Our vision at g92.org is to challenge the way that the Church thinks about immigration, with the prayer that God would use this website as part of a larger movement to mobilize his people to love our undocumented neighbors. Our sense is that, to get there, we need to ground our thinking in Scripture and we also need to provide the facts about why immigration—including illegal immigration—is happening.
To spur a movement, though, we also know that we need to go beyond well-reasoned arguments. While getting the facts right is important, and we certainly must “take captive every thought” to the truth as revealed in Scripture (2 Cor. 10:5), head knowledge is not enough: until the issue has captured our hearts, until we genuinely love our undocumented neighbors as we love ourselves, it will remain just an academic exercise. If we get all the facts right, but never allow ourselves to feel the suffering that many of our neighbors live with, we risk becoming what C.S. Lewis called “men without chests,” people with heads full of reason but “defect of fertile and generous emotion.”
In a humble attempt to engage not just your head, but also your heart, we’ve designed three experiences in which you can take part. One of those experiences is something we’re calling “Become the Stranger.” We wanted to think of some mechanism to help those of us who were born as citizens of the U.S. to “walk a mile in the shoes” of someone who was not, who for one reason or another is undocumented. We’re encouraging you to literally wear a hand stamp for a day that marks you as undocumented, and then to consciously think throughout the day about how your life would be different if, for example, you were born abroad and brought to the U.S. unlawfully as a small child.
To be honest, I had a few reservations as we designed this experience. First of all, it’s just a simulation: no one’s really giving up legal status, and that means we cannot meaningfully approximate the real emotions with which those without legal status really live. Secondly, we’re not trying to imply that to be undocumented is a good and prideful thing: whereas, for example, being of a particular ethnicity is who God made you, being undocumented is a mutable status that everyone I know who is undocumented would change in a heartbeat, were the government to give them that opportunity. We’re not celebrating illegal behavior or lack of legal status: we’re simply recognizing that millions of our neighbors—including many Christian sisters and brothers—are undocumented, and asking you to think about how their lives are different than yours.
When we got our hand stamp order in last week, I decided I should put one on myself, resolving to live for 24 hours as if I were undocumented. Just after applying the stamp to my hand, I left for a meeting. While driving, I quickly noted a police officer in front of me. I watched my speedometer much more closely than I might otherwise, knowing that, as an undocumented immigrant in the State of Illinois, I would have no driver’s license to present if pulled over, so a simple traffic violation—or even if I were hit by another car, of no fault of my own—would mean a ticket of as much as $1,000 for driving without a license, having my car towed, and, very likely, being referred by the County Jail to ICE (the Immigration and Customs Enforcement), which might detain me for several months before deporting me. But, where I live in the suburbs, there just was no other option: I drove with trepidation.
That evening, my lovely fiancée Diana spotted the hand stamp and asked about it, spurring an interesting discussion. “Would you still marry me if I were undocumented?” I asked her.
“Of course,” she said, “and I’d get you citizenship.” But Diana—like many Americans—incorrectly presumed that an undocumented immigrant can “cure” his situation by marrying a US citizen. It’s not that simple. Let’s say I had been brought to the U.S. “without inspection” (illegally) as a five-year-old from Guatemala: Diana could file a petition for me, and it’d be approved, but in my case there would be no option to adjust status in the U.S. By traveling to the U.S. consulate in Guatemala for my visa interview, though, I will have triggered a ten-year bar to re-entry (by having departed the U.S. after having been unlawfully present in the U.S. for more than one year after my eighteenth birthday). We could apply for a waiver, but the odds are good that my waiver would be denied, meaning I could not legally enter the U.S. for at least ten years.
Then I thought a little bit more: the reality is that I would probably not have met Diana in the first place had I been undocumented. We met at Wheaton College as students, and, while it’s not impossible to go to college as an undocumented student, it’s rather rare. I’d not have been eligible for any federal financial aid or student loans. I also would not have been lawfully eligible to work to pay my way through college. Plus, given the reality that, even if I were able to graduate from college, I would be ineligible to work lawfully and probably end up in the same sort of low-wage job as if I hadn’t finished college, I’m not sure I would have had the motivation to try in the first place.
Though just a small simulation, my “undocumented” day has helped me to be a bit more compassionate. As I went to sleep that night, I prayed for the undocumented young people I know—and the many others like them—whose lives are so challenging.
My challenge to you would be to “become the stranger” for a day, as well, ideally with a small (or large) group from your church, college campus, or youth group. We can provide you with the hand stamps and all that you need to get started. Putting yourselves in the shoes of an undocumented immigrant does not answer the policy questions of how we respond to our nation’s immigrations problems—but it might just expand our hearts.
Matthew Soerens is the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009) and works as the US Church Training Specialist for World Relief. His blogs appear here each Monday.
Please note that the views expressed do not necessarily represent those of everyone associated with G92 or any institutions with which the blogger may be affiliated.
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