ORANGE CITY—Words matter, especially how they are used to describe the various aspects of immigration.
Nearly 100 people gathered Tuesday, Nov. 12, in Orange City to hear thoughts from panelists on that topic through the “Faith and Immigration: Getting Beyond the Rhetoric” forum.
“The words we use and the way that we talk about immigration has an impact,” said panelist Melissa Stek at the close of the 75-minute gathering in the Vogel Community Room of the DeWitt Learning Commons on the campus of Northwestern College.
Stek, a justice mobilization specialist for the Christian Reformed Church Office of Social Justice, was one of five panelists. Other panelists answering questions were Maria Ramos, a Unity Community Health Center human resources director in Storm Lake; Mark Prosser, Storm Lake Police public safety director; the Rev. John Lee of Bethel Christian Reformed Church in Sioux Center; and Claudia Carbajal, a superintendent at Smithfield Foods-Sioux Center.
The Rev. Tim Breen of First Reformed Church in Orange City and Martha Draayer, Northwestern’s Hispanic community liaison, moderated.
‘A better life’
Draayer of Sioux Center opened the forum by sharing her story of being an undocumented immigrant.
The 33-year-old native of Mexico was brought to the United States by her parents when she was 3 years old. She did not know she was undocumented until she wanted to get a driver’s license like her peers as a teenager.
“My parents wanted a better life, employment, better education for their children,” she said. “Having grown up in northwest Iowa, it was hard for me to understand that not having a piece of paper was keeping me from doing some of the same things as those in my class.”
Ten years ago, she and her husband traveled to Mexico for a meeting with the consulate regarding her immigration status. Draayer, who had prepared for a monthlong stay, remained in Mexico for 13 months after which she was given a 10-year bar on coming to the United States.
“Never before had I wrestled so hard with a decision — do I come back or do I stay. I chose to come back,” she said. “It’s a long story. It was treacherous, it was hard. It was through the river.”
She is in the United States through DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals legislation.
“My 10-year bar from being a U.S. citizen is technically up but I’m still not able to finish out becoming a citizen,” she said. “I’m not alone in having all these feelings of shame, fear, guilt. Why is it important to share these stories? What impact does it have?”
Prosser said such stories have a multifaceted impact.
“It’s difficult to dislike a person you know,” he said. “We need to hear the stories of the challenges and the dangers that some of our community members have experienced because the more we know them, the more we create a relationship with them realizing we’re not that different.”
Ramos said stories open people’s eyes about immigrants.
“Thinking that we’re a burden, that we’re just here to take jobs, we’re just here to cause problems,” Ramos said. “That seems to cause a lot of the division among people. We’re not the criminals many think we are. My family is just like yours.”
Carbajal agreed, adding, “We try to do the things right but there’s just obstacles and obstacles and obstacles. People don’t want to come here just to hide, they want to be legalized. We want that chance.”
Hearing stories also may help curb the use of unhelpful comments such as “They just need to get right with the law,” or “Get in back of the line,” or “Come the way my ancestors came,” Stek said.
“If you look at how our immigration system works today versus in the past and how it works for some nationalities and not others, how it works for some income brackets and not others, there’s a huge difference,” she said. “It’s very important for us to be put in the work to understand, listen to the stories of those who are directly impacted by these issues. The stories give us a taste and appreciation for the impossible choices our immigration system often puts people in.”
Stek said rhetoric used about immigration by Christians should come back to all people being image bearers of Christ.
“We’re called to love all people, not called to love people unless we find out they’re undocumented,” she said. “What it looks like to love people means different things.”
Ultimately, Stek said that call to love should include evaluating thoughts and what is said and be reflected in how Christians act.
“People often talk about that subject as ‘people invading our country’ and ‘that a wall is needed for border security,’ but when thinking about the border, I ask you to think about smart and compassionate border governance rather than talking about border security,” Stek said. “Governance encompasses the conversation about human beings. Yes, there are drugs coming in and things that need to be intercepted. Customs and border patrol agents are doing their job with that, but we also need to be talking about how do we treat human beings who are fleeing persecution.
“What we’re looking at is a large group of people fleeing their country of origin for humanitarian reasons.”
Prosser, who is a member of a law enforcement immigration task force made up of police chiefs and sheriffs from across the country, said the task force’s focus is “good security.”
“That means smart border security, not necessarily a wall,” he said. “If we believe that a barrier, by putting that up, is going to solve our problems at the border, we’re extremely foolish. Analyzing data and learning about the points of entry creates smart border security. If we can be creative, have appropriate staffing and technology, we can have a better, more secure border.”
Prosser also noted that while drugs are coming in on land, the Coast Guard seizes more drugs than all other agencies like the FBI, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives combined.
“Looking at the data, seeing that more of the illegal drugs are coming in on water, helps us pinpoint where our need is,” Prosser said, noting a wall would not help on water.
So what will it take to bring people together to provide meaningful immigration reform?
“The voices we hear on this topic traditionally are from the extreme right and extreme left but the most reasonable voices and people with the best capability of compromise are more in the center,” Prosser said. “So much of our leadership has lost the ability to compromise. We need folks to realize A, they’re not going to get everything; B, there’s going to be some consequences in some fashion; and C, we’re not going to deport 12 million to 15 million people so let’s create a process for them to move forward because most of them have become viable parts of their community. Until we do that we’re going to struggle.
“Other than the health-care law, immigration law is the most complex law on the books and most broken,” he continued. “We’re not going to have one bill or one law that’s going to fix everything. We’re going to have to do it in segments.
“Until we understand how complex it is, we’re just going to keep spinning our wheels.”