A Family Divided: the hard part of the immigrant story (a reflection on seeing “Documented”)

I was making small talk with one of my cousins on a visit to India maybe 10 years ago.

“Did you ever think about moving to the West?” I asked him. He’s a doctor in a very remote, very poor village where snakebites are the most common cause of death.

“Never,” he answered promptly and enthusiastically. “When I was young, I would lie there next to our grandmother and she would weep each night about how much she missed her son.” How much she missed my father.

My mother (left) and grandmother (right)
My mother (left) and grandmother (right)


My father’s immigration story is not completely unusual. He grew up in a small village, the youngest of three children. When his brother and sister had both started families and it became clear his sister’s family would need some financial assistance, his brother raised the money for my father to go to a western university and earn money to send back to the family in India. When my mother married my father, she contributed her income to the same cause without question.

My parents’ best friend in England tells stories from before I was born about how my mother would only buy carrots if they had the tops on, which their friend found odd until she realized my mother would use the tops to make carrot top curry to give them an extra meal so they could send more money back home.

I grew up wanting for nothing, but we didn’t live comfortably by middle-class American standards (I earn less than my parents did but live much more lavishly today than when I was growing up).


My grandmother knew all of this. She knew why my father had moved away, and I know she was grateful. I am really proud of how my cousins today are all flourishing, some of them doing things that give back to the community (including the doctor in the remote village and another cousin who works for the government’s pollution control division). I know my grandmother was proud, too, and I know she was grateful for my father caring so deeply about his family, and I know she loved my mother and appreciated how she cared just as deeply about his family. And she wept every night to my cousin when he was a boy about the son she loved but rarely got to see.

Tonight I joined the audience at Jose Antonio Vargas’s new film Documented: a film by an illegal immigrant undocumented American. You may have read his powerful coming out story in the New York Times in the summer of 2011 or heard him speak out about our nation’s broken immigration system. I am particularly proud that when the API (Asian Pacific Islander) community as a whole has been afraid to bring attention to the fact that unjust immigration laws adversely impact us as well as the Latino (and Black and African and European) communities, he has encouraged us to join with Dream Warriors and undocumented mothers separated from their families and the rest of the 11.3 million undocumented immigrants, 1.4 million of whom are API.


The film had really important and powerful reflections on the way America defines and then dismisses undocumented people without actually knowing their stories or realities and without acknowledging their contributions. It points out inconsistencies and encourages people to stand up and be heard.

But the part that took away the breath of the whole audience, myself included, was the very real pain of a son’s separation from his mother. Vargas’s grandparents wanted a better life for him when they brought him here, and they wanted him to be able to grow up to contribute to the support of his family back in the Philippines. But even if the tearing apart of a family was meant for the good, it was still a very real and palpably felt rending of a deep relationship.


When I went to the Museum of the African Diaspora on MLK Day with my niece and her mom, I asked her if she knew what a Diaspora was. To give her a hint, I pointed to myself and said, “I’m part of the South Asian diaspora.” I pointed to our friend Tai Amri and asked if he self-defined as being from a diaspora, and he said, “Yes. African and Black both.” Then her mom defined it for her, saying that people live in communities, but when something awful happens—a hurricane or a famine or a holocaust or slavery—those communities are ripped apart and don’t get to migrate together but are scattered across the globe.

I found myself thinking, “huh. Maybe I’m not part of the South Asian diaspora.” My father and his family survived the great famine in their region with their rice paddy.

I watched Documented tonight, though, and I found myself thinking that, although my family’s life is good, although my father and mother have each other and love each other deeply, my father was torn from his community and his people because of economic forces. His mother wept over the son she loved so much but saw only 4 or 5 times in his adulthood.

Jose Antonio Vargas has not seen his mother in 18 years. He can’t, because if he goes to the Philippines he won’t be allowed to re-enter the US, the country that has been his home since he was 12.

I work with mothers who came here because their children would have starved if they hadn’t immigrated and sent home a US salary to their family back home. I know sons who came here for similar reasons who believe they may never see their mothers again. I know families who watch each other grow up and grow old via Skype if they’re very lucky, or by letter, or sometimes not at all because the constant reminders of the family they cannot touch is all too painful to face. I have friends who have never gotten to meet their nieces and nephews face-to-face. Some are economic refugees. Some were children when they were brought here and had no choice in the matter. Some came here to pursue the American dream (and contribute to the American economy as much if not more than the rest of us).


I usually talk about immigration reform in pragmatic terms or in terms of justice, or even in biblical terms (it is hard to be a Bible believing Christian and be hostile to immigrants, although many try).

But tonight I remember the tears of mothers and of children. And I pray for an end to immigration laws and the brutal enforcement of those laws that tear apart families. And I pray for an end to the global economic immorality that creates community-destroying diaspora in the first place.

3 thoughts on “A Family Divided: the hard part of the immigrant story (a reflection on seeing “Documented”)

  1. My grandmother immigrated from Eastern Europe in the early 1900’s and my mother said every letter that came from home caused a fresh torrent of tears. My mother made fun of her mother, crying over letters from family left behind- family that my mother never met and barely acknowledged. One generation away from the pain and my mother was hard-hearted over the loss of family because of miles of separation and years of point of view.
    We lose so much historical identity when we become steadfast Americans- I wish I could have had the opportunity to know my grandmother’s European family- at least your father kept the lines of communication opened.


    1. Thanks so much for sharing that, Heidi. I never thought much about what immigration meant in terms of connection to land until a series of conversations this month with indigenous people who were talking about the costs of gentrification for the gentrifiers and the cost of moving to the activist haven of the bay area for people from the midwest who should be sharing their gifts with their own community on the land that is theirs. This stands in such tension with my reflections on the need for dignity for immigrants, because the message was “stay on the land of your ancestors or violate their memory.” But it is true that we lose something in the leaving, and we’re rarely encouraged to name it, because America is a nation of immigrants but also a nation that encourages us to leave those connections behind in order to be American. Jose Antonio Vargas said something during Q&A after the film that I haven’t been able to shake: “I have never heard President Obama speak of immigration in a personal way. And I have no idea why.” I think he does have an idea why: because President Obama wants to be seen as American, and talking about his Nigerian father or his Indonesian childhood or the Hawaiian experience would place him out of sync with the narrative your mother and I and most 2nd generation Americans are encouraged to claim.

      If you haven’t read “The Warmth of Other Suns,” I know you would love it deeply. It’s about the Great Migration of African Americans, and there’s a passage that makes me realize my connection to the African AMerican narrative as an immigrant that I hadn’t realized before that reminds me also of the story you shared: “Many of the people who left the South never exactly sat their children down to tell them these things, tell them what happened and why they left and how they and all this blood kin came to be in this northern city of western suburb or why they speak like melted butter and their children speak like footsteps on pavement, prim and proper or clipped and fast, like the New World itself. Some spoke of specific and certain evils. Some lived in tight-lipped and cheerful denial. Others simply had no desire to relive what they had already left. The facts of their lives unfurled over the generations like an over-wrapped present, a secret told in syllables. Sometimes the migrants dropped puzzle pieces from the past while folding the laundry or stirring the corn bread, and the children would listen between cereal commercials and not truly understand until they grew up and had children and troubles of their own. And the ones who had half-listened would scold and kick themselves that they had not paid better attention when they had the chance.” [p. 45]

      Thanks so much, Heidi. We really do have these interweaving narratives, don’t we?


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