A Church for Dreamers: DACA

Photo by Kathy123 / pixabay.com

By Nikki Toyama-Szeto

I think I dropped a plate and almost broke it when I heard the news of President Trump’s plan to end DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). As the reality of the decision to terminate the path to legal citizenship for children who were brought to this country without proper paperwork started to become more and more concrete, I listened to the stories, stepped back, and tried to put myself in the place of a Dreamer. The possibility of a college degree, revoked. The ability to work legally, ending in a year when a permit expires. The path to citizenship, permanently closed. And to be honest, I couldn’t imagine what it would be like, to be told that unless Congress passes laws that say differently, my ability to work and to live in my community would be jeopardized. I looked at my children, and tried to imagine what I would do.

For many of my pastor friends, they don’t have to imagine. They know. They are walking along members of their church who are affected by the DACA ruling, or they themselves are wrestling with this reality. While some say “keep politics out of church,” the reality is that this decision is a major pastoral issue for many communities. Political decisions affect different parts of our country disproportionately, and for some church communities, the impact of DACA is nearly incalculable.

Although my personal history with discrimination and immigration runs deep, I am not involved on the frontlines of immigration work. I have the choice to opt-in—or maybe not the choice, but the obligation, the privilege. As one small step, I committed to praying a couple of months ago for someone who is on the front lines of the battle for immigration reform and care for immigrants, someone who is doing the hard work. Every Monday, I pray for her, for strength and for wisdom as she leads a movement.

While I believe that prayer is powerful, and that prayer is the work of justice, I wrestle with the fact that many people hide behind prayer and use it as an excuse to not get involved, to not get our hands dirty. But in Isaiah 58, we are reminded that God sees our vertical relationship with God as integrally intertwined with our relationship with other people. I recognize myself in the passage—a person who wants to pray and fast for difference. But feel myself jolted by God’s words of love to his people, “Is this the kind of fast I’ve chosen?” God continues to exhort his people that true flourishing for them as individuals is only found in the flourishing of a community, where all people are able to enjoy the good things that God intended for them.

…our vertical relationship with God is integrally intertwined with our relationship with other people.

As a Japanese American woman, I am very aware of what it means to have the government ask you to register with them, and then to have that information used against you. My family was asked to register and then report to a concentration camp during World War II—for their “safety.” But instead of keeping us safe, it was an action that tore our family apart—resulting in the permanent separation of my great-grandparents from their kids. Our family knows what it is like to give information to the government and then wonder if that information is going to used to facilitate our own removal from the country.

As Asian Americans, the stories of paper sons, of people whose last names are not their real last names, are our stories—and they are testaments to a broken system that discriminated (and still discriminates) against people immigrating from places other than Europe. Our churches and our government should be working to make families stronger, not tear them apart. One of the largest benefactors of the immigration policy that prioritizes the reunification of family members has been Asian families. That is what is on the table.

So I’m committing to pray, but I am also committing to find a tangible way to get involved. I don’t know what that is yet. But rather than wait for a perfect solution, here’s what I will be trying to do:

  • I will look to my neighborhood and community. I’m actively trying to find ways that families of kids at our school might be affected, and see what I can do for them right now.
  • I will pray for Congress to have the urgency and compassion to pass legislation to protect DACA folks.
  • I will look for ways to support that legislation, and I will look for ways to ensure that compassion, not utilitarianism, is at its core.

A few weekends ago, I traveled to New York and took my kids to see the Statue of Liberty. When I was growing up, the words at the pedestal represented the heartbeat of our country: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free.” As we walked through the museum in the pedestal, and looked up and listened to the experiences of Ellis Island, it was so striking to me how far our country has moved from that view.

My visit to Ellis Island reminded me that as a Christian church, our calling is higher than a call to loyalty to country.

My visit to Ellis Island reminded me that as a Christian church, our calling is higher than a call to loyalty to country. We are called to align our lives with God as revealed in the Bible, and throughout the Scriptures, we are reminded that God is a God who demands that his people remember the aliens and foreigners in the land. We Americans have something in common with the Israelites to whom God first made that command: with the exception of our First Nations friends, everyone in the US was once an alien in this land. In remembering our story, our collective history, let us also see the people who are the flesh and blood pawns in the midst of political games. In response to that, and in response to our love for God, let us be people who opt-in. Let us be people of deep prayer and deep, meaningful action.

Nikki Toyama-Szeto is Executive Director of Evangelicals for Social Action.

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