The Toughest Words to Write

When I took my job as an immigrant rights advocate nearly two years ago, I knew it'd be tough. I would be doing this work as part of a faith organization and knowing the politics of the laity as a member this church, I would have the difficult task of not only having to convince people in power of the moral necessity and urgency of our cause, but often also have to speak to my brothers and sisters in the pews. I'd have to confront the fact that many people who share my faith do not necessarily see my whole humanity.

Recently, as Southern California and the Inland Empire specifically have become a battle ground of sorts over the implementation of SB 54 - the California Values Act - and immigrant rights in general, we've seen an uptick in people contacting our organization directly to express their opposition to our fighting on behalf of immigrant rights. On one occasion, a parishioner expressed anger over the label of "racist" being attached to what is, essentially, a racist position: conflating immigrants with criminality. Most recently, a letter was written by a parishioner who began their journey by being put off by a Mass being held bilingually and used that to launch into a tirade that made criminality an inevitability among undocumented people. And lest we be unsure what she meant, she proffered the frequency of stories involving "Mexican gangs" and reasoned that the lack of "German gangs" and "Polish gangs" and "Nigerian gangs" as evidence to her point that being unable to speak English would lead one down a path of crime.

It might surprise you to know that I'm not usually the quickest with retorts. I'm not argumentative by nature. I need time to process what I've heard before responding and, well, that doesn't usually do me any favors if someone's in my face. And, so, I usually shy away from confrontation. But I was asked to respond to these two people and I did. I'm giving you a draft that was directed to the second parishioner but encompasses words I used for both. I'm sharing this in the hope that you, Dear Reader, might find some value in them and, perhaps, could use them yourself when confronted with people that seek to dehumanize our immigrant community. The letter follows below.

 

Ms. [X],

First, I want to thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts with me and for caring so deeply about your faith. There can be no hope for change without encounter, as we’ve seen play out through the many times that Christ’s encounters left strangers changed: the woman at the well; the young rich man; on the road to Emmaus. Encounter allows for dialogue, which allows for intimacy, which allows us to step beyond the things that divide, and into a recognition of the Christ in all of us.

It is in that spirit of hopeful encounter and love that I wish to begin this discourse on immigration policy and Church teaching. First, I understand that you may find it inconvenient to be at a Mass that is told bilingually. And it can make for some awkward transitions or even lengthen the process. But the issues surrounding assimilation are not what centers the use of bilingual/multilingual settings for Masses: it’s the understanding that, for many of us participating in a Mass where the language we are most proficient in is featured, is a Mass that allows us to enter into worship more fluidly and authentically – which my reading of your letter indicates you identify with. Understanding that the Church in America is an immigrant Church and one that welcomes people from across lingual and ethnic lines means necessarily making space for people who worship best in languages other than English. 

Further, I would like to gently encourage you to reflect on the idea of assimilation as one that extends beyond the markers of language and to especially re-think the problematic assertion that the lack of language knowledge inevitably leads to criminality. The vast majority of undocumented immigrants come here for the simple reason that their families would be more secure within our borders. Sometimes running from extreme violence, poverty, or brought here for opportunities not available in their homeland, today’s immigrants bear similar stories of those that came in the 19th Century: the hope of a better life here in the United States. 

Unfortunately, they’re also subjected to the same ill-founded bias and discrimination heaped among the Irish, German, and Italian immigrants of the past. Advertisements accusing these immigrant groups of being prone to criminality existed then and are directly related to the same xenophobic rhetoric being used now. The Irish fled a famine much like Haitians have fled a nation still rebuilding from an earthquake and a subsequent hurricane. The Germans fled the conditions surrounding World War 1 (and later World War 2) in the same way that Syrians are seeking refuge from war. The Italians fled internal war and strife in the same way Central Americans from El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Honduras, are fleeing threats on their life. The reasons for leaving are parallel but the welcome is lacking.

It cannot be overstated that the perception of criminality – and the causal link with lack of assimilation – is also not unique. Study after study has indicated that immigrants are far less likely to end up in prisons than native-born people. These aren’t estimates – these are hard numbers based on reporting from the prisons themselves. And we also know that the Irish were unjustly maligned despite knowing English. It isn’t about assimilation as much as it is a mistrust of the stranger in our midst. 

Right now, our immigrant community is suffering. The fear of family separation due to immigration enforcement is real and it is debilitating. And while it may seem a simple concept to say, “well, I’m only speaking of those here without documents” nothing is ever that simple.

Within the parishes scattered throughout our Diocese – and likely even within the community at St. [X]– there are people who may be undocumented. People who are part of families. Families that have people who are documented or even citizens of this nation. What kind of justice or mercy or Christ-like love is manifest in policies and practices that might cleave that family apart because one member does not have the appropriate documents? More, what if there were no pathway for that person to achieve documented status? Fractured families are a real feature of our current immigration system and there is nothing that reflects the Gospels’ message of love and empathy in forcing a father or a mother or a sister or a brother into the impossible decision of uprooting entire lives lived here or to live permanently separated by borders.

We understand the nature of laws and do not propose to flout them, but an unjust set of laws demands reflection. In fact, Christ Himself stood in this very breach in one of the most famous scenes in scripture: the stoning of the adulteress. If you’ll recall, the woman was being chased by a mob intent on stoning her for adultery. The law at the time indicated this was justice. Christ, however, did not. So, He stood between the mob and the woman to prevent the stoning. Did He do it because she was righteous or because she had a change of heart? No. The most incredible and mystifying part of it as a people of faith – and a harbinger of His eventual sacrifice in The Passion – is that He saved her simply because we are all worth saving. He leaves her with the command of “sin no longer,” not withholding His saving for when she reconciles. Or proves herself worthy. Or until she does things the “right” way.

As an Easter People we cling to the hope of Christ’s Resurrection and seek to shine that light into the world. Undocumented people are parts of our community: ministry heads in our parishes, co-workers in our offices, neighbors on our block. They are family people looking for the security and peace you and your family seek. They are, most importantly, Children of God and among His sheep. Christ’s love does not stop at borders nor does it wait for paper work to clear. That is the job of Caesar. Christ’s love steps into the space between and leans into the encounter. Let us render that love to our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. 

In love and faithfulness,

AJ

 The Southern Border from the Mexican side. Nov. 2016. Credit: AJ Joven

The Southern Border from the Mexican side. Nov. 2016. Credit: AJ Joven