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?
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.