Because I’ve written a book about immigration, a lot of folks in my family, from my congregation, and among my friends have asked me to weigh in on Arizona’s recently-passed “get tough on immigrants” law. On several occasions I’ve tried to write down my reactions to Arizona’s law, but I’ve had little luck. I have so many thoughts on what has happened in Arizona that whenever I sit down to write about them, all the words get clogged somewhere between my brain and my fingers on the keyboard.
But I think I may have been saved by a video clip of Michelle Obama and an achingly-sweet second grader from Silver Spring, Maryland.
Mrs. Obama and her Mexican counterpart, First Lady, Margarita Zavala, were visiting an elementary school in the Washington, DC suburb when, suddenly, the issues that surround undocumented immigration took on a human face.
A girl raised her hand and asked about the president’s desire to deport undocumented immigrants. “My mom says that Barack Obama is taking everybody away that doesn’t have papers,” said the girl.
Obama relied, “Yeah, well that’s something that we have to work on, right? To make sure that people can be here with the right kind of papers, right? That’s exactly right.”
“But my mother doesn’t have any papers,” the girl explained.
“Well, we have to work on that. We have to fix that, and everybody’s got to work together in Congress to make sure that happens. That’s right.”
So America’s First Lady got a little bit tongue-tied, but the exchange was a gift. It was a rare moment of clarity during which the toxic smog of fear and misinformation lifted and the American people got to see what’s really at stake when we talk about undocumented migration in North America.
The girl’s situation in not unique. Estimates vary, but there may be as many as twelve million people living in the United States without papers, and many such undocumented residents of the United States have family members—usually, but not always, children—who are legal residents or American citizens, and when we talk about getting tough on immigrants, vowing, as so many politicians will do, to send offending migrants “back home,” the policies we discuss and propose affect not just the men and women who crossed the border and now pick lettuce, and bus tables, and stand out in front of Home Depot looking for work as day laborers. Our immigration policies also affect the families and communities of those who are deported.
While working on my book I spoke with (and eventually wrote about) several families who share the little girl’s story: a woman who is living in a church to avoid being deported and separated from her husband and three children, all of whom are citizens; a woman whose daughter requires the attention of a pediatric specialist and must, therefore drive her daughter across town once a week, risking deportation, should she get pulled over for a traffic violation (in California undocumented persons may not obtain drivers’ licenses); two sisters—bloodied and bruised from repeated attempts to cross the border into Arizona so they could return to their families in Los Angeles; and a man who moved from Mexico to Oregon when he was two years old and who was deported, separated from his wife and two children and sent to a place he didn’t know, where he didn’t speak the language, and where he was all alone.
These people all have stories to tell that are similar to the story the second grader told the President’s wife, and these are the stories that should drive our nation’s immigration debate.
If the folks in Arizona had been listening to the child in Silver Spring while making laws, I rather suspect that Arizona’s legislation would look different. As far as I can tell, the law was written with only one kind of undocumented migrant in mind—the person who crosses the border alone, looks for work without success and becomes a burden on our society. Such people are hardly representative of the larger immigrant population in America. For the most part, undocumented immigrants are like most human beings: they live with their families in communities. Their families and their communities are mixtures of people who are documented and undocumented, newly-arrived and well-established in America, and everyone—from the undocumented mother to the sweet, articulate US citizen child—is affected by immigration policies.
The laws that govern immigration in the United States will change because no one is satisfied with the current immigration system. If the coming change to national policies reflects the spirit of Arizona’s state laws (and I think they may, given the popularity of Arizona’s approach to immigration) then, as a nation, we will find ourselves in the uncomfortably immoral position of punishing children like the second-grader from Silver Spring for the actions of their parents and loved-ones. I like to believe my country is better than that.