A few years ago, I was an English teacher in the former Soviet Republic. One of the courses I taught was a conversational English class through American culture topics. It was a fascinating class for my students who discussed topics like how to play baseball (“strange game”) and the wedding tradition of the bouquet toss (“tell us why they throw flowers!”).
It was also in this class I was introduced to an American culture book that began with a history of the United States as a great nation built by immigrants.
The book described English pilgrims fleeing religious persecution, as well as Ellis Island and the many European immigrants who were processed there in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Then, on the same page, it declared that immigrants were no longer necessary in this country.
We had moved past the time when we needed immigrant populations to develop undeveloped natural resources and to populate the western part of the country. Immigrants, the book implied, were no longer a blessing. They were a burden.
I was previously uninformed on this issue. But now I had solid information - from a textbook, no less - and I felt like I’d solved a math problem whose solution had eluded me for years. So even though I had immigrated to this country from Guatemala as a child with my parents and siblings, I now had information, however incorrect, that supported a position I’d heard proclaimed in many public spaces. Much like several presidential candidates whose parents are also immigrants, I arrived at the conclusion that the immigration door should be shut firmly behind my family and me.
And that was the end of that, as far as I was concerned.
Like me, many people - whether natural-born citizens or documented immigrants - have information without relationships. As my immigration success story receded into the distant past, I had fewer and fewer relationships with undocumented immigrants.
By the time I arrived at the conclusion that immigrants were burdensome, I didn’t know any at all. As Sarah so eloquently put it “when we are in relationship with those most affected by the news, we find ourselves deeply committed to prayer, to action, and to justice.”
Conversely, when we’re out of relationships, we can receive information - however correct or incorrect - as cold, hard truths that must be enforced without mercy. I’ve encountered this not only in my own personal story but also in the local church when I hear people who don’t have relationships with any immigrants say things like, “Well, the Bible says we must obey the law, and undocumented immigrants are breaking the law, so they should be deported.”
How different is the response of a person who knows immigrants trying to get right with the law, but who is finding current immigration laws won’t allow them to be reconciled to it?
A Salvadoran immigrant fleeing gang violence and certain death, only to be told that US immigration laws don’t consider him a refugee based on his country of origin.
An immigrant from Cameroon who can’t receive the medical care he needs to survive in his country, but who is told that under current immigration laws, he isn’t eligible to remain here legally.
A Dominican widow working as a nanny and struggling to provide for her children but being told that by law, economic need is not a valid reason for a work permit.
Without relationships, it’s easy to allow other human beings in need of our kindness and understanding to become nameless, faceless statistics lost in political and economic rhetoric.
Having relationships where we know names and stories activates not only our compassion, but our advocacy bone.
Without these relationships, I wouldn’t know our country’s desperate need for immigration reform.
Without these relationships, I would continue to think of undocumented immigrants as outsiders, as the “other,” and would lose the humanity in myself as I fail to see it in them.
I need these stories and relationships, not only for the sake of my immigrant brothers and sisters, but also for myself—in order to be changed, to become more human.
Image credit: Christopher William Adach