Raquel was on our couch a couple of weeks ago, slumped over on Emily. Weeping. Her 8 year-old son, she just learned, was in an accident. He broke his leg in several places and the doctors needed to set it with pins. The surgery would be followed up with several weeks of physical therapy before he’d be able to walk normally again. The drive to physical therapy sessions was one problem. One hour, one way, no vehicle. That meant public transportation or taxi. Raquel’s friend is a taxi driver and she was generous enough to offer to take her son everyday. Raquel would have done it herself, but her commute would have been significantly longer–1600 miles longer. Five years ago she made the traumatic decision to temporarily leave her two kids with her mother in Mexico. One was six months old and the other was three. Raquel’s tears weren’t so much for her son and his broken leg, but for the five, interminable years separated from her two children.
Last fall, I was next door on Raquel’s front porch. We talked about life here and life in Mexico while idly kicking off flakes of peeling paint on her porch deck. I was thinking about my own kids, Luke and Perkins, who were about the same ages as hers when she left them. I had to ask. “Raquel, how bad was it in Mexico that you decided to leave them when you did?” She didn’t hesitate long. “Kurt, there was nothing. I would work all day long, multiple jobs and I would come back home and I would have nothing to offer my kids. Nothing. I was frustrated and felt like I had no other choice. I’d heard that there were jobs in the US, so I left in despair.” Tears, filled with doubt, regret, but mostly lost love slid down her cheeks.
Raquel’s story sounds a lot like the story of Jacob in Genesis 42. His son Joseph, who years earlier had been trafficked across the border into Egypt by his brothers, had correctly prophesied a famine that spread across the entire region. Probably for the first time in his life, Jacob felt powerless. There was nothing that even his own resourcefulness (or deceitfulness) could do to save him from the famine. He was facing forces far beyond his control. He didn’t get it. This was the land that God had told his grandfather Abraham to leave his country, his people, and his father’s household to emigrate to. They’d be blessed here. And now it had come up empty. He’d heard that there was grain in Egypt so in his frustration, in his desperation, he sent his sons from this land of unfulfilled promises to buy them grain so that they might live and not die. That’s the impetus that began Raquel’s journey, as of most of our immigrant neighbors’ journeys. ‘I’ve heard that there was grain in Egypt’–I’ve heard that there are jobs in the US. Perhaps it’s a son, a daughter, a mother or a father that is sent. Sent so that they may live and not die. Most of Jacob’s sons were accused, like immigrants throughout history have been accused, of having maligned intentions of coming. They were accused of trying to discover where Egypt was unprotected–perhaps how they might steal jobs, plant bombs, or add to the ranks of opposing political parties. And no amount of convincing, no papers can prove that this isn’t the way they’d scripted their lives either. This is desperation. This is Plan B.
In conversations with many Christians about immigration reform they can sympathize with immigrants like Raquel and the impossible choices that they face. But there’s always one hangup that we can’t seem to get over. They broke the law. They’re here illegally. We reference Romans 13 where we clearly see that the authorities that exist have been established by God and whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted. Undocumented immigrants, therefore, are rebelling against what God has instituted. But stories like Raquel’s can throw an emotional wrench in the our allegiance to this pristine, faceless hermeneutic. They beg for exceptions. They beg for grace. But it’s not simply contemporary stories that rattle our interpretation of Romans 13, but Scripture itself.
Jacob had only intended that his family get what they were lacking in Egypt and return as quickly as possible. But his son Joseph was their man in Washington who leveraged an appropriations bill to get them the best land in Egypt. They were vulnerable as an ethnic minority group who it appears did the jobs that no Egyptian wanted to do (Gen. 46:34). As long as they had an advocate among the Egyptian elite, it appeared they would be just fine. But Joseph, the pharaoh who showed him hospitality, and all of that generation died. Coupled with that was a Hebrew immigrant population that was exploding. A new king voiced the fears of all Egyptians. These immigrants posed a risk of losing their country, their cultural identity, their privilege, their way of life. Pharaoh recognized that their economy depended upon them or he wouldn’t have expressed his worries about self-deportation (v. 10). So Pharaoh took preemptive action and enforced the harshest of immigration control measures instructing Hebrew midwives to kill all of the immigrant baby boys. But the midwives didn’t follow the law. The king had issued an executive order and they disobeyed it. Instead, they engaged in a premeditated, subversive, illegal plot to save the lives of these babies. It was an act of civil disobedience, rebelling against an authority, which according to Romans 13, was instituted by God. And not only did they rebel, they lied about it. And how did God punish them for their rebellion against the government he instituted? God didn’t. Instead, God blessed them and made them even more numerous because of it.
Most Christians know that not all laws are just or moral ones. Most evangelicals will decry Roe v. Wade. Most US Christians have no problem smuggling Bibles into China. The Hebrew women were not bad people disobeying good laws. They were good people disobeying bad laws. Acknowledging that God has instituted the authorities in Romans 13, doesn’t mean that God endorses all of the policies and systems that a fallen government institutes. We can love our nation, but we do it not blindly, but rather critically, and always secondarily as people whose primary citizenship longs for God’s kingdomand the righteousness and justice offered there. As Christians, we can call our nation to live up to the vocation that is theirs. Theologian Walter Wink offers us help. “God at one and the same time upholdsa given political or economic system, since some such system is required to support human life;condemns that system insofar as it is destructive of fully human life; and presses for its transformationinto a more humane order. Conservatives stress the first, revolutionaries the second, reformers the third. The Christian is expected to hold together all three.”
Raquel isn’t a bad person. While Gomez undoubtedly broke a law, he isn’t a criminal. There simply was and is no legal pathway for them. There is no line for them to wait in. If they had an immediate family member who had legal permanent residency or citizenship (which they do not), there would be a line, but they’d be waiting in it for 22 years for a response. Currently in 2013, INS is processing immigration applications from 1994. I’m generally a patient and law-abiding citizen. But there would be no law, no line that I would wait in that would keep me separated from my family for 22 years or from working to earn a living that could keep us alive.
Raquel lives in the shadowlands, an exile from her kids that feels both forced and chosen at the same time. Yesterday was her day off. She works as a maid in a water park hotel. For the past couple of months she’s been collecting unused bracelets that guests had left that allow entrance into the water park. She’s been saving them because she’s been wanting to take Luke and Perkins as well as some of the other neighborhood kids to go down the water slides some afternoon. Raquel was hoping that yesterday was the day, but instead, she spent the afternoon taking all of our kids to a park a few blocks away. After an hour or two she dropped off Luke and I thanked her for taking them all. She said, “No, thank you Kurt, you know the pleasure was all mine.”
Raquel was glowing. She was as radiant as yesterday’s spring afternoon. For a couple hours Raquel got to delight in a group of children as if they were her own. She got to jump rope, go on the swings, laugh and do all of the ridiculous things that mothers do that men will never understand. For a couple of hours she was able to forget about the fact that there are people who do not know her, who do not want to know her, who have no understanding of the kinds of circumstances she came from nor the sacrifices nor the risks she took on behalf of love to get here that are intent on sending her back. And maybe for a moment, my kids unknowingly participated in an unspeakable mystery. Maybe for a moment, my kids became her kids, sacred placeholders that dissolved the miles, the years, the tears, and the unquenchable yearning to have them back in her arms. Maybe for a moment, Raquel closed her eyes and found herself in an embrace with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and the thousand scattered shards of her life were whole again. And maybe together, we can make it more than a moment. Maybe we can help make it a lifetime.