The Human Face of Immigration Reform

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.

6 thoughts on “The Human Face of Immigration Reform

  1. Thank you Ben for your thoughtful compassionate post. So many don’t have the time, don’t take the time, haven’t had the opportunity that your experience has offered you, and/or haven’t thought about these issues with deeply human consequences. Don’t hesitate to share your gift. It is sorely needed at this time. Lives depend on it. Blessings.

  2. An observation here in Zacatelco, Tlaxcala. I attended the final Catechism class for Pentecost’s Baptisms, First Communions and Confirmations. About 500 folk of all ages say in the Cathedral pews for two hours of drill from the local nuns who can really preach up a storm. No one went to sleep.

    After the service I spent some time talking with my pew-mate Paulino. He was from Zacatelco. His second home is Muskegee, Oklahoma. There he has a 10 year old son and his Mexican Common Law wife. He had to come home earlier this year because his father died. He is taking going through Conformation because he wants to marry his lady when he returns to the US. I asked him how he would be able to cross the border at this time. He said he has a place near Yuma, where he can swim the Rio Grande, and then the long trek to Muskegee.

    I asked the obvious question. What makes you want to return to Oklahoma? There is lots of work there; there is none here in Zacatelco. My son has a good school to attend there. There are free English Classes and I am now speaking English. And we have a good church where we can worship and have lots of friends.

    I was in Zacatelco visiting my mentee, Florencio, from our San Diego High School. He graduated with a B average a few years back, but had been deported after a car accident He, too, was preparing for his First Communion. He can’t wait for the day when he is healed enough to head back to San Diego.

    In my childhood there was a song folks used to sing….”How you going to keep them down on the farm, after they’ve see Muskegee and San Diego…..”

  3. Jim and Ronn, thanks for your comments and for your good words. Ronn, your observations from Further South remind me how important it is to remember that migration is not just something that affects Americans. It also has profound implications for Mexico (which, by the way, is why I like to speak of “migration” rather than “immigration”–it is something that affects both countries).


  4. Ben,
    In this week after Pentecost, your comments remind me that the church has been empowered by God’s Spirit to bring a word not just to Parthians, but to people in pain; not just to Medes, but to people in the midst of grief; not just to resident of Mesopotamia, but resident of a nursing home; not just to Pamphylia, but to people suffering in poverty; not just to Cappadocia, but to folks fighting cancer; ….
    and not just to visitors from Rome, but visitors from Mexico.

  5. Ben,
    I heard your interview on KZYX this morning. Your comments give me hope that something good can come out of this controversy. People seem to forget that a large part of Arizona, New Mexico and California was in Mexico and that migration is an ongoing thing.
    I live in Fort Bragg and used to work for Thanksgiving Coffee Co. I knew Ephriam personally and I so admired him for his courage, his work ethic and his kindliness. I didn’t speak Spanish very well, but that did not seem to be a barrier. Everyone who knew him was devastated by the news of his death. He is a shinning example of a Christian who lived his religion every day. Keep up the good work and I will buy your book

  6. Thanks for listening today, and for buying my book. I’m really glad that Efrain’s memory is alive on the North Coast. He was a remarkable soul.

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