I knew very little about immigration when I met my husband. I’d grown up in the Bible Belt South, and it always seemed like a faraway issue that didn’t really affect me. I had general ideas that sneaking across the border wasn’t a good idea. But mostly I liked exploring cultures and thought legal immigration was beneficial. When asked about the topic in a job interview, I summed up my stance this way: “I don’t really know much about it. But if I had to choose between a closed border or an open border, I’d lean toward more open.” That was the extent of my immigration knowledge.
When I started dating Billy, who is from Guatemala, he made two confessions early on. One, he had come to the States to participate in an international singing contest and had been the lead singer in a hardcore Spanish, Christian rock band. And two, though he had entered the country legally and via airplane, he had overstayed his visa and was now an undocumented immigrant. He also informed me that his only pathway to legal status was to marry a U.S. citizen. If you think that’s an awkward conversation to have in the first months of dating, well, you’d be exactly right.
My learning curve was steep. Though I grew up in church, I don’t recall ever hearing any sermon or really even any biblical exploration on immigration. I’d read verse after verse about welcoming the stranger, but never really connected the dots to current events. I was more likely to picture someone sitting alone in the high school cafeteria when I read about “the stranger” before considering a migrant farm worker from El Salvador.
This disconnect meant I’d learned everything I knew about immigration from overheard conversations, snippets of radio pundits, and high school history classes. Thus my uninspiring mix of “I like people from other cultures” and “You should come the right way.” When I fell in love with Billy, I learned a whole lot very fast about immigration in the United States and about my faith.
For starters, I learned there was no magical line for him to stand in, like I’d originally thought. In fact, when he first told me he was undocumented, I assumed it was a paperwork issue. Like he hadn’t taken the time to go to the DMV and renew a driver’s license. I figured he just needed to set aside some time during the workweek and “handle it.” In fact, that is essentially the process for Americans who overstay Guatemalan tourist visas in Guatemala.
What I didn’t know is that legal immigration from a poor country is virtually impossible. Some families begin the application process for their infant children in hopes they may be welcomed by the time they’re adults. But there’s no clear process or system. And too much can depend on if the agent who picks up your application enjoyed his morning coffee. In fact, my mother-in-law was denied a visa two times to attend our wedding, but was issued one eight years later through the same process.
Through Billy, I met more and more undocumented friends living and working in Los Angeles. I quickly discovered not everyone crosses the border walking through the desert like I’d learned from Hollywood. Many, like my husband, arrive with tourist or other visas (legal documentation), but don’t leave at the appointed time for various reasons. And I recognized that while crossing the border or overstaying a visa is breaking the law, it doesn’t mean anyone who does it is a habitual lawbreaker. Many worry about their situation daily and hate that they felt it was their only option.
The rule of thumb for visas is “Blood, Sweat, or Tears.” In other words, you must be related to a U.S. citizen, sponsored by a U.S. company, or able to provide proof your life is in danger should you stay in your home country. But many experiencing the crushing poverty or life-threatening violence of their homelands are compelled to seek opportunities in the United States, but feel they have no legal pathways to do so. Still, stereotypes and rumors I’d often heard—smuggling guns and drugs, not paying taxes, stealing jobs, and so on—simply didn’t hold up when I met real people. Most had come to do honest work and were doing just that.
The lesson that took up residence in my heart after engaging immigrants, though, was the true meaning of compassion. Too often we confuse compassion with pity or empathy or a desire to help. But compassion is actually much different. Henri Nouwen writes:
The word compassion is derived from the Latin words pati and cum, which together mean “to suffer with.” Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human. When we look at compassion this way, it becomes clear that something more is involved than a general kindness or tenderheartedness.
When Billy and I married, immigration seemed to impact every area of our lives. I worried as my husband drove massive construction equipment all over Southern California without a valid driver’s license, fearing the smallest driving infraction could lead to deportation. We changed plans—including relocating our wedding from Kentucky to California—when it became clear there was no safe way for Billy to travel. We were cautious in our relationships, measuring responses and changing the subject. In short, Billy had been living in the shadows. And now I was living in the shadows with him. I was suffering with in an entirely new way I’d never experienced. And while it paled in comparison with some of the suffering we heard from other undocumented friends, it was new to me, and it was painful.
Years after we were married and able to resolve Billy’s immigration status, a woman who’d been through a similar ordeal told me I would soon forget about immigration now that our story had ended. And I feared she might be right. After all, passion for social justice “issues” can unfortunately become “fad-ish” or ebb and flow as life pushes our attention elsewhere. I worried that my concern for immigrants would eventually be eclipsed by bills and babies, deadlines and duties. So we decided to stay active in immigration advocacy and engagement. A few years back, I traveled to Washington, D.C., to speak up for comprehensive immigration reform. And Billy and I have also led members of our church to visit immigrants held in detention. We write and speak about the subject regularly.
Because suffering with people we love imprints our soul in a different way than caring about an issue. Relationships and compassionate experiences lodge themselves in our hearts. I will never forget those moments of insecurity and loneliness while we navigated the immigration system. And I hope I never do. Those experiences are what have sown my compassion for immigrants walking that same journey. May we all pay attention to the areas where God is awakening our compassion.