Tuesday, June 19, 2018

On family separation

"My daughter was 2 the last time I saw her. She is seventeen now. "

The first time I heard these words, my heart caught in my mouth.

These particular words belonged to a middle-aged woman, working diligently to learn English in my ESL class. She came to the class after long shifts at a local restaurant, cleaning tables and serving food. I had known her for several months before I even realized she had a teenage daughter. Had she never said anything? Maybe I'd never asked.

Since that first conversation, I've learned to listen more. And I have heard this story a hundred times. In a hundred different ways.

"My son is is Mexico. I haven't seen him since he was a baby."

"My girls, they grew up with their grandmother. They call me mama but they only know me as a voice on the phone."

At some point I realized, this is not just a collection of individual stories. This is THE story of our broken immigration system.

Recently, a lot of attention in the US has been given to the horrific policy of separating families seeking asylum at the border. We are all rightly horrified. And there is something uniquely horrific about witnessing our own government officials tearing apart mothers and young children and placing them in what appear to be warehouses.

But let us also recognize that our immigration system tragically separate families in more ways than this.
In the US we have created an immigration system in which it is virtually impossible for our poor and working class neighbors to immigrate to this country legally. There is no line for them, or if it exists, it is decades long. And at the same time, the US pursues international policies that gut local economies in the interest of corporations, destabilizes governments and pursues misguided "drug wars". In effect we have made it increasingly impossible for our neighbors to lead stable and secure lives in their own countries. At the same time our economy benefits from the hard labor of workers left with the only option to kiss their children goodbye and come here "undocumented". Nobody chooses that heartbreak. Not if there are other choices.

We are all responsible. Collectively we have failed to listen to the costs of an immigration system built to force a population into undocumented existence.

I don't have any easy answers. I believe that we need to change our immigration policies and our economic policies. And that is just the start. But I believe that first we must understand the true human cost of our current situation. For that, I am thankful for the outcry at toddlers being torn from their mothers. May the horror of it startle us awake. But may we not settle too easily for the myth that these are the only children separated from their parents. May we have the courage to see the story that is not just in our news feeds but all throughout our local communities. We all have people in our communities who are separated from their families, we just have to find the courage to ask.