Tuesday, September 23, 2014

From ‘Strangers’ to Friends

On September 12th, a group gathered for a screening of the documentary The Stranger: Immigrants, Scripture, and the American Dream. The film especially targets evangelical audiences that might be among the most likely to oppose immigration reform on political grounds, asking them instead to consider the issue as Christians.

Although its evangelical language did not speak to me, the film’s broader content very effectively put a human face on the immigration problem through the stories of three families.

Story #1: A Mexican woman had come to the US as a teenager without authorization and had lived and worked here for many years. Things unraveled for her after she suffered domestic violence at the hand of her partner. She reported him to the police and fled to a shelter with their four children. Her partner was deported and threatened to kill her if she ever returns to Mexico. Her children were born in the US and are citizens here, and so she has tried to raise them on her own, but struggles to hold things together working as a housekeeper. She and her children live with the constant fear that she will be pulled over and deported any time she drives the car. What will happen to these kids if they lose their one parent, and what will happen to their mother if she returns to a country where her life is in danger?

Story #2: A Chinese woman came to the US with her mother and father when she was very young, but then lost her father while he was still in the process of sponsoring the others for green cards. Suddenly, the girl and her mother fell out of legal status in a place where they had been building their lives. Her mother remarried a good man who had come to the US to work but who also had no legal status, and he became a father to the girl and an economic partner for a restaurant business that supported the family. Then, as the young woman was starting college on scholarship, her stepfather was apprehended and deported with no warning and no appeal process. He remains in China apart from his family, and her mother had to close the restaurant, unable to run it on her own.

Story #3: A highly-skilled, educated couple from South Africa had worked for years in the US on temporary work visas, then suddenly were informed that their visas had been renewed too many times and that they would need to leave. They applied for permanent residency (a green card), but had their applications denied, despite letters of support from various government officials. They ended up spending months in limbo abroad while they petitioned for a special visa, in a wait that they estimate cost them about a quarter million dollars in lost earnings and expenses by the time it was finally approved. Even then, their daughter would lose her status as soon as she finished college, since she was no longer a dependent.

One of the lasting messages of the film is that the immigration system can be an amoral, capricious, bureaucratic mess that wreaks havoc on people’s lives and families. How is it that a woman who has four citizen children and who would be in danger of her life if she leaves the country cannot qualify for any kind of legal status in the US? How can the system deport breadwinners without concern for the well-being of the family that remains? How can they separate families or suddenly yank the rug out from under people who have built their lives here for many years? Why is it so hard for people to enter the country legally or to maintain a legal status over time?

The film doesn’t offer insight into what kinds of things could be fixed in the system in order to make it more humane, but it certainly lights a fire that something needs to change. Our immigration laws have been patched together in a highly political environment, and they do not make sense as good policy. So far, Congress has not been willing or able to pass any legislation that would ease the burdens of families like those above, and we need to continue to press for that reform.

In the discussion afterwards, we moved from a sense of outrage at the system to practical questions about how we can respond to the needs of immigrant families. The immediate impulse is to engage in acts of charity and assistance, which is certainly necessary at times, such as when an immigrant family finds themselves in San Diego without furniture or any idea of how to shepherd children through the school system.

However, what we ultimately need to do is to build bonds of community and friendship so that immigrants in our midst are no longer strangers, but friends. The care that happens among friends enriches our lives as well as providing a net and resources for any of us that need it.

One step in this direction is to build connections between the English- and Spanish-speaking congregations at St. Paul’s. Another would be to build connections between St. Paul’s and other congregations in San Diego that serve various immigrant communities. What other steps can you imagine?

Kristen Hill Maher

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