By Faith Hohman
Greenville University has prepared me for a lot of things. My professors have taught me how to ask great questions and produce really great work. They have consistently pushed me to pursue my “calling.” However, they did not prepare me to survive this calling.
I have always had what are considered to be extremely liberal views on immigration. I have proudly sported a “No Human is Illegal” sticker on my laptop for the entirety of my time at GU. I sported these “liberal” views, but before starting my internship in Washington, DC, I probably could have counted on two hands the number of immigrants with whom I actually interacted. I probably could not have named a single undocumented person that I knew. My views were abstract, and they came in the forms of Twitter retweets and attending marches (but only if they worked out with my schedule). I approached the “issue” of immigration with such privilege. I could opt out at any moment.
When I took a position at Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights (CAIR) Coalition, I had absolutely no idea what to expect. I do not speak Spanish, so I had never really considered pursuing a career in immigration law. This internship was a complete wild card. I see everything differently after working at CAIR. I spoke with immigrants and their families every day. I attended immigration court proceedings. I saw the inside of an ICE Detention Center — more than once. At no point in this process did I sense justice. If those of us who call ourselves Christians are supportive of the current immigration system, I would argue we are kidding ourselves if we believe any part of this process is honoring to the Imago Dei. The main arguments I see on both sides go down to the heart of this issue. Are we more concerned about the economic impact of a person, or are we more concerned about the person?
While I was at an ICE detention center in Virginia, I met a man. I met several men, hundreds probably. The facility I was at housed over 700 people, and due to the nature of work CAIR does, we see anyone who would like to come out. However, I will tell just one story. There are hundreds I could tell, and hundreds that deserve to be told, but this is one that stuck with me in particular. For the sake of confidentiality, let’s call him Juan. I walked up to Juan and gave my speech about CAIR, and I asked him if he spoke English. He told me no; “Español, por favor.” I looked around for help, and there was none. I told him my Spanish was horrible, but that I would try my best. After he spoke about his immigration journey and told me I was “muy bonita,” I started struggling to understand what he was saying. He was talking very fast, and my Spanish is just not very good. I was helpless and extremely stressed because we do not get a lot of time with each dorm. I did not want my inadequacies to hinder his assistance. Juan stopped, and he looked me in the eye and in near perfect English stated “We can do the rest of this in English if you want. Thank you for trying.” I chuckled. I was embarrassed. My Spanish was horrible, and I am so much more comfortable when I do not have to use it. If he spoke English, why did we have to go through that?
I think back to this story quite often. Juan was so similar to every other 20-something year old man I had ever met. It felt so obvious in that moment that the only thing separating me from him was an abstract border. The thing is, though, nothing was separating us in that moment. We were the same. If our circumstances were different, we would be friends. With reflection, I have come to the realization that that specific moment probably meant much more to Juan. Most of the ICE guards in that detention facility do not speak Spanish. The immigrants in Virginia do not have the right to attend their court processes, and the interpreter is in the courtroom rather than at the detention facility with the immigrant, making communication very difficult. There are not many non-detained people in Juan’s life who are genuinely trying to communicate with him. Why is it that we demand so much from people while offering so little?
My work at CAIR is filled with emotions. I cannot do much for the people I meet. I cannot even guarantee Juan any help at all. I am just an intern, but I do my best in every conversation I find myself in to honor the humanity of the person in front of me and to try to love them as best as I can. More than both of these things though, I believe them. I believe the stories they tell me without any pushback. Immigrants spend a majority of their time in the United States simply justifying their existence. They have to prove their worth at every single turn, and I refuse to let this be the case when they are speaking with me. Jesus has never asked me to justify my existence. Frankly, I would not be able to do it. Who could? Christianity is based in undeserved grace. Why are we so unwilling to give this out in any other context?
I am utterly uncomfortable watching a system deny so many people their basic humanity day in and day out, but I am left confused and hopeless most nights. What power do I have to change a system? This question feels impossible to answer, and it is because I cannot answer it by myself. I was not meant to. The church is a powerhouse, and colleges and universities pave the way to the future. What would happen if everyone just decided that these dehumanizing policies were not good enough for us anymore? What if we shook off the chains of fear and hopelessness and lived in the free-of-charge grace we have been extended, and maybe even began to extend it to other people?
I wish that I was filled with kindness and compassion towards people who are ignorant about the immigration system. Not so long ago, I was completely ignorant myself. I wish I had it in me to sit down and have coffee with as many people as I could who have oppositional beliefs toward the immigration process, but the truth is I am tired. Greenville University taught me how to love my neighbor really well, but I am struggling with the number of neighbors with whom I am in contact. I spend my entire day showing love to immigrants and their families. I hear their stories, and I try to be strong for them. I try to bring them some sense of hope about the future. I do not know how to love the people on the other side of the aisle, because, in every immigration discussion I have, I can only see the faces of the people with whom I work. I see Juan. I see his laugh, and I wonder how people on the other side could ever want to send away a person who is just the same as me.
I know that this is not good enough. I know that this is not the attitude Jesus calls his followers to have. I desperately want to be better and to be stronger. I am hoping that this will come with time and effort. For now, I will take it one step at a time. If you are on campus, shoot me a message. Let’s get coffee. Let’s have the conversations. Let’s become informed. But we must recognize that we are all coming from vastly different places. These conversations are hard and painful. People are going to get mad, and people might even storm out of the room. I only pray that I am ready when they choose to come back to the table.