People have asked me why I am so taken with the undocumented immigrant. There are law-abiding people who need your help, they say.
Why do the stories of the undocumented immigrants touch the deepest parts of my soul? Why do I remember their stories more vividly than all the others I have heard in my work at the Willow Creek Legal Aid Ministry? Why is it that I can still see the eyes of the undocumented immigrants when I close mine? Why do their stories, so different from mine, seem like part of my own story? After all, I grew up downtown Chicago in a upper-middle class white family. I have never gone without anything I need. I attended the best schools and enjoy any number of privileges. The undocumented immigrants I have met have experienced a very different kind of life, one with very little schooling, if any, and even less privilege.
Mario grew up poor, in a tiny village in Mexico. At age 16, his alcoholic father disowned him because he was not “manly” enough. His father beat him and told him to leave and never come back. He even told the corrupt local police to arrest Mario if he was ever found near the house again. He was told to leave and never come back. So, one night in the darkness, Mario crossed the border illegally into the United States, a place he had heard about since he was a kid. Now, four years later, he wants to become “legal” so he can go to college.
Louisa is a single mom who, along with her two kids, lives with friends. She left Mexico because she had no way to support herself and the kids after her husband left them. They were smuggled into the United States, hidden in a dark, suffocating truck bed. She came to the Legal Aid Ministry asking what to do about the traffic ticket she received. She had failed to come to a complete stop at a stop sign and was also cited for having had her youngest strapped into a too-small car seat, a car seat she was able to afford only because a neighbor had put it out on the curb as garbage.
Leo dreamed of coming to the United States for better work. So he did, but without working through the normal, legal process. The prospects here were just too tempting. Now, twenty years later, he has a wife and two kids, each of whom is a citizen. But he lost his job and can no longer provide for his family. He wants to know what his options are for citizenship or residency.
Despite our vast apparent differences, the expression of hope I saw on Mario’s face is etched into my brain. Louisa’s heartbreak feels like my own. Leo’s desperation seems familiar to me. Why? Why can I not turn away? Why do I love Mario, Louisa, and Leo? Because when I look at them, I feel like I am looking into a mirror.
I have been undocumented. And there was nothing I could do to bring myself into compliance with the law. No amount of paperwork or legal arguments would secure my citizenship. I had broken the law and the longer I lived, the more laws I broke. Sometimes I felt justified by the circumstances, which were beyond my control. Sometimes, I was just too tempted and gave in to the prospects. At times, it was as if certain laws were enacted just for me to break them. So incapable was I to remedy my situation that someone else had to intervene on my behalf – to the point of death on a cross, nails through the wrists, blood running freely. All of this when what I deserved was to be deported, sent away, never to be reclaimed.
Instead, I received eternal citizenship and an all-access pass. So how can I tell the undocumented immigrant, “I can’t help you because you broke the law”? How can I say, “You’ll have to just figure this one out on your own”? How can I feel anything but compassion? How can I turn away?
Why am I so taken with the undocumented immigrant? Because I have encountered the grace of God and it has brought me to my knees.
(See this post on undocumented.tv also! http://bit.ly/nqyU9W)