Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Personal Thoughts on Imigration and Refugees

I will refrain from the term "illegal immigration" in this post.  Such a charged word, and with the current border crisis and the flood of children from central America flooding our borders, it seems an unhelpful category and possibly an inaccurate one.
When I first heard of these children coming in such large numbers, and doing so alone, I asked why and initially the news was only focusing on the opposition to "illegal immigration".  But also, it touched me deeply, and more personally than I expected.  Sure unaccompanied children, toddlers to teens, traveling thousands of miles alone without parents or family is heartbreaking, but there was more.

Then slowly more details of the conditions from which these children were fleeing, threat to life, inability of families to care for their children, etc.  These stories jogged a memory of stories of immigration, the story of my maternal great-grandparents. Both my Grandmother's parents left their homes in Sweden in their teens. My great-grandmother was sent to work as a domestic worker first in Norway (as I recall) at the age of 13, because her family could no longer afford to feed and cloth her. The story goes that she was mistreated as a domestic worker and eventually fled to the United States. Hard to imagine now but that this was the conditions in Sweden in the 19th century.  My great Grandfather immigrated to the states at the age of sixteen.

What is odd is that the family stories never speak of them as children when they emigrated, though in the news stories of children from Central and South America teens are described as children.  Yet, both my great-grandparents left home and eventually made their way to the United States because of poor and dangerous living conditions in Sweden.  My family's story is not unlike the story of all these children now coming to the United States.

However, when my great-grandparents came to the U.S. they wouldn't have been seen as children, but also there weren't as strick legal restrictions on immigration at that time either.

But also, I recall my grandparents telling stories of the hostile environment they grew up in as children of immigrants.  The story that has most stuck with me is their stories of being beaten in school because they could only speak Swedish and didn't know english when they started school.  They never taught their three daughters Swedish because of this childhood trauma.

We the grandsons and daughters even sons and daughters of immigrants forget the struggle and the reasons for our coming to the U.S..  We seem to forget the hostility our grandparents and great-grandparents experienced from those whose parents and grandparents were also immigrants.  The cycle continues and repeats itself, and is even more hateful against those who aren't European.  The statement on the statue of Liberty hides the reality that no generation of Americans has truly ever welcomed immigrants to this country with wide and open arms.

Under the pressures and because we were European my family had the privilege of eventually assimilating and becoming Anglo.  I'm a product of that assimilation.  That my family came from Germany and Sweden has been culturally erased both linguistically and through the culture of my grandparents and great-grandparents being reduced to kitsch.

I wonder if much of our resistance to new immigrants is the suppression of the pain and suffering of immigration in our family histories.  Our own forgetfulness that we all were foreigners, a refusal to remember that we were sojourners fleeing our past looking for a more hopeful future.

I know well my family's history the struggles of my great-grandparents and grand-parents as immigrants and sons and daughters of immigrants, yet it took me sitting with the news for awhile, willing to not react or respond, before it came to me and I made the connection.  But we seem to have lost our ability to sit and listen, even to our own stories.

A side note here is The Evangelical Covenant Church's 2014 statement and resolution on immigration, discussed and accepted by our Annual Meeting this past June.