Last Saturday a group of us gathered for a workshop on immigration. In putting together this workshop I was reminded of the vast amount of statistical data, research, legislation, and history that exists concerning the topic of immigration in the U.S.
There is estimated to be 12 million undocumented immigrants in the States. I say estimated because if a person is residing here without documentation of citizenship, he or she is not going to raise their hand to be counted in a census. Two to three million of the undocumented are children. A great number have been in the U.S. for more than five years. In fact, there are children who have never known any home other than the U.S.
Statistics are necessary to understanding the breadth, depth, and manner of an issue but numbers don’t wear a face. Numbers do not tell of joy or suffering and it is people with their unique experiences and stories that touch the heart and remind us of what it means to be human. The goal of this workshop was to give voice to those stories and to gain a more intimate understanding of the human aspect of the immigration issue.
Fourteen people came together to tell their stories: recent immigrants with personal experience and a few whose immigration stories go back to the 18th or 19th century. Several countries were represented in our group: El Salvador, Nigeria, Ethiopia, India, China, Nicaragua, the Philippine Islands, Italy, Germany and Ireland. We heard stories of fleeing from war and poverty and of the adversities and sorrows of having to leave one’s homeland in search of a better future for one’s family.
We began by discussing the impact of using the term “illegal” versus “undocumented.” It is easy to forget that words have power to injure, to heal, to shape opinion and even behavior. If I am referred to by legislation, popular opinion and by the media as an “illegal” does mean I am actually a criminal? If I am in this country out of desperation to save my children from dying of malnutrition, should I be detained and deported? Does the label of criminal shape how the other members of society view me? Would that label shape the way I in turn view the community around me?
An old phrase that gets tossed around is “The American Dream,” the definition of which means different things to different people. To the recently immigrated definitions like “unity”, “acceptance”, “community”, and “equal opportunity” were voiced. Those intangible concepts were not part of my understanding of the term growing up during the early 1960s in California. That phrase calls to my mind “a chicken in every pot and 2 cars in every garage”, automated appliances, swimming pools, a 5,000 square foot house, summer vacations, boats and a perfectly manicured lawn. I have seen both definitions expressed in our country, in pockets, but not on a wide scale and I wonder if my definition of the term sets a bar that few, particularly immigrants, will ever realize. Furthermore, should it be realized? Is achievement of this understanding of the American Dream really bringing anyone true happiness? The consensus in the group was that the American Dream is just that, a dream and was not rooted in reality in the 50s and 60s nor is it now.
Discussion also included feelings of being welcomed by neighbors and new friends upon arrival in the U.S. as well as feelings of being unwanted. In examining pictures from Ellis Island early in the 20th century, we reviewed stories of our grandparents who were forced to adopt a new culture, a new language, and sometimes even a new name in order to find work and support the family. Just because generations before us suffered, do we need to make future generations follow in their footsteps?
A gentleman from El Salvador fled the civil war and poverty to come to the U.S. as a refugee and has encountered the same poverty here. He spends his days working several jobs and also helps other immigrants to become assimilated to the culture and way of life in the U.S. He struggles like generations of immigrants have. As a society that wishes to advance, don’t we have an obligation to work to lessen the sufferings of future generations?
From a faith and social perspective the issue of immigration in the U.S. is not black and white. We struggled with our responsibilities as Christians to follow God’s law (one of love and acceptance) with our responsibilities as citizens to obey the law of the land. Several scripture passages from the Hebrew Scriptures, the Christian Scriptures, and the Quran were examined that reveal God encourages us to welcome the stranger, for to do so “some have entertained angels.” Since the beginning of time, humans have migrated around the world; it is part of the human experience. Where does our responsibility lie in cases where the law of the land conflicts with the law of God?
Recognizing our desire to be as one with each other and with the stranger, we created a representation of interconnectedness with symbols on the floor of our work space. Sometimes it’s easier to say things with symbols than with words. Participants chose flags, pictures, wrote family names on cards to represent their particular heritage, history, and family experience and placed them on a cloth with a globe in the center. We left the workshop with a new motivation to express a spirit of welcoming to whomever we should encounter and to speak up when we witness oppression and injustice. This is what God has called us not only to do but to be: God’s feet and hands and love in our world.