Mother’s Day was yesterday. Every year on Mother’s Day I write a letter to my mother and mother-in-law, thanking them for the positive influence they have been in my life. The bond between mothers and children is incredibly strong the world over. I can’t even imagine growing up without a mother. Yet that is exactly is happening with tens of thousands of children in Central America.
I had no idea until I read the book Enrique’s Journey by Sonia Nazario. I read the book in preparation for hearing Nazario speak to a Calvin Seminary book club, of which I have been a part for about 5 years.
Can you imagine being so poor that your mother has to leave the country in order to earn enough money to send back to feed you? Can you fathom being a child left with relatives or friends in a Central American country while your mother is working as a nanny in the United States, caring for someone else’s children? Can you put yourself in the shoes of a child who agonizes, “Does my mother still love me? Why doesn’t she come home? How can I find her?” Do you wonder how a child becomes so desperate to see his mother that he risks his life by traveling thousands of miles on top of trains, on buses and on foot to find a needle in a haystack?
In her book, Nazario chronicles the journey of Enrique, a young boy from Honduras who decided to make the dangerous and illegal journey through Mexico to “El Norte,” the United and Canada. The 17 year old made 7 attempts over 122 days to get to the United States and finally succeeded on the 8th try.
Every year 250,000 people from Mexico and Central America attempt to illegally enter the United States and Canada. Only a small fraction make it. The rest are sent back home, if they make it back alive. If you pay $8,000 for a smuggler, you have a much better chance of making it. If you try yourself, you have to make it through Mexico where, if you are caught, you risk jail, robbery, rape, beatings, corrupt cops, deportation, and severed limbs from the dangers of hopping on and off trains.
What drives illegal immigration is jobs. Honduras is one of the poorest countries in Central America, where the average wage is less than $3 a day. Mothers and fathers come to the U.S. to find jobs so they can send money back home. But children – 100,000 a year – come with one reason. They have a tremendous instinct to find their mother.
My heart broke as I listened to Nazario speak to our book group and later in the day at The Calvin Series. Mothers have to make the cruel decision whether to leave their children in order to put food on the table, or stay with their children and watch them starve. Mothers are duped into thinking they can earn enough money in 2 years to go back home, but it rarely happens. Most mothers earn low wages, doing jobs no one else wants, and they never go back. The reality is that whenever families are split up, things usually don’t go well.
The United States is in midst of the biggest crackdown on illegal immigration in decades. A wall is being planned for almost 700 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border. I wonder, “What good will it do? And who will we conscript to build the wall – undocumented immigrants?” Arizona governor Janet Napolitano has said, “Show me a 50 foot wall, and I’ll show you a 51 foot ladder.”
Lest you think immigration is only a problem in the southwest, there are an estimated 150,000 undocumented immigrants in Michigan. I am not an expert in immigration. However, I do know that this is not just a Central American problem: this is our problem as well. We are not in agreement in our country on how to treat undocumented immigrants. At the same time as we decry their presence, we also need them to do the dirty work jobs no one else wants to do. Big corporations paying very small salaries make huge profits from employing undocumented workers.
More important, we have an obligation to help create jobs in the countries from which most immigrants come, so that families can stay together. These Central American countries are losing their best and most passionate citizens to the United States out of desperation. It’s a complex issue because so much money flows back to these countries from illegal immigrants in the United States that there is little incentive to provide jobs. Mothers in Central American want to stay with their children, but they must be able to feed them. Higher walls will not work.
What is the role of the church in immigration? The Bible calls us to welcome the stranger and the alien. “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” Leviticus 19:34
- How do you treat undocumented immigrants who live among us right here in West Michigan? Does your church reach out to them in love?
- Has your church ever considered adopting a refugee family? Maybe now is the time.
- How do you spend your money? What is the relationship between our lifestyles and the poverty of other people in our world that prompts them to resort to the extreme measure of leaving their children?
- Did you know that UMCOR has a program called Justice For Our Neighbors? JFON is an immigration ministry that provides free legal services, education and advocacy by working directly with clients and connecting with churches and other community groups. With funding through a local and national partnership, JFON has operated monthly clinics out of First UMC, Grand Rapids, since 2005 and also has a satellite clinic at First UMC, Holland. JFON currently represents about 15 “Enriques” in West Michigan who are in the custody of the federal immigration authorities and have been placed in foster care through Bethany Christian Services.
- Susan Reed, a church and community worker in the UMC and JFON’s full-time attorney, would love to speak at your church about this cutting edge ministry. JFON is also an advanced special in the West Michigan Conference. You may contact Susan at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her blog can be found at http://serccw.blogspot.com/.
- A great disappointment last year was the failure of the Senate to introduce and pass comprehensive immigration reform. How can you advocate for protection of the rights of workers and reunification of families?
Our recent General Conference passed a resolution called “Welcoming the Migrant.” The resolution calls for “full protection of all workers, which includes the opportunity to gain legal status for all migrants.” It also urges U.S. lawmakers to ensure that immigration laws do not rip apart families.
I believe that we are hard wired to be with family. That’s how God created us. No mother should ever have to be separated from her children in order to feed them. I urge you to read Enrique’s Journey, discuss immigration issues in your church and become an advocate for all the Enriques in our world who simply want to be with their mother.
P.S. Correction: In last week’s article, I failed to mention that all of the constitutional amendments passed by General Conference need to be ratified by a two-thirds vote of the aggregate total of annual conferences and certified by the Council of Bishops before they become effective.