In August, Ken Cuccinelli, the acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said immigrants legally in the U.S. may no longer be eligible for green cards if they use food stamps, Medicaid and other public benefits. To justify this direction, he cited an 1882 rule intended to undo the words on the Statue of Liberty about welcoming the poor through the golden door by restricting immigration to wealthier people.
Cuccinelli’s intentions are just one of many ways the government is inventing to keep people, especially poor people and people of color, out of the United States. The administration of Donald Trump (the Nativist in Chief) is so full of enmity and strife they can’t implement most of their threats, but that certainly doesn’t ease the fears of families who are left in limbo and too often separated from each other.
I grew up in a lower middle class family in the 1950s and 60s. My parents bravely clawed their way out of their parents’ poverty. Along the way, they cultured every “white” fear of the “other” possible. As a child, I swam in the nation’s original sin of racism. The family carried a careful disdain for every outsider who somehow managed to get into the white man’s country. This was my father’s creed, even though his grandmother was so poor she tried to get onto the Choctaw rolls in order to receive Native American benefits. As a result of all this training, even now I have a small, inbred instinct that resonates with people who think Ken Cuccinelli makes sense as he protects the nation from “freeloaders” flooding in to steal the fruits of “our” hard labor. I thought “otherizing “ people was just the way things worked until I was in Jr. High.
Long about Jr. High I began to wake up to what all this hatred really meant. My mind began to change due to my friendships. I played sports with people who spoke Spanish at home and many were dear friends my whole childhood. I also learned my town’s name was Spanish and the first colonizers of California were from Spain. I had Japanese girlfriends, which really did not go over well, since my dad had fought them in World War 2. California was a major melting pot and I melted in.
More important, I began to read the Bible for myself when I was a young man. My parents were not Christians, so they did not have any authority to recast the Bible for me; therefore, I got it straight. When it came to “other” people, the Bible is clear. Jesus was an “other” and allied himself with poor people and outcasts, all the fancy buildings dedicated to him, notwithstanding. Israel was a nation of freed slaves who were commanded to treat outsiders like guests. Jesus made it clear that if his followers did not go to the ultimate degree with this element of Jewish morality, they were not his followers. “Love as I have loved you” and “love your enemies” are not hard truths to understand. I understood them.
What sealed my change of mind and helped create new instincts was experiencing other cultures and people first hand. The TV and our many screens makes the world seem small until you are travelling all over it. I’ve been all over. I have five abiding images that continue to stoke my love and reinforce the truth I gained in rebellion from my parents’ manifestly bad example as I followed Jesus.
- While in Indonesia as a seventeen-year-old exchange student, a legless blind woman appeared in our train car after a stop, a car dominated by our merry band of rich kids en route to Bali. She scared us as she begged. She refused our food, since she was sent for money. Our conductor entered the car and was appalled. He actually had the train stop and they threw her out in a rice field in the middle of nowhere. We cried. I have never forgotten her.
- Gwen and I lived in San Diego for a little while before we had children. Whenever we crossed back over the border from Mexico, it amazed us how the air felt different — San Diego was irrigated with water that flowed through California’s expensive water projects and it sweetened the air. When we delivered help to people on the steep, dirt streets of Tijuana, it was our first experience of people all over the world who live on the hillsides without any utility services.
- My first immersion trip with MCC was to El Salvador and Honduras. It was at the end of the civil war the U.S. financed. More than once our van was stopped by eighteen-year olds with automatic weapons making sure we were doing nothing subversive. We later learned many of them were probably kidnapped and forced to do their duty. In El Salvador we visited some of the “marginalized” people MCC was housing in one-room corrugated homes, for which they were very grateful. We learned the “marginalized,” although they lived in a category, did not officially exist. The territory on which they squatted had no government jurisdiction and they had no citizen rights. They were “others” who lived someone else’s lie.
- While in South Africa learning mediation from the experts, our group of visibly-Western, wealthy people spent a brief time in downtown Johannesburg enjoying coffee in a sidewalk café. Our handlers began to note the young men who were beginning to circle us. They had warned us that desperate people were on the prowl for unsuspecting marks. It was a bit terrifying to be otherized by the otherized.
- In Colombia, again with MCC, we survived a ride through one section of the mountains — where vans had been stopped by kidnappers rappelling down cliffs, to arrive in beautiful Cali. There we met displaced “others” who had been driven off their land by the war on drugs. The helicopters spayed Round-up indiscriminately, so people growing corn to feed their families were punished along with the coca farmers. One of them made sure to tell us to speak to our government about such cruelty. I did.
Jesus makes us safe enough to love the “other”
The government is as cruel now as it has ever been. And a good 40% of the voting population is convinced, as my father was, that there is not a problem a wall could not solve. Purported, Bible-loving Christians are some of the staunchest defenders of people like Ken Cuccinelli.
It is a blessing that I read the Bible, since it has little hope for any kingdom God does not rule and has little hope for any situation that is not seen through the lens of Jesus. Ultimately, being rooted in Jesus allowed me to cherish my cross-cultural encounters with the “others” I have met over the years. Jesus gives me the courage to put my opinions, identity and way of life at risk. Because of Jesus I am ready to be changed by my encounters with others just like God risks to relate to me and you. The process of love is unsettling unless one is settled in love.
David Brooks rightly noted last Friday that millions of Americans are being asked
“to accept high immigration while they are already living with maximum insecurity. Their wages are declining, their families and communities are fragmenting, their churches are shrinking, government services are being cut, their values and national identity feel unstable. Of course they are going to react with suspicion if suddenly on top of all this they begin to feel like strangers in their own place.”
I see what he is saying; I grew up in a house full of those fears. But when have regular people ever felt anything but that? My Dad was just trying to survive, too. He thought it was dangerous to be connected to others and illogical to care about their needs if his own family suffered.
Without that Jesus lens, the points Cuccinelli, Brooks, and Trump make along with their supporters and detractors will be endlessly made, just as the same points have been made my whole life. A friendship may show you another way. The Bible will surely teach us something different. Travel may open one’s eyes. At least I feel I have learned some life-changing things as I have listened to all those things. The big one is: no one is really safe and others are not safe from us unless we are safe in Jesus.