Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Healing Secrets

This is a guest post by our dear friend Claudia Vasquez. 

Secrets can be good and bad. For many years, I never shared more than what was needed. One never shared or talked about one’s legal status, how we got to the States, or even, where we were born. Just couldn’t talk about it. It was as if everyone knew it but no one dared to ask or talk about it. It felt as if my true identity was hidden deep deep within my heart and the real me was hidden amongst all the fake appearances that one had to pretend to have in order to survive and blend in with the rest of the people who maybe were also carrying a deeper secret. 

From the moment I saw those clear, big brown eyes, short brown hair and a smile that to this day, I will never forget; I realized how much time I had kept this secret. She was the door to my healing process. I met this young lady through Our Children Project - a ministry where teams made up of different churches in Orange County, CA visit minors in immigration detention. At first I didn’t know how to talk to her or how to talk about all these “secrets”. But she didn’t even hesitate to talk about it. I couldn’t fathom why she was so comfortable talking about her upbringing, how she came to the States and why she was in this home. 

After listening more and more to her story, my heart drew closer to her and to the secret that for so many years I had hidden or at least been asked to hide. It felt like this young lady was telling my own story. She was 12 years old, crossed the border, but the difference was that she was caught and placed in this detention center. For the first time, I felt comfortable sharing my secret with this young lady. She listened and was amazed at how similar our stories were. I sympathized with her and held her tight in my heart. The more we talked about it, the more my heart began to heal. 

During the times that I didn’t go visit this young lady, a Bible study was held with other believers who were also mentors of these girls. Each one shared their experience. I was hesitant to share mine because I was afraid of being rejected and singled out. But I remembered my young friend, she wasn’t ashamed. She knew that the Lord had shown her grace. When it came for my turn to share about my experience at the shelter, I looked at our group, everyone was from different backgrounds; I could either keep myself from sharing or have them hear my story, my secret. 

After several weeks of meeting and talking about this secret, our conversations brought me healing. For many years, I always perceived everyone who wasn’t in my shoes as those who had always rejected me, even those in the Church because of my status. I was treated differently every time someone from church heard of my legal status. This Bible study group, embraced me and showed me God’s love. This is when I realized what is really like to love the stranger. To love someone regardless of where they came from. 

How could I stop myself from sharing God’s unconditional love? This secret was meant to be shared so that others could learn to love and welcome the stranger! Through the Bible study, the interaction with the young ladies at the shelter, brought me healing and restoration. I no longer feel ashamed of being born from a different place, culture and family. On the contrary, now I know that sharing this long time experience, that no longer is a secret, has opened the eyes of people who struggled to love and accept others just because of systems and political views - this was a spiritual transformation, not only for me but for those who were part of my healing process. 

Claudia Vazquez is a former volunteer of Our Children project, a multi-cultural ministry that engages the Church in Orange County to walk alongside children in immigration detention and learn about God’s heart for immigrants through experience and biblical reflection. Claudia currently attends Newsong Church in Irvine, CA.

Ed. Note: this story is cross posted on Undocumented.tv's blog

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Real Friends

Do you remember the moment your friend became your friend? Not just when you met, but the moment you realized you were friends. I don’t remember that moment for all my friends, but I know when it happened with Mari. Mari is a neighbor I met when her husband was deported in October 2009. Since then we have spent a lot of time working out her budget, figuring out childcare, and praying together. This time has led to a respect for each other. Recently, however, I realized we’ve become friends.

It was a Thursday night and I stopped by to see how she was doing. We talked about how her husband is faring in Mexico. She shared about how her children seem to be up and down emotionally, some days acting fine and others, crying for their father. We chatted about her work and mine. As we were wrapping up our visit, she looked me straight in the eye and said, “You never answer your phone when I call.”

I responded, “Yes, well I’m very busy. Leave a message and I will call you back.” “No,” she said. “What if I am stopped by the police or picked up for some reason? What will happen to my kids? I need to know that you will pick up your phone when I call.” I sat there dumbfounded. There was no defense to be made. She was right. In her insistence, I saw her fear. It was obvious that she had played this scenario out in her head hundreds of times. Her husband was already gone. What would happen to her children if she was deported? I looked over at her two small boys playing on the floor.

“I commit to answering my phone when you call,” I told her.

And that’s when we became friends. Not because I made a commitment to her, but because Mari was vulnerable enough to step beyond niceties to speaking truth to me. She called me out. She shared her fear. The reality of her precarious situation — a functionally single, undocumented mom with young U.S. citizen children — led us to meet each other. However, her courage to hold me accountable sealed our friendship.

I cannot keep my friend safe. I cannot get her legal documents. I can, however, commit to pick up my phone when she needs me. And I commit to continue advocating for comprehensive immigration reform so that Mari and other friends like her will not have to live in fear any longer.

Crissy Brooks is the Executive Director of Mika Community Development Corporation, a partner in the Loving the Stranger Network

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Education of An (Unlikely) Immigrant Advocate

By Robert Chao Romero

When I became a professor at UCLA six years ago I was pretty naïve about the topic of undocumented immigration.  Even though I come from immigrant families from Mexico and China, I had never really been personally touched by this topic.  That all changed several years ago. 

My wife worked in inner city ministry in Los Angeles and had a former student who was apprehended by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and facing deportation.   He was looking for an attorney to take his case and I told him, quite naively, “I’ll take your case if no one else will.”   Although I had been a licensed attorney for many years I had never practiced law and my knowledge of immigration law was limited to the classes I taught on the subject.   Little could prepare me for the crazy journey that was to follow.  Over the course of the next year and a half I got a crash course on immigration law, I personally witnessed the brokenness of the U.S. immigration system, and, most importantly, I learned innumerable lessons about God’s love for immigrants. 

Many of the lessons I learned flowed from Proverbs 31:8-9:  “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.  Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.”

The first lesson I learned is that most immigrants who are going through deportation proceedings cannot speak for themselves because there are no attorneys willing to take their case and be their legal voice.   90% of all immigrants facing deportation have no attorney.   Unlike criminal defense cases, there is no legal requirement that immigrants be provided an attorney to represent them.   When immigrants find themselves in immigration court the judge will often give them a piece of paper with a list of pro bono attorneys and legal aid law firms.  At first blush this piece of paper might give them hope.  After making many phone calls and facing many rejections, however, they learn a harsh reality:  there is a desperate shortage of pro bono attorneys who are willing to take on cases for immigrants.   Unless they can come up with $5,000 or more to hire an attorney, they probably stand little chance of having a fair hearing in court--even if they have a valid legal basis for their claim.   A further sad fact is that there are only a handful of Christian legal non-profit organizations in all of the United States which provide legal services for indigent clients—whether they be immigrants or impoverished U.S. citizens.  Most Christian legal aid organizations focus upon defending the free speech rights of Christians in the public sphere, but virtually none have the representation of the poor as their sole emphasis.  In all of Los Angeles, I found only one Christian legal aid organization (a very good one), but they were unable to take my friend’s case. 

For many immigrants facing deportation, this is often how their trial goes:  he or she sits in the courtroom alone with the judge, ICE attorney, bailiff, and translator.  The ICE attorney speaks harshly and disrespectfully to the immigrant and lays out many legal charges that even a trained lawyer would find difficult to understand.  Although the judge is supposed to be neutral, it often appears that he has teamed up with the ICE attorney against the immigrant.   Without a lawyer to explain the confusing legal charges and provide a defense, the immigrant stands little chance of receiving a fair hearing--even if they have a valid basis for remaining in the U.S.   As a result, thousands of children have been torn away from their immigrant mothers and fathers who have been deported without true access to justice.  

The take home point from this lesson is simple:  we must step up and fulfill the biblical mandate to speak up for immigrants facing deportation and defend their rights.   We need churches to establish legal funds for immigrants and we need Christian lawyers to volunteer their time to take on pro bono cases for immigrants facing deportation.   We also need to fund the few Christian legal non-profit organizations already in existence, as well as create hundreds of new legal aid organizations dedicated to speaking up for immigrants and the poor and defending their rights. 

Robert Chao Romero is an Assistant Professor in the UCLA César E. Chávez Department of Chicana/o Studies.  He received his J.D. from U.C. Berkeley and his Ph.D. in Latin American History from UCLA.  He is the author of The Chinese in Mexico, 1882-1940 and various articles related to race in Latin America and the United States.  

This piece is cross posted at Sojourner's God's Politics Blog.