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Immigrant Imagination – Thoughts on Love for My American Family

Christians and ImmigrationWhat are your most vivid family memories?  We all have them: Those moments frozen in time. Moments our heart will never forget.

I think of a quiet night in the hospital with my newborn son, holding him in my arms while I watched snow falling outside the windows. “I’ll teach you how to make snow angels someday,” I whispered into his tiny little ears.

Or the first time I met my daughter—her easy smile and dancing eyes as she marveled at my husband’s beard.  The first night home with her after a lengthy journey from Ethiopia, embracing my husband and holding tight because the ground beneath me still felt like it was flying. Whispering with incredulity and exhaustion: “We did it. We brought her home.”

The most vivid and poignant memories in my heart point to the growth of our family. One child arriving via biology, born from my body.  And one arriving through adoption, born from my heart.

Both planned by God to be here, and make this family beautiful, together. 

A Bigger Family

In recent days, my mind has been drawn to the growing pains of a bigger family–my American family.  Immigration policy has risen to the surface once again,  and perhaps like many of you, I’ve struggled to piece together my thoughts about this important issue. 

In part, I struggle because immigration issues are so complex. A deep understanding of the system requires a depth of knowledge in politics, economics, and foreign affairs that few people have.  And I’ve noticed that both sides of the issue have been guilty of oversimplification; ignoring inconvenient facts and refusing to listen to differing voices. 

But even this divisive political rhetoric is not the main reason I struggle with the immigration issue: I struggle because this is personal. I have an immigrant living under my roof. And she’s been an incredible blessing to my life. 

I realize that many people would never really think of my daughter as an immigrant.  She was adopted as a one-year-old, she doesn’t remember anything other than her American culture, and she’s been raise in a very American family by very American parents. Her life’s pretty red, white, and blue.

But our daughter came here with an immigrant visa. We had to apply for citizenship and climb a mountain of paperwork to make her a legal member of this country. And she will always have another country that is close to her heart.

That connection to Ethiopia has actually filtered into all of us:  Our whole family carries a special place for Ethiopia in our hearts.  We have learned this country’s amazing history, celebrated its culture, and find ourselves especially attuned to news reports that flow from that faraway part of the world. 

While our daughter has become American, there’s a sense in which the rest of us have become a bit Ethiopian too. And I think it’s a beautiful thing.

Social Justice ImmigrationThis is why I struggle with the current immigration debate.  The language that makes immigrants sound like a burden or an economic threat? It’s antithetical to my experience.  When some public voices hint at (or outright declare) that American culture should stay white, protected from an influx of colors and cultures, my stomach turns at such a racist perspective–one that dismisses my own daughter’s value.

Yes, we have serious immigration struggles to address. It can’t be a free-for-all and there are reasonable concerns raised on all sides of the debate.  But I’m deeply uneasy with rhetoric that stems from a place of fear regarding immigrants—from a perspective of wanting to keep our country closed and shielded away from the rest of the world. 

This is the kind of thinking that turns immigrants into “others,” a dark threat to our jobs, security, and “way of life.” (As if there ever really was just one American way of life.)

It’s the kind of thinking that callously separates children from parents for an offense equivalent to a misdemeanor. That cuts the number of refugees we resettle, despite an increasing refugee crisis around the world. 

It’s the kind of thinking that seems to promote an America that’s white. Scared. And closed off to the joys and sufferings of the world.

Is this really the kind of family we want America to be?  

Imagine Another Approach

When people find out my husband and I adopted from Ethiopia, sometimes they say “Wow, that’s such a great thing you did.” As if we are some kind of heroes for traveling to a third-world country and “rescuing” an orphan from the poverty there.  

But that’s just not how it was.

We adopted our daughter because there was a hole in our family.  We just wanted another child to love.  And if there’s any “rescuing” that happened along the way, then it’s certainly gone two ways.  That’s the beauty of adoption.  God calls a family to open their arms to another—and they are blessed in return. 

Of course, I shouldn’t romanticize the process: There have been real challenges and costs to bringing an adopted daughter into our home.   But it has been worth it.  I am a better, stronger person because of it.  And our family is better and stronger too.  Anything we had to give up, we have received back and more.

Can you imagine something with me, friends? Can you imagine what it might look like for my family’s story to play out on a national level?

What if our whole American family could see immigration as a blessing?  What if we saw it as an opportunity to embrace rich traditions and cultures, instead of fearing how they might change us? What if we believed that immigrants won’t unravel our way of life, but that they could actually make us stronger?

Social Justice ImmigrationThroughout American history, immigration has too often been used as a weapon to keep other’s out, to hold “outsiders” at bay.  But can you imagine what it might look like if  we flipped that around—if we saw immigration as a tool for welcoming new members into the American family? 

We are the wealthiest nation in the world.  We have personal freedoms and democratic rights that are denied to a majority of the world’s citizens. The most powerful military on the planet to protect us.  The greatest educational opportunities in existence.

Will we clutch these gifts tightly in fear of losing them?  Or could we start our immigration initiatives with a new question: How much can we reasonably share? 

In the weeks and months ahead, our American family will need to have some hard conversations.  We must consider the  numbers of immigrants we can accept and the best ways to prevent illegal activity.  We will have to sort through opinions and facts, and decide what–if any–solutions we are willing to try.

But what kind of attitude and perspective are we going to have as we take up this conversation?  Will we look at immigration through a lens of love, or of fear? Will we see them as fellow human beings, or as “others” less valuable than ourselves?

Will we see threats around every corner?  Or can we imagine an American family that becomes stronger as we embrace new members from afar? 

Immigrants are not a threat. Or nuisances.  Or people less worthy of freedom and opportunity than ourselves.  They are simply people looking for a home.  For a nation that will accept them as family—even if they look, talk, and act a little different.  

Let’s find a way to welcome as many of them into our family as we can.

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