When I was a wide-eyed 19 year old who thought I could save the world, I started volunteering in a little neighborhood less than 2 miles from my college campus. This neighborhood has all the markings of an urban community: graffiti, gangs, drugs, alcohol. In my naïve mind, this was definitely a community that needed to be “saved,” and who better to save it than me…a white middle class Christian girl from the suburbs.
After a few months of getting to know the community, while tirelessly trying to save everyone I met, I decided to move into the neighborhood. As I continued to build relationships with my neighbors, I kept hearing people say things like, “I’m not going to college because I don’t have papers” or “I can’t come to teen center today because I have to give my mom a ride to work…she doesn't have a license.”
Jeez. What kind of parent doesn't have a driver’s license!? What kind of parent doesn't make sure their kids have their “papers” they need to go to college!? These people REALLY need me.
It didn't take me long to come to my senses.
The more I listened, the more I read, the more I researched, the more I realized that these parents who I thought were lazy, were actually working their tails off to provide a better life for their children. I learned how the Gutierrez family was struggling to feed their 2 young children in Mexico so they made the difficult and desperate decision to travel for days through the dessert to come to the U.S. in hopes of finding work and giving their children not only an opportunity to survive, but to thrive. When I asked why they didn't just apply for a visa, I learned that there was no visa available to them because they didn't have an American citizen or legal resident in their immediate family and they didn't have the skills that would qualify them for an employment based visa. I learned how my friend Ana’s dad was taken by immigration early on a Saturday morning and deported and how her mom and older sisters constantly live in fear of the same thing happening to them. I learned that years ago they had paid an attorney thousands of dollars to get their documents only to be a victim of fraud and be placed on a list of people to be deported. I learned that if they were to return to their home country and apply, they would trigger a 10 year bar that would prevent them from even beginning the process until they waited out the bar.
I learned that our immigration system has been poorly enforced for more than 20 years, creating a lack of respect for the rule of law. I learned that it is profoundly broken, completely outdated, and in deep need of reform. Maybe more importantly than that, I learned that I can not just “fix” my neighbors or their immigration status’. I am not capable of being the “savior” and in fact, I realized that my neighbors might have a lot more to offer me than I do to them.
The reality is that I do have a role to play in advocating for reform. As a white American, I have privilege. The most important thing I've learned through my time working and living in my neighborhood is that I have a daily choice to make. I can choose to use my privilege to be oppressive- continuing to treat people like problems to be solved- or I can use it to lift the voices of those who don’t have as much privilege as me. I did not choose to be born to white middle class American parents any more than my next door neighbor chose to be born to poor Honduran parents. There is great humility that comes in recognizing this. Eight years later, I still live in the same neighborhood and have chosen to raise my family alongside my immigrant neighbors. As I choose to engage in the suffering of my neighbors and carry their burden as my own, not because they need me, but because I need them, I invite you to come along with me.
Here are some easy ways you can educate yourself, engage in relationships with those that might be different than you, and advocate for commonsense immigration reform.
1. Learn about the complexities of our immigration system by reading Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion and Truth in the Immigration Debate by Matthew Soerens & Jenny Hwang
2. Build relationships by volunteering at a local organization that serves the immigrant community.
3. Write a letter or make a call to your congressman letting him/her know you would like them to support Immigration reform.
Bethany Anderson serves as the Immigration Initiative Director for a non-profit organization called Solidarity and the California Church Mobilizer for the Evangelical Immigration Table. She lives in the Gem District of Fullerton, Ca with her husband Matt and daughter Alivia. You can read more of her journey at www.whyifight.org.