As the immigration debates have heated up in national politics recently, I’ve noticed a disturbing inhumanity in the language used to talk about these people. Let me emphasize the word we should use: people. I grew up in a small town in Colorado with a relatively high number of immigrants from Mexico in its population. My high school friends used to joke about them. For example, in an American History class our teacher started listing statistics. After she gave the number of illegal immigrants living in Western Colorado, one student whose family owned a fruit ranch near town interjected, “And half of ’em work for me!”
I had a few Mexican friends in high school, but for the most part stayed within the boundaries of the social segregation that was assumed in my hometown. After finishing school at the University of Colorado, though, I worked in a grocery store where half of my coworkers were Mexican, and many, if not most, of them were undocumented immigrants. Through the little bit of Spanish I learned in high school and the little bit of English they learned in the workplace, we talked, learned each others’ stories, and came to share profound amounts of respect for each others’ lives.
One of my supervisors had worked multiple fast food jobs, supporting a wife and kids on that thin wage for over a decade before finally getting the better job at our grocery store. Another man never learned much more English than “how can I help you” and “thank you very much”, but was the hardest worker in the department and supported his wife and kids on that slim wage as well. Yet another man sought to continue climbing the ladder by applying for a promotion to “coffee-specialist”, and even though he knew the job and the product inside and out, couldn’t get the job because he didn’t speak enough English.
Then came the month where the store did a “social security audit” verifying the SSNs of all their employees. Some numbers, of course, came back with problems. To protect the company, many of my friends were let go gracefully, given two months to find another job rather than being fired immediately. The man who was my trainer told me with tears in his eyes, “We all know this happens. It is sad. But we will find other jobs.” He started looking for work in construction, others went to landscaping, and still others back to fast food. Their lives were uprooted, the relationships they’d built destroyed, and their years of hard work wiped away.
Seeing their pain and their struggle, their efforts to make a living, to provide for their children, and still have money to send back to family in Mexico, makes an impression. It is easy to talk about “illegal immigrants” the way the newspapers do. But when you’re talking about mis amigos de esa tienda de abarottes, you realize they are real people.
Maybe that’s why I got so upset with the “letters to the editor” in the newspapers today: A previous article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette had pointed out that our European ancestors were illegal immigrants when the Mayflower washed ashore. An astute point. Today a local woman responded by writing “The [Native] culture was nearly destroyed in the process and thousands were killed through disease and a genocidal cleansing of land. . . . We should remember what happens to a people who don’t [sic] control their borders to illegal immigration.” Grammatical idiocy aside, this woman was insensitive enough to suggest that these people would bring disease and genocide to American culture! Another example: In a recent letter to the editor in my hometown newspaper, The Delta County Independent, a man likened immigrants to “a truckload of worms that has been progressively multiplying for decades.”
Immigrants are not worms. They are not here to destroy our country. They are here because they are real people, seeking real ways to support their families, and trying to give their children a better life.
Now add to this basic human right the theological truths that we Christians believe: Abraham was an alien in a foreign land, as were the Israelites in Egypt and later in captivity in Babylon. In the Incarnation, Jesus Christ came as a foreigner to our level of humanity. Since Christ came, Christians have recognized that we are all aliens in a strange land, not at home until we arrive in heaven. We are, in St. Augustine’s terms, the City of God dwelling within the City of Man. The letter of First Peter opens by calling us “strangers in the world”. How can we, strangers in the world, blessed by the immigrations of our spiritual forbearers, deny justice to immigrants in our own nation today?
Think on the words of Malachi 3:5 (NIV): “So I will come near to you for judgment. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive aliens of justice, but do not fear me,” says the LORD Almighty.