A friend of mine got married a few weekends ago, and I was in her bridal party. At the rehearsal dinner I met many of her family members and family members-to-be; everyone was friendly and open, eager to find out who I was and my connection to the couple, and to share their connection with me. I spoke with one aunt in particular for a fair amount of time. We exchanged stories about our backgrounds, I told her where I went to college and grad school, and what I’m doing now. At the end of our conversation she asked me – Are you here legally?
What the heck?!! Are you kidding me??!
That wasn’t my reaction at the time. I was a little discombobulated, but I quickly recovered and said something too nice and accepting like Yes! or, Of course! Then I guess we went our separate ways.
I don’t remember who this offending person was, though I wish I did. I’d like to think that my lame response was the result of a defense mechanism, me wanting to preserve the happiness of the evening and the weekend, knowing that if I allowed myself to get upset it could have ruined things for me, and disappointed my friend if I shared what happened. Maybe that’s why I didn’t call this woman out for being rude, inappropriate and inhospitable. Or maybe I’m just slow. That’s equally as possible haha. In any event, the moment came back to me a week later, and I simmered with outrage at her audacity.
I texted a friend –
You can see me getting more and more upset as I think about what happened. My friend voiced one of my thoughts too – did the woman actually expect me to admit it if I was here illegally? And if I had, what was she going to do? Personally deport me? That very moment or even the next day, thus missing the wedding?
What a silly question, any way you look at it. Half of the bride’s guests came from outside of the country – so what, did we all evade border patrol to get there? And the bride and groom are sensible, honest, upright people. The groom is a lawyer. Knowing them, could she really imagine that they would have a friend – a friend in their bridal party! – who was here illegally? Some people wouldn’t bat an eyelash about such things, but not this couple; the idea of it would cause them, at the very least, discomfort. Oh please.
I would guess that this Midwesterner is a Republican, and that Donald Trump’s rhetoric about wall building, and the Republican anxiety over illegal immigration – never mind the fact that it has stabilised since 2009 – has made her hyper-sensitive to this issue. It’s well documented that Trump’s blustering, entitled, bullying manner has encouraged all the xenophobic, racist, misogynistic and other fear-based feelings in Americans. Until that evening, I’d never encountered it personally. In a different season, would this woman have asked me the same question? Would she have wondered the same question? What if I were a white male, or originally from Germany, Austria or France? Ha.
She sees my black skin, hears that I’m from a developing nation, looking for opportunities, and ding ding ding! I must be one of those clamouring, drain-on-the-system, illegals.
In the grand scheme of things, it’s the nasty, hostile thoughts and feelings at the root of this woman’s question that matter, not her identity. Way to be welcoming America! I thought you were supposed to be friendly? Way to gather your tired, your poor, your huddled masses!
There’s this image of Americans as being super warm, positive and encouraging, both of themselves and of strangers. The ultimate go-getters. Of course it can’t be true of everyone, but it’s still an image that the country is proud of and uses as global social currency. That image is swiftly eroding, as media reveal the hidden treatment of non-white Americans to the world even in this 21st century, and as Trump and his supporters spew hatred, condescension and vitriol. What will be left of this picture after November 8th? Regardless of the outcome of the election, how will America view herself now that these rifts and inconsistencies have been made clear?
To return to my interaction with that woman – it’s a horrible thing to be on the other end of such a question. People love to talk about how immigrants effect their destination country’s economy, politics, society and whatever else. Rarely do you hear how these major moves affect the immigrants themselves. Many times I feel acutely how I don’t belong here, and see my foreignness getting in the way of establishing myself, and receiving care. This is from my place of privilege, as a native-English speaker! I can’t imagine what it’s like for people that migrate under fraught circumstances, as refugees or asylum seekers.
God stresses throughout the Bible the need to treat aliens with dignity, concern and respect. I never understood this growing up. Surely if they’ve moved somewhere more or less of their own will, then they’ll be happy and manage as they must? Lately I’ve come to understand that it’s not that simple, that in fact, it can be very hard, and isolating – even without hostile questions couched in innocent curiosity. If we could talk about this more that might engender a little empathy, and a little empathy would go a long way.We’re human too after all, looking for a better life for ourselves (and our families).
He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.