I recently was listening to a morning show when they spoke about the 14 year old from Texas who claimed she was Colombian and was deported. The morning commentator chortled, “Well, she doesn’t even speak Spanish. They wouldn’t deport her; they wouldn’t do that.” To be sure, there were mistakes made. But it was not a mistake that they deport a person because they do not speak the language of the country of origin. In fact, they do it quite often.
There seems to be this misconception that deportation only involves those caught at the border or those who just arrived. There is a fair amount of that, as the busloads of undocumenteds sent to Mexicali can attest. But there is a whole other side of deportation that doesn’t come nearly as quickly to mind.
Day in and day out, I rub elbows with detainees who have been in the United States for years. A typical scenario is one in which they are one of the older children in family, but were just a baby when the family arrived from, say, Mexico, or Pakistan, or the Philippines. Later, siblings are born, but they are born in the United States. And the older ones, even though they are not U.S. citizens, become as acculturated to the United States as their American-born brothers and sisters. They speak English with a California accent, not an Indian one, or with a Texas accent, not one of Eastern Europe. To see them or hear them, you would not know the difference.
And they continue on with their lives, growing up in American neighborhoods, being educated in American schools, worshipping in American churches, shopping in American malls. They feel American, and are much more connected with the United States than with their country of birth. But often through no fault of their own they are undocumented and, as such, are subject to being deported.
As I will always concede, immigration policy is a difficult issue. It is tough to know where to draw the line: who to include, who to exclude. I was encouraged by the president’s recent announcement opening an opportunity for more to stay in the U.S. for awhile longer. I contend that it should be seen as only a temporary measure until enough courage is summoned to deal with immigration in a more thorough, systemic way.
Because our immigration policy has costs involved with it. One of the costs we bear is to our image and self- image as a nation. We see ourselves as a nation with caring and compassion. This image needs to come face to face with those touched by our laws and policies. I urge us to act on immigration with this in mind. Even though we want to pretend that we are not sending people to dire circumstances when we deport them, the reality is that we do it all the time.
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.