard they work. I have watched them struggle with the same tragedies that affect all families — illness, death, family crises — without any access to the basic support system most of us have in those moments. I have grieved with them as they sacrifice everything in order to support families they cannot see. I have heard about or witnessed their mistreatment in the workplace by people who know they cannot afford to fight that mistreatment. I have known some who couldn’t return to a country where their life would be at risk.

Because I have a heart, their stories move me. And because I have a brain, I know that their contributions to the US economy allow it to function as it currently does (cheap food and clothes and service and poor wages and benefits for low-wage earners, both citizen and non-). I am pretty sure the way I understood immigration policy before knowing the stories of undocumented workers was a lot different. I bet I used language of “work within the system” and “obey the law” and “deserve” in ways that seem silly now that I have a broader understanding of how broken the system is and how obeying the law can risk their whole families and how I didn’t deserve to be here, either.

 

In the halls of Congress and in the hallways of our offices and homes, a lot of people are talking a lot about immigration. Sometimes those conversations are informed by economics and demographics. Almost never are they informed by the lived experiences of actual undocumented immigrants in this country, although the DREAMers (see http://unitedwedream.org/home/ for an example) have moved many individuals’ understandings of the immigration debate as youth risk arrest and deportation to make us aware that children and youth with no control over where they were raised are part of the American fabric and must be acknowledged.

 

I find myself thinking, most of the issues we get the most passionate about are issues with which we have little direct experience and no personal encounters. A lot of Bill Cosby’s defenders have no personal experience with the wall of misogyny that sexual assault victims face in reporting the crimes they face. A lot of people hostile to the Ferguson protesters have no direct experience of a lifetime of legitimate fear that the wrong person in power can erase your life with no accountability because of a system designed to protect its own and to perceive Blackness in the civilian population as a threat.

And a lot of people who want to get rid of “those illegal immigrants” have never been in conversation with undocumented people about why they are here and what their experience is in this country, and why they stay when they get treated so badly.

I’m not weighing in on policy in this post — I am no expert, although my suspicion is that while the President did not go far enough, he went farther than the political climate will tolerate. My issue isn’t with the President. My issue is with the political climate, which we help create.

You don’t have to be a bleeding heart to come up with the right perspective on the immigration crisis in America, just well informed about the US economy (although hard-hearted and information-averse is a bad combination). If you really believe illegal immigration is a problem, an economics course or two will teach you fairly quickly that if you’re opposed to illegal immigration, your issue is actually with unrestrained free market capitalism or with lack of enforcement of wages and working conditions, which create demand for low-paid workers putting up with dangerous working conditions (such as incredibly high rates of cancer-related deaths of farm workers in their thirties due to constant exposure to pesticides).

But to come to passionately held beliefs without extensive dialogue with the people most directly affected by the policy decision is both hard-hearted and ill-informed. It leads to a nation driven by both a lack of compassion and by fear that has no grounding in truth.

 

I didn’t deserve to be here. But America believes in family. So here I am.

 

I wonder what our nation’s policies would look like if policy-makers and voters alike allowed our opinions to be shaped in conversation WITH people and not just ABOUT them.

 

This picture doesn’t pertain to the blog post, but it’s been the most popular on my facebook ever, with more shares than any other, so here’s a photo from my workout yesterday: 

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