The Answer To A 23-Year Prayer

My last couple of posts have been about immigration, which longtime readers of Prevailing Winds will recognize as one of the things most important to me.  I say “things” because it’s not simply a political issue or point of policy for me, but something of such personal, biographical, emotional significance to me that discussing it here is difficult — just as living through the last couple of decades of its being played out in our country has been wrenching for me.

But why?  I mean, I’m an Anglo woman, born in the United States and secure in her citizenship, personally unthreatened by even the most draconian, restrictive, bigoted immigration laws enacted by Arizona, my home state, or any other state.  I travel freely; I live less in the shadows than virtually anyone I know.  And while I’m not a Libertarian — believing, as I do, that it’s better to hold my own rights with a loose hand so that I can fight more easily for yours — I recognize that my status on this earth, in this country, right here in this state, is forever unquestioned.  The reason for this, of course, is pretty simple, and it still doesn’t explain why the legal and moral issue of immigration is so intensely personal to me.  I hope to make it clear in the paragraphs below, but it’s necessary first that I establish one “why” before I develop the “why” that follows.

The initial “why” — why I’m undeniably, unchangeably secure in my citizenship, and why that’s not the case with so many people I know well and love dearly — is quite simply this:  My mother’s uterus was located an hour north of, not south of, the U.S./Mexico border on November 2, 1960, so when I emerged from it, I emerged with a lifetime full of advantages that began to take effect immediately.  Sixty miles south of St. Mary’s Hospital in Tucson, Arizona, was across the border; the baby girl born there in the early morning hours of that day came into a world entirely different, utterly unlike my own in ways so stark in their differences that the ramifications would continue six decades later, until each of our deaths, and likely for decades beyond.

I was born in the United States, then, to parents who, like their own parents, were also born here.  I’m not “American” because of my Anglo-Irish-Polish whiteness, although it’s sometimes seen that way, but because I came from Americans, and the maternal one stayed on this side of the border to give birth to me.  Other than committing the most egregious act of treason imaginable, nothing I do can threaten what I am by birthright, and the security of being born here and not there was not only the first of innumerable advantages given to me, but the key that unlocked the “birthright treasury” from which these privileges and advantages, all unearned, have been and are applied to me daily.  The girl born to the mother on the Mexican side of the border has her own citizenship, of course, but the treasury from which the blessings and privileges in her life spill out is limited.  She knows it, and she knows how different her life is from mine, and she knows why that is.  If she’s a believer, she worships God anyway.

Like my sister in Mexico, I, too, worship God, although my thanksgiving is more likely to be “because of” and not “in spite of” — I thank God for my being an American with an eye more familiar than most with the differences between the relative riches of my American-ness and the poverty that dogs her Mexican-ness.  But here is where my not being a Calvinist plays out:  I don’t consider the difference in her paucity of fortune and my abundance of fortune as a simple, unremarkable example of God’s providence, a kind of foreordination as sure as his decree of salvation or reprobation.  I don’t consider that my security and prosperity are part of the great script of the Almighty’s decretal mysteries, and I can’t consider that my Mexican sister’s vulnerability and poverty are sovereign sub-plots within those mysteries.  My God is a God of justice; he may set people within geographic or national boundaries (Acts 17) so that they may more easily find him, but I think he decries the unfair re-establishment of those national boundaries and takes offense at the arbitrary, violence-borne, man-made laws that favor some and curse others.  I don’t believe that God soteriologically favors some and curses others; neither do I believe he turns a blind eye toward those who use violence and subterfuge to favor some and curse others by the gobbling up of sovereign nations in the past and encouraging policies in the present that keep wealth in the hands of the few and spread poverty with remarkable generosity to the masses.

To put it simply:  I believe God is grieved by the injustices that result in such tremendous disparities — that clamp down at the border the pipeline of rights and riches enjoyed by some and denied to others — and I think he wants those of us who benefit from injustice to speak and work for the rights of those oppressed by it.  Particularly when they’re children, and when the adults who put them in harm’s way aren’t the parents who brought them along when they immigrated to the U.S. without the proper documentation, but the white, privileged, powerful men and women in politics who use their opposition to the Dream Act and other “breaks for illegals” as candy to woo their most hateful supporters.

The parents who brought their kids over, some as infants and toddlers, others as grade-schoolers, wanted nothing but a better life for their children — a life not simply absent the violence and poverty that mark the majority experience in Mexico, but a life with opportunities that would demand commensurate responsibilities if attained.  Most of you know that I worked on my own, with the Lord’s strength and Jeff’s support, with undocumented workers in Monroe, Snohomish, and Duvall, Washington — an area of dairy farms, factories, and agricultural, construction, and landscaping opportunities that saw a huge upturn in the number of immigrants during my work from 1989 ’til 2001.  My motto was SERA’, which is Spanish for “it will be” and stood for Service, Empowerment, Relationship, and Advocacy.  It was the best time of my life, and I met people who are still dear friends of mine today.

In the course of teaching English, distributing Bibles, translating, counseling, and befriending these hardworking immigrants, almost all from Mexico and here without papers, I got to know scores of children who came here with their moms and dads as little kids — children who later became big sisters and big brothers to their American-born siblings and who lived their lives in fear of being deported back to a country they no longer knew.  Their parents took enormous risks in bringing them over; you and I might question the wisdom of making our children “illegals,” but you and I, as Americans, have never and will never face the crushing set of circumstances that gave rise to their decisions.  Further, you and I know that whatever our circumstances, our childrens’ futures are theirs to build or throw away.  They will either come to maturity valuing their citizenship and acting responsibly within their communities, or they’ll treat as insignificant the enormous advantages they’ve been given and become unproductive, unmotivated, and unappreciative.

But if you’re an immigrant parent, you’ll likely have instilled in your children an appreciation of hard work, the inestimable value of education, and the responsibilities expected of you by your community — and you’ll have known, before last week, that the born-in-America advantages their siblings, neighbors, and school friends enjoy are not available to your immigrant child.  You’ll have heard the bigot’s old, reliable creed:  That you came here to take jobs away from Americans, none of whom you’ve ever seen working a 15-hr. split shift at the dairy or living in a filthy travel trailer provided as a “housing allowance” by the guy who owns the farm where you work; that you’re a drain on the social safety net, even though you’ve been afraid to take advantage of programs like WIC for your American-born younger children and, moreover, that you’ll never see in your old age the return on what’s taken out of your paycheck every two weeks; that you’re a lawbreaker and an evildoer, even if your “crime” was to move Heaven and Earth to get your family out of its Hell; and that your people are a threat to the American way of life, which puzzles you because your children consider themselves American and you love this country whose leaders seem so intent on hating you.  You long to become an American; more than that, you ache to see your children have the chance to go to college, or serve in the military, or work in their neighborhoods as cops and firefighters and community leaders, and maybe even run for office themselves.

And you’ll have lived with the guilt of making the best of two difficult choices, knowing that in doing so, you’ve consigned your children to a life that, while ultimately safer, is bereft of the advantages of the native-born and also contains the fear, way back in the furthest part of your mind, that you’ll all be sent back — and that they know nothing of living in Mexico.  You’ll work harder than a human being was ever meant to in the hope that you did the right thing for your children, and when they tell you they can’t go to college, no matter how gifted they are, you’ll have wept tears of impotent frustration.

President Obama’s decree last week will change that, over the hysterical cries and wounded laments of the mouthpieces for bigotry who keep the GOP going.  Young people won’t be forever held hostage by the decisions made for them as infants and children by parents driven by desperation and need.  Without even thinking terribly hard, I can come up with the names of two dozen young people I know who will benefit from this, and if I think, pray, and check my old class notes, that number would likely triple — or quadruple.  And every one of these young people are as loved by their parents as my own children are by me; every one of them deserves the rights from having grown up in the United States as my kids have from having been born here.  Enactment of a program like this has been on my prayer list since I first began teaching English in December 1989.  It’s been a long, grueling, two-decades-plus wrestling match with the Lord in prayer, pleading for justice for my friends and others in their shoes.  People I know and love now have a measure of safety in their lives that gives them some of the privileges easily held and entirely unearned by the American-born young people I know, and I believe that the Lord Jesus, in his own time, is pleased to bless our nation in this.  As for me, I’m rejoicing in the answer to a prayer that pours justice and opportunity out on scores of my young friends, and I look forward to good things from them in response. 

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