God's calling on my life is to tell stories -- stories of His greatness, stories of how He works in and through me, stories of how He works in and through others. Over the last two years, in connection with my legal aid ministry work, God has exposed me to so many stories of His greatness that I cannot possibly tell them all. Some are stories of redemption, some of extreme grace, some of outrageous love, and some of peace that passes understanding in a time of despair. God has taught me the power of prayer, of words, of loving like Jesus. God has also exposed me to stories of unspeakable pain, shame, guilt, and sin. In getting to hear these stories, I come to understand more about who God is, and who we are in Christ.
There is one set of stories that nags at me. I can't shake them. I don't know what to do with them. They wake me up, they keep me up, they resurface, they pull, they pound. They are painful and seemingly hopeless at times. These are the stories of the undocumented immigrants who come for legal advice. I must say here that I am not a person who has any interest in politics. Literally none. I don't watch it, don't talk about it, am simply not interested in it. Politics is the last issue I would ever want to talk about at a dinner party, at my own table, or anywhere else for that matter. And, the "immigration issue" in the United States can appropriately be characterized as a polarizing political topic. My natural inclination in this situation is twofold. First, God made me in a way that I am incapable of seeing another human being, undocumented immigrants included, in any way other than in the way I see myself: in need of love, in need of grace, in need of forgiveness. Second, God made me in a way that I am utterly disinterested in political discussion, which causes me to disengage, avoid, and stay virtually silent in such discourse. When you combine these two things, you get quiet, loyal, and non-judgmental love and service, but you do not get a voice.
Until now. Something in me broke recently after I met with several clients in a row who are suffering from what I can only call: the fallout. That is, the unexpected, incidental product of our governing immigration laws. And I can no longer abide disengagement, avoidance, or virtual silence. I will be true to what God has called me to do; I will tell the stories I know; to do otherwise would be disobedient. To do otherwise would be to renounce justice and eschew the oppressed. (Isaiah 1:17) Because however just the face of our immigration laws may be, the fallout, the unexpected, incidental product of them is unjust, injustice.
[I have changed names and certain non-essential facts so as not to impinge on the privacy or confidentiality of these individuals]
Maryanne came to see me because her son, her beloved son, worked at a local restaurant and was being harassed by a co-worker. He was being called names, threatened, defamed. When Maryanne was much younger, she was married in Mexico. She got pregnant. Her husband left her. She could not provide for herself. She tried staying with family, but they could not feed themselves, let alone her and a new baby boy. So, not long after her son was born, she came to the U.S. No papers, an experience she describes to me and it scares me to know that any human went through something like that and reminds me that only a desperate person trying to save her child's life would endure what I can only call torture.
When she arrived in the U.S., though, she had no problem finding work. And her son? A-student all through school. But they are both undocumented, illegal. Now her son is out of high school, wanting to go to college. But he is "an illegal." Known now by this alone. He cannot adjust his status, he cannot, under current law, make things right. Those he works with have figured this out somehow and a woman, the harasser, believes he should not be allowed to work and threatens to turn him over to the government. She threatens to report him so he will be deported. She sends defamatory notes to people he knows, to people in the community. She calls him "an illegal." That has become his name. And the mother, broken, ashamed, embarrassed, sorrow-filled, sits before me and asks what her son can do. He has been in and out of the hospital with bleeding ulcers, digestive track problems, anxiety attacks, all resulting from the way he came to the U.S. as a baby.
His mother appears to hate herself. It is her fault. She brought him here. She is why he is "an illegal." She is like stone. She has accepted that this is her punishment for a decision she made in desperation as a young, abandoned mother. At the end of our time together, she tells me, off-handedly, that she has an inoperable brain tumor. I wonder if she will ever forgive herself.
Alberto came to see me one day because he owed about $20,000 in unpaid taxes. Alberto attempted to reach agreement to pay this amount off in installments he could afford. He told me he owed the money and wanted to pay it, but just couldn't in one lump sum. I worked out an arrangement with a couple of phone calls so he could pay it off in monthly installments. Nice and neat. Problem solved.
One day, several months later, Alberto returned, asked to see me, and we sat down together. He has deep brown eyes, calloused hands, broad shoulders. I welcomed him and asked what I could help him with that day. He took a deep breath and his proud, stiff, hard-working body started to shake. Tears filled his eyes and ran down his cheeks. I took his hand and asked him to explain when he was ready. He began by telling me that when he was 20 years old, he came to the United States illegally. Today, he is in his forties. For years, he worked, paid taxes, was a leader in his community. But he has been struggling with employment and has been unemployed for nine months. And the struggle is harder now than it was before. He is an "illegal." Known now by this alone. He cannot find work. No one will hire him. And because of his circumstances, and the current state of the law, he has no ability to adjust his status in the United States. He cannot make things right.
He shakes more as he tells me he can no longer support his family. The only way is for him and his family to go back to the town in Mexico where he is from, a place he hasn't been in years, a place his children have never known. When he told his family this was their only option for survival, his sixteen-year old daughter said she refused to go to Mexico. She was born here. She is a citizen. She has friends. She has a future. And the day before he came to see me this second time, his daughter slit her wrists and was in critical condition at a local hospital. She would survive, though. His entire being was filled with shame, with guilt, with sorrow. He said it was his fault. The decision he made at age 20 when he had no children, when just about anyone would hire him, when he felt proud to be able to provide for a future family, now haunted him, hindered him, devalued him as a man. To stay here means no work, no ability to work, no ability to provide, and to live underground, in fear. To leave means to leave his family behind.
Josephina came to see me because she had worked dozens of hours for a local hotel, in hot, suffocating conditions, without being paid. Her employer refuses to pay her as promised and refuses to pay her overtime. Her employer does this and believes it can get away with it because it believes she is "an illegal." After all, she is Mexican, works in the hotel laundry business, has not complained about her conditions before, has not complained about her lower-than-minimum-wage pay. But Josephina is here legally. She came legally. She has proper documentation. She has all the rights and privileges that accompany such status. Doesn't she? Technically. But she looks like people who are illegal. She works in a place where many of the people are undocumented. She makes little money and all that she has goes to support her family. And her employer knows all of this. So, it takes license with her rights and privileges knowing she will not raise her voice, she will not complain, she will question her own documentation. Worse yet, she will begin, and, in fact, she tells me she has begun, to believe she is not welcome here either.
I do not believe our immigration laws were designed to create a separate population of people known as "illegals." I do not believe the intent was to break up families, to punish desperate mothers and fathers for a lifetime. I do not believe that our laws were meant to make those who come legally believe that they are not welcome. But this is the fallout. And to allow it to continue is not to do justice. (Isaiah 1:17) It is not to love our neighbor. (Matt. 22:39) It is not to welcome the stranger. (Matt. 25:35) It is time to be a voice.
The DREAM Act is the first step to relieving the fallout, to doing justice, loving our neighbor, and welcoming the stranger. Read about it here. Call your senator and ask that he/she support the DREAM Act. A vote will take place Saturday, December 18, 2010.
[Check out Welcoming the Stranger, Matthew Soerens & Jenny Hwang for more information about "justice, compassion, and truth in the immigration debate." Amazon]