For the past year I have spent Monday evenings helping adult immigrants learn the English language. I volunteer in Arlington, Va., for the county’s renowned program, known as REEP (Arlington Education & Employment Program), one of the nation’s oldest adult programs teaching English as a second language. Often, the lead teacher assigns me to a separate room for one-on-one conversations.
The students come from Mongolia, Thailand and Cambo-dia; North Africa, Iran and Iraq; Mexico and Latin America. Each student is unique, and all are delightful in their own way. Some, well educated in their homelands, discover that in the United States they can find only menial work. Most insist they are happy caring for children or parking cars or digging gardens. Never mind that they might have been accountants, small businessmen, information technology consultants or pharmacists at home. Others are barely literate in their native tongue, having had little formal education. Many work long hours six or seven days a week. They broil in the hot sun replacing roofs or in hot kitchens turning out pupusas or pad Thai. Even hairdressing and nail polishing become exhausting after 10-hour days. And many leave their parents, spouses and young children back home and may not see them, except on Skype, for years at a time.
I am reflecting on my experiences in light of the Arizona law (SB 1070), passed in 2010, designed to crack down on immigrants who lack required legal papers That law has sparked a public, often angry debate about the status of such immigrants and their place in society. Last year I watched as nearby Prince William County enacted policies to frighten away “illegal” immigrants; it seemed to work. Even some people I know and love have startled me with their comments: “It’s black and white: they’re illegal, they need to go.” “They don’t belong here.” “They take our jobs and don’t pay taxes.”
Now I work among the “they.” When the immigrant students enroll at REEP, no one asks for their papers. They pay the fee and start learning: two hours and a quarter, four times a week, plus homework. In our conversations I often learn their stories, which sometimes amaze me, sometimes amuse me and sometimes break my heart.
Consider the young man from Guatemala who came here—sans papers—after his father was murdered on a city bus just blocks from his home at the end of a busy workday. Home was no longer safe for the teenager. The family had no money anyway to feed a growing boy. He crossed a hellacious desert to come here.
Or take the North African who sorrowfully told me of his wife and children back home. He barely makes enough to live on but sends every extra dime home for their care.
A beautiful young Nicaraguan girl told me a familiar story—no money, no jobs, no future and street violence to boot. For her there was no reason not to leave home for the United States.
Or consider the middle-aged African man forced to flee with his family from a home he had known for decades because he belonged to the wrong tribe. Or the fellow who fought back tears as he described how he had been separated from his father for 20 years until they were reunited here.
I think those Americans who despise and fear the newest wave of immigrants, who see things in black-and-white, who find a clear distinction between “us” and “them” might benefit, as Ihave, from volunteering to help students like mine. Occasionally, as I lean across the worktable in class, I think I am looking at my Scotch-Irish forebears. Despite their Catholicism they were more or less welcome here. Yes, some official in Toronto or at Ellis Island stamped their forms, but they were European, white and spoke a kind of English. If my ancestors had been Nigerian, I would likely never have been born here, except, perhaps, as a slave.
The Catholic faith did not stick with most of my ancestors’ descendants. Though it has stuck with me, most of the time I am a pretty lousy Catholic. Yet the church has taught me at least one valuable lesson: that God is the author of all life; that in a particular way, all women and men are made in God’s own image. No baby, then, should ever be called illegitimate; God does not create illegitimate children. Similarly, no one should ever be called illegal. It takes sinful humanity to make such a vulgar distinction.