I can remember the birth of my awareness of racism: I was twelve years old, sitting in an eighth-grade classroom, discussing To Kill a Mockingbird.
The outrage I felt after reading it alone in my room over the summer had been replaced by horror by the time our class gathered in the fall. No one was upset. They did not understand my shock, sadness, and dismay; they did not recognize the racism that led to the death of Tom Robinson.
Many years later, in 2005, my husband Byron and I drove a U-Haul filled with my belongings from California to Miami. We were living in Guatemala at the time and he was here on a tourist visa. I was six months pregnant. Along the way, my husband at the wheel, we were pulled over by the police for going 10 miles over the speed limit even as other cars, going much faster, sped by. A look at my husband’s Guatemalan license and passport (with visa) and the officer escorted him to the patrol car. He then took my license and left me in the truck.
My husband was detained for forty-five minutes as the officer questioned him on the authenticity of our marriage (we have different last names), ran a background check on my citizenship status, and then demanded to know why I, a US citizen, was not carrying my passport. We were forced to open the U-Haul, the officer ostensibly suspecting that we had thirty Guatemalans stashed in the back.
When we were finally released I sat in the car furious, shaking, and nauseated. It did not matter that I was a US citizen in that moment or that I had a Ph.D.; all that mattered was that my husband was Guatemalan. I cannot even imagine what would have happened if he had been here illegally. We were powerless and shamed before that officer, worried that if we “made any trouble” Byron would somehow be deported or his passport flagged. We drove away in silence until I demanded, sick to my stomach, that we pull over.
These seemingly unrelated incidents are in fact interconnected. The first may not be commonplace in the state of Arizona but the second, I suspect, will become more and more frequent. The immigration bill signed last Friday by Arizona governor Jan Brewer has led to numerous protests against the racial profiling that many, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, fear is inevitable. Different manifestations, to be sure, but the fact remains that the common denominator is racism.
To add fuel to the fire, on Thursday a bill arrived on Brewer’s desk that would ban ethnic studies classes in schools. According to the bill’s language, schools that promote “the overthrow of the US government, promote resentment toward a race or class of people, are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group, or advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals,” are at risk of losing state funding. In addition, the Arizona Board of Education has called for the removal of teachers whose English is “heavily accented or ungrammatical.” It is clear that this is no longer about illegal immigration—it is about Hispanics.
Theologians and churches often turn to biblical texts in order to proof text their stance on immigration, as references to human migrations are an important motif in both scriptures. In the Hebrew Scriptures, Israel is presented as a migrant people, where migration is both voluntary and forced. The stories of voluntary exodus and forced exile demonstrate a sense of uprootedness and displacement. There are stories of Israel that depict the Hebrew people as an oppressed minority in foreign lands. The Deuteronomist tradition is often cited as a source for pastoral agendas, describing resident aliens as vulnerable and promoting a moral responsibility toward them. The concern for the survival of the vulnerable and the love of strangers found within this tradition make a significant starting point for an immigrant-friendly position.
The gospels can be quoted in a similar manner. Matthew 25 is most-often cited as the foundation of compassion towards the immigrant, in particular when Jesus exclaims:
You are the accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me… Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.
Yet, while Matthew 25 is often posed as a challenge to Christians in terms of their concrete praxis and solidarity, perhaps no other cry rings louder than “love thy neighbor.”
I do not want to reduce the subject of immigration to illegal immigration. Illegal immigration is but one dimension of the realities of immigrant Christianity in the United States. If anything, the issue of illegal immigration points us to the growing ‘browning’ of our churches here in the States that mirrors the changing face of global Christianity. It should also remind us that US Christianity as a whole is an immigrant religion and that immigration is not only an issue for Christians, it defines us.
I grew up in a world where my mother’s heavily-accented English was mocked and ridiculed; in a church that had two churches within it—one in Spanish and one in English. I now live in a world where my husband’s accented English leads people to assume that he’s uneducated and to speak to him slowly and loudly. We are a country that fears difference, where monolingualism is celebrated. We live in a country where increasingly to be Hispanic is being criminalized. Our cries of outrage must deafen the racist stereotypes that fuel the fear of the brown person, her language and her culture.