On a return trip from visiting my mom in Texas last week, I lugged a bulging shopping bag full of home-grown vegetables through the airport security and back to Chicago. The radishes and leafy greens were nothing special to the normal observer, and probably didn’t warrant the effort of hauling them along the thousand-mile trip. But to me, the vegetables meant something more. They reminded me of my mom’s garden, which, for me, represents hope.
My mom started her garden back when my family moved into our first house after years of apartment living. Gradually, it expanded from a small bed of chives and lettuce to many sprawling plots of beans, tomatoes, melons, squashes, eggplants, chiles, and row after row of Chinese vegetables that lack English names.
In the summer of 2008, after Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials came to our home early in the morning with deportation orders for both my parents and locked up my step-dad in a detention facility, the garden fell into disarray. My mom, entangled in a mess of unpromising options to get my step-dad out of detention and to stop both their deportations, lost her sense of groundedness. She didn’t have the heart to garden when it wasn’t even certain if she would be around to reap the fruits of her toil.
The story leading up to the day we got those deportation orders is complicated. My mom, biological dad, and I emigrated to the U.S. from China when I was three. We were on our way to becoming permanent residents when my parents divorced. My mom lost the right to be included under my dad’s employer-sponsored permanent residency application. Having no other means at the time to attain permanent legal status, she outstayed her visa and became undocumented. My step-dad came into the country illegally to work, and remained that way ever since. My mom and step-dad’s deportation notices came out of the blue. It came after they married, had children, began running their own restaurant, and lived many years of everyday life. In that instant, their normal expectations of continuing to work hard at their business, save for retirement, and raise their children to adulthood together in the community they had come to call home suddenly reversed into unattainable wishful thinking.
In the gloomy months ahead, I tried my best to support my family while their world was falling apart. I remember many painful conversations with my mom, talking through the various lose-lose options. Should they give up, pack up and move the whole family back to China, losing everything they had worked for in the U.S., including the house, restaurant, and garden? That would mean starting a whole new life in a country that had undergone drastic changes in the nearly 20 years since they left. Should they stay in the U.S., funneling thousands of their savings into legal fees and try to reverse the deportation orders, while my step-dad remained confined in prison? This option meant many long months, maybe even years, of indefinite waiting, at the end of which they might still have to go back to China.
Today, we are still dealing with the aftermath of this family crisis. My step-dad was deported after nine months of detention with a 10-year bar from returning to States. My mom is still in the U.S. with my siblings and it seems she has a decent chance of becoming a permanent resident, albeit after many legal gymnastics (motioning to reopen her case, getting denied, appealing the denial, waiting 20 months for a decision to the appeal, finally getting her case reopened, waiting for a court hearing). She still has at least two more court hearings and many months of waiting ahead. The reason she struggles so hard to stay here is because she wants her children to have the education and opportunities only available in the U.S.
Life is not ideal for my family. They have undergone separation, anxious waiting, and much heartache. Many uncertainties lie ahead. But despite all that, my mom’s garden is growing again. In the months after the initial shock of receiving the deportation orders and wavering between staying or leaving, the garden stood neglected and decrepit, overgrown with weeds. Slowly though, as my mom took a chance at staying in the U.S., she began to cultivate it again. Her garden is a place where she finds refuge, where she can put out roots and welcome life even though the future is unclear, and she still does not have the legal right to call this country home.
It reminds me of God’s exhortation to the Israelites when they were in exile in Babylon: “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce” (Jeremiah 29:5).
God encouraged the Israelites to settle down and put out roots, even in the face of great loss, uncertainty, and sadness. Why? Because it is an expression of a deeper, abiding hope, based on the God’s promise of redemption and restoration (Jeremiah 10-14). It is a symbol of life and an embodied act of gratitude. It is a small way to carve a place for joy and growth and hope amidst bleak circumstances and voices crying out for violent action or impatient complaint. It says, “We will keep waiting, we will keep hoping, we will keep tilling the soil and preparing the ground, and we trust that God will grow his promises to fruition in us and through us and around us.”
Today, amidst the discouraging roadblocks to immigration reform, and the awareness of continued suffering and struggle of so many undocumented families like my own, and in an environment of toxic political rhetoric and polarized public opinion, perhaps we would do well to listen again to the words of Jeremiah to the people of Israel, and take them to heart. Let us lean into God’s promises, and not be discouraged by the long periods of waiting. Let us be inspired by the resilience of undocumented immigrants in the ways they continue to plant gardens, celebrate birthdays, serve their communities, and make the best of the life that is set before them. May their example encourage us to plant our own gardens, sowing seeds of hope, justice, understanding, and peace as we work patiently to bring about God’s kingdom. It is a place where there is room for the foreigners, exiles, and strangers in the land; for the homeless, refugees, and undocumented.
Liuan Chen Huska lives in Wheaton, Illinois with her husband, Matthew. She is a recent graduate of Wheaton College and currently works at The Christian Century magazine. She hopes to deepen her understanding of social and cultural change through researching contemporary China in graduate school.
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