Amid the debate on Capitol Hill over the latest immigration reform bill, it's easy for us to zone out as the same terms get repeated over and over again: "border security," "economic growth," and "pathway to citizenship."
In abstraction, these broad issues can divert our attention from the flesh-and-blood people who these policies affect. I see their impact in the lives of the people in my community, my church, and even my family; their stories speak to our own and prompt the church to consider its responsibility toward these families.
More than 20 years ago, my family moved to the United States from China. My parents divorced before my mother was able to get her permanent residency through my dad's work sponsorship, so she was left undocumented. Later she married my stepdad, who was also undocumented, and started a new family and restaurant business with him. In 2008, my stepdad was arrested by immigration authorities. He was detained nine months before being deported to China with a 10-year-bar from returning. My mom was left to run a restaurant and raise two young children on her own. She has since been able to obtain permanent resident status but is still counting down the years before her husband can return home.
Thousands of women in this country, like my mother, have been effectively widowed, for short- or long-term, by current immigration laws. Their husbands are taken from them suddenly, and they are left to raise children and provide for families on their own. Many more families live with anxiety over the risk of separation due to their undocumented status.
A Peruvian woman at my church is undocumented, along with her husband and son. In 2009, her husband was arrested for his immigration status. She didn't know how long he would be imprisoned. Thankfully, her husband was released after a month, but still faces deportation orders set for this August. She's unsure what she will do if he has to return to Peru. Will she stay in the U.S. to support her 22-year-old son who has the opportunity through deferred action to study and work here legally? Or will she return with her husband? During the anxious weeks of his imprisonment and the stressful months afterward, she fell into a deep depression. She questioned God's goodness and couldn't pray or participate actively in the church. She and her husband almost divorced. She recently shared this with our church and thanked us for standing by her in those dark months.
Another couple I know, an America citizen married to an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, found their lives shaken up during the process of petitioning for a green card. She wanted to live without the constant fear that her husband would be discovered and deported. But when he returned to Mexico in 2010 to interview at the U.S. consulate there for his green card, paperwork issues delayed the process. He ended up spending nearly 20 months in Mexico separated from his wife and their son (then 4 years old) before he was able to return.
Women like these live under extreme pressure. The laws affect their lives practically and emotionally. They must explain to their children why their fathers have disappeared and what about their ordinary lives in the United States is "illegal." They must find jobs or other means of financial support in cases where their husbands were the breadwinners of the family. Some live with the social stigma of having a husband "in prison" and explaining what happened to neighbors and friends. They face the loneliness of living apart from their husbands; their marriages suffer incredible stress from distance and the uncertain timeline for reunion. Understandably, these women easily crack under all these stresses and sometimes fall into depression and despair.
Yet, they also display remarkable resilience and gutsiness. My mom returned to tending her backyard garden after many months of leaving it neglected when my stepdad was first detained. The Peruvian woman from church has recovered from her depression, and today she and her family remain faithful pillars in our congregation. The American woman relied on her faith and family support to carry her through the time of separation from her husband. These women show us what it looks like to live with hope even when the future is uncertain. Like the exiled Israelites who were exhorted to "build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce" (Jer. 29:5), they carve a place for joy and faith amidst unpromising circumstances.
These women are modern-day Ruths and Naomis. As women who have lost their husbands in one sense, they are essentially widowed and extremely vulnerable. Some are also strangers in the land with barriers of language and culture to face on a daily basis. Regardless of our politics, whether or not we support various immigration policies, we must recognize the reality of the people in our midst and ask ourselves: Where is the church for these women? Do we have systems of support and ministries that address their particular needs?
God shows his tender care for widows and strangers in the story of Ruth. Israelite law required that gleanings be left in fields for the poor and also laid out a process for widows to be taken into the families of their kinsman-redeemers. Because of this, Ruth and Naomi were not left destitute and alone when they returned from Moab bereft of their husbands. Ruth was able to gather leftovers for herself and her mother-in-law in Boaz's fields and eventually Boaz took Ruth and Naomi into his own home.
Today, it falls upon the church to embody God's love to the Ruths and Naomis in our midst. The three contemporary women whose stories are shared here all have some form of support in their communities, families, or churches. But there are many others who don't have such safety nets and wouldn't think to reach out to a local church on their own. They might be too busy trying to make ends meet, too unfamiliar with navigating a new country, or too scared to expose their families to further scrutiny. Will we as the body of Christ embrace God's heart for widows and strangers and meet them where they are?