What Immigrants and Allies Need From Each Other

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In the debate over reforming U.S. immigration policy, it’s easy to turn the immigrant into an abstraction.  It’s also easy to overlook the role that religious conversion plays in the lives of their faith-based allies.  Building relationships with immigrants not only deepens understanding of the issues, but in some cases leads to religious conversion for immigrants’ allies.

Joe & Li’s Story:  Needing Moral Support

At age 17, Joe left his parents in China in 1996 to enter the U.S. as an unaccompanied minor.   He began work in an Asian fusion restaurant in Brooklyn, chopping fish and vegetables.  Then he met Li, a fellow Chinese native who arrived in 2000, married her in 2005 and they had a child together.  Both were undocumented.  After a minor traffic stop in Vermont in 2005, they were both arrested and spent several months in jail in separate facilities.  After their release Joe and Li faced deportation, so they appealed to the New Sanctuary coalition in New York City.  As with many undocumented immigrants, they had lived and worked in the U.S. for many years, owned their own home, and were contributing members of their community.

Grace Yukich, a sociologist who teaches at Quinnipiac University, studied the New Sanctuary Movement in 2007-2009, at the height of debates about comprehensive immigration reform.  “Sanctuary” calls to mind the 1980s movement that used religious buildings to provide shelter for refugees fleeing war in Central America.  Today, though still focused on undocumented immigrants, the New Sanctuary’s strategy is more about finding ways to support families and less about providing temporary shelter.

Here’s a not-so-obvious truth:  native-born allies often express a feeling of indebtedness to the people they were charged to help. In vivid testimonials offered before groups of like-minded “helpers,” these allies often express gratitude that their lives were changed when when they befriended vulnerable immigrant families. Who would have thought?[1]

One Congregation’s Response

Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Brooklyn is one of the congregations that came to Joe and Li’s aid.  Good Shepherd members were 96% white and had little experience with immigrants.  Joe and Li did not need temporary shelter, so here’s how the church supported them:

  • Worship:  Sharing in worship when the couple came to church (not easy because they worked seven days a week).
  • Shared Meals:  Gathering at a restaurant to check on the couple’s situation.
  • Accompaniment:  Keeping company with Joe and Li on the periodic check-in meetings with immigration officials.  This was often emotionally trying because every time they went, they were in danger of being deported.

Unexpected Outcome:  Religious Conversion

One woman, who had been accompanying Joe and Li to check-ins for several months, attended a wider coalition-wide meeting and told her story.  She had never been particularly committed to immigrant rights before, but now she found her commitment deepening.  Beyond that, however, she experienced a newfound sense of faith.   “This is the first time I have felt there was a purpose to being a Christian.”

The Deepest Roots of Connection

Rev. Alexia Salvatorra, a founder of the New Sanctuary Movement, explains why  building relationships lies at the heart of a faithful response to immigration.  In a 2007 Sojourners article, she wrote:

One of the deepest roots of our connection is the common experience of God’s mercy. . .Someone had compassion on us—literally “com” (with) and “passion” (feeling)—someone felt with us, felt our pain as if it was his pain, our hopes and dreams as if they were his hopes and dreams.” 

What immigrants may receive from allies, along with material aid of various kinds, is moral support.  What allies may receive from their encounter with immigrants—at least this is true some of the time—is a profound spiritual awakening.

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