Last year my wife and I left suburban NJ for Brooklyn, NY. On a map they seem so close; it’s only in person that you realize how different they really are. Like any immigrant, I looked at my surroundings with different eyes than the locals, and, like many immigrants, it was the differences in the details that I found most jarring – those little things you did correctly your whole life before the rules suddenly changed. Little things like parking.
Like a good suburbanite, parking was something I took for granted. All houses came with garages or at least a driveway and all stores came with parking lots. Looking for a parking spot was an annoying anomaly, something reserved for the mall at Christmas-time. Parking laws were obvious and reasonable, and it never occurred to me to break them. I remember scoffing at people who complained about parking tickets – what did they expect, breaking rules just to cut a block off of their walk or a few minutes off of their trip? The only time I thought about parking was when others did it wrong. On those rare trips into the city , dodging double- and triple-parked trucks, taxis that suddenly stopped in my lane, and buses that pulled out without warning, I would rail against those idiots who were seemingly incapable of common decency. No punishment seemed too severe. What part of the law didn’t they understand?
Then I moved to Brooklyn, into an apartment without a garage, and I quickly came to terms with the reality of a city with more cars than places to put them. What I had never realized before is that following the parking laws could be so painfully inconvenient. Was I really going to drive around for 45 minutes looking for a spot with my rapidly defrosting groceries, then walk the one mile round trip from car to apartment three times to unload everything? Well, no, I wasn’t. I was going to double-park in front of the apartment while I unloaded my groceries just like everyone else. The amount of time and effort that would be wasted if everyone in Brooklyn followed the parking laws is incalculable, and the police know it as well as anyone: tickets for reasonable parking violations are rare.
I grew up with a surprisingly similar view on immigration. I followed the laws about where I was allowed to live and never once tried to sneak across a border. If you were silly enough to break a law as obvious and reasonable as that, how could you complain about the consequences?
Since then, I’ve studied immigration law and, more importantly, come to know immigrants. Now I see visa quotas that give preferential treatment based on birthplace, education, and net worth, even though we look back on past generations’ “undesirables” as the foundation of our country. I see an immigration system that refuses to provide employment visas even when businesses need workers and workers need jobs. I see people who qualify for visas but have been waiting in line for as long as I’ve been alive. I see promising young Americans thrown out of the only country they’ve ever known because their parents broke a law 20 years ago. I see people who had a choice between breaking the law and feeding their family, and I wonder what decision I would make if that was my life. I see people who fled persecution in their country, fearing for their lives and those of their family, and I wonder if I would have stayed. I see deportations and visa quotas tearing apart families, and I wonder if I would choose to follow the law or see my children.
I also see that it took me a matter of days to abandon my moral stand on following parking laws when those laws seriously inconvenienced me. And nearly everyone around me—people of every ethnicity, income level, background, vocation, and religion, law-abiding in nearly every other circumstance—does the same.
My current spree of lawlessness does not somehow excuse or justify illegal immigration, but it does remind me that we have a God who knows us in all our folly. His word exhorts us to pay special attention to the powerless and vulnerable, because social realities that are innocuous to those at the top can crush those at the bottom. It tells us to bear each other’s burdens, because we’ll never understand the way people act until we’ve faced their obstacles. It warns us not to judge, because most of us only follow the law because it was written to benefit people like us. There is a reason that He treats us with grace and forgiveness, because we all sin, constantly. Yet, He reached out to us and sent his son to show us love, fix our messes, and bring us back into the family. And he asks us to do the same. During this Advent season let us remember the gift God has given and the implications for how we treat others.
Ben Johnson is the Assistant Director of Immigrant Hope, a program of the Evangelical Free Church of America that mobilizes and equips churches to care for the legal, physical, and spiritual needs of immigrants in their community. He lives in Brooklyn, NY with his wife and newborn son.
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