Throw away people, throw away families

None of the detainees I minister with wants to be in the detention facility where I minister. Every once in a while, though, I come across a situation that is a particularly poignant illustration of the undocumented immigrant struggle.

I was asked to consult with a detainee, we’ll call him Juan. As Juan was describing his sadness about being here, I asked him what had happened. He mentioned that he was driving, and had had a broken taillight. Because of his being stopped to address this, it was discovered that he was undocumented. He was immediately arrested.

He was arrested as he was trying to fend for his family, including a two year old and a two week old. His crime was being on the road to work and having a light out.

I just want us to think about who pays for this crime. Juan was on his way to work doing a job that no one else wanted to do. So his employer will have to hire someone else in order to get a job done. Juan will not earn revenue that would in one way or another be taxed by federal, state, and local governments. And the people of the United States pay thousands of dollars per year in order to house Juan in the detention center.

But there is also a man who can no longer provide for his family. And there is a wife who wonders how ends will meet. And there are two children who no longer have their father present. I purposely use the word “and” because the consequences of this one action ripple on and on and on.

As a nation, it seems we treat people like Juan like disposable commodities. When the good times are here and we need the labor, somehow people look the other way. But when times are tight, it seems pretty easy to throw people like Juan away: “We don’t need him anymore, so we’ll just ship him back.” And in doing so, we appear willing to throw away families, too.

I don’t pretend to have easy answers. And I am the first to affirm that laws were broken. But I truly wonder if we have thought about the consequences of throwing away Juan and his family. Because in a nation that was built on the blood, sweat, and tears of generations of immigrants, when we throw away Juan, aren’t we throwing away a little piece of our future?

Rick Barnes

Rev. Richard Barnes is an American Baptist endorsed chaplain, ministering on behalf of Church World Service in the Immigration and Refugee Program. As such, he is the Religious Services Program Coordinator at the Department of Homeland Security/Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s El Centro, California Service Processing Center (Detention Facility). Previously, he served for ten years as a missionary with American Baptist International Ministries in Mexicali, Mexico. 

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Inside Out and Back Again–by Thanhha Lai

This was a fascinating book, and unexpected. I found myself much more deeply engaged than I thought I would be when I first started reading.

While the book is fiction, it’s based on the author’s own experience of fleeing Vietnam and beginning a new life in the United States. A 2012 Newbery Honor recipient, the book is aimed at young adults but provided this particular adult an engrossing read as well.

The format is as if we’re reading ten-year-old Hà’s own short, free-verse poems documenting her life in Saigon as the Vietnam War drew closer and closer, her family’s flight to a tent city in Guam, and the eventual move to Alabama after the family is connected with sponsors there. She writes about little things like the tree in her backyard in Vietnam, to big issues like starvation on the boats, and dealing with bullies in her new school in Alabama.

Having spent several years now volunteering with members of refugee communities here in my home town and across the country, plus having grown up with a Vietnamese foster sister and brother when my own family was a sponsor family in the 1980s, I found much of this book describing what I knew to be true for new arrivals as they struggled to adjust to our culture, society, language, clothing, and so forth. But it also provided much-needed depth to my understanding as I read about Hà’s struggles with feeling beholden to others for help, to missing little details about home, like that tree, and her own anger at going from being one of the smartest kids in her class back in Vietnam to feeling “stupid” in her new school because she didn’t know the language.

The book was honest, endearing, and revealing. I’d highly recommend this for anyone–but, since it is aimed at young adults, it’s a particularly good way to help kids become more aware of global issues at the same time as they become more aware of what their classmates and friends may have experienced in their own pasts.

Inside Out and Back Again, by Thanhha Lai (Scholastic, 2012)