For a couple of decades I’ve been watching my friends and neighbors suffer due to our nation’s broken immigration system. I was slow—inexcusably slow—to join the work of changing this system. But over time the accumulation of painful memories became too substantial for me to ignore, especially the memories of my friend José.
About nine years ago, José first knocked on my door to tell me about his spiritual conversion. He had previously been involved in gang and drug culture, but he’d recently decided that he wanted to become a follower of Jesus. Some men from our neighborhood told him that I taught Bible studies and mentored people. So, here he was, eager to learn.
Like many undocumented immigrants, José worked day-labor jobs that began early, but he started taking me to breakfast at Denny’s Restaurant before dawn once a week to talk about life and faith. He always insisted on paying for my breakfast, and every time I encouraged him to make some tangible change in his life, he did more than what I asked. Once, I walked into his bedroom to discover that spiritual illustrations I had scribbled on napkins during our weekly breakfast meetings were carefully arranged on his dresser so that he could think about them regularly. José quickly became one of the most inspiring young Christians I’ve had the privilege to know. His life and character were dramatically transformed. He became a person who prayed with fervor and who dreamed of making a positive difference in the lives of others.
But José also faced tremendous challenges due to his immigration status. Like so many from his generation, his parents had brought him across the southern U.S. border from Mexico when he was a young child. They were fleeing a situation of poverty and violence in pursuit of a better future for their children. José was carried across the border without his consent, but years later he was still suffering the consequences of a system that provided him no legal protections. He had no home to return to in Mexico, but in the United States he was easily exploited. Many times he would tell me stories about being taken advantage of at work. Like most undocumented people in this situation, he felt he could not demand fair treatment or fair pay for fear of deportation. Moreover, he had a young daughter from a relationship prior to his conversion, but the mother’s white family held deep prejudice against “Mexicans” and would not allow him to see his child. Because he was undocumented, he did not have recourse to secure his parental rights. Despite his serious efforts at personal and spiritual growth, José found himself in a downward spiral of poverty, alienation, and discouragement. In order to make ends meet, he began mowing lawns with a group of old friends, and—through a series of circumstance I will not describe here—he was tragically shot and killed while spending time with these friends.
Sadly, José is one of many people whom I’ve watched suffer due to our nation’s outdated and inadequate immigration system. I’ve known many young people like him who were brought across the border as children by parents fleeing poverty and violence. These young friends continue to inspire me with their hard work, their courage, and their desire to make better lives for themselves and their communities. But they are trapped by their situation. Many of them don’t have a home in Mexico and don’t speak Spanish, but they also don’t have a pathway to citizenship or legal status in the United States. I’ve watched the dreams of these friends slowly shrivel as they realize that the only nation they have ever known will continue to see them as “illegal aliens” even if they do everything right.
I’ve also seen the toll that our immigration system takes on families. Many children of immigrants have U.S. citizenship because they were born in our country, but one or both of their parents have no path to legal status. Consequently, financial pressures and deportation frequently rip families apart. By failing to provide any pathway to legal status for these parents—most of whom are hard workers and wonderful neighbors—our broken immigration system breaks families.
Through hundreds of relationships with my immigrant neighbors and friends, I’ve learned that pastoral care and spiritual mentoring are not adequate to help people reach their God-given potential if their lives are being choked by a system of laws that treats them unfairly. As a nation, we must find a way to respond to our immigration crisis that protects the innocent, keeps families intact, and respects the human dignity of all people.
The Christian scriptures repeatedly speak of God’s love for immigrants, whose vulnerable situation leaves them in need of divine protection. As a disciple of Jesus, I believe it’s my responsibility to love my immigrant neighbors as God has loved me. This is why I’m walking El Camino del Inmigrante. I walk to express my solidarity with friends who are hurting and to call on my nation to find just and compassionate solutions to our immigration crisis. I also walk as a witness that Jesus himself walks with all of us in the midst of our pain and struggle. If we choose to walk with Jesus down a path of love, we can find a way forward together.