Listening to Immigrant Children
“Conversations on immigration are more often politicized than humanized,” marketing text says for the Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Conde-Frazier’s new bilingual book, Listen to the Children: Conversations with Immigrant Families. In the book, which is a finalist in ForeWord Review’s 2011 Book of the Year awards, she attempts to change both the reality and the discussion by sharing immigrant families’ stories and by offering parenting advice to those in the midst of immigration journeys. Conde-Frazier is vice president of education and dean of Esperanza College in Philadelphia. She is also is an ordained American Baptist pastor with more than ten years ministry experience. UrbanFaith talked to Conde-Frazier about the book and about how Christians should think about illegal immigration. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
UrbanFaith: Why did you write Listen to the Children?
Elizabeth Conde-Frazier: I wrote the book while I was professor at the Claremont School of Theology in California. Part of my job was working with students from the Latin American Bible Institute. A lot of them came from families that were a mix of persons who had or did not have citizenship and it led to conversations and to my doing workshops around the country. And so, I started to understand the issues of the people, of the pastors working with the people, of the Sunday school teachers, of the social workers and so forth.
In North Carolina, I did a five-hour presentation with this community, which allowed me time to be with the parents. When we sat down to eat, a lot of children were sitting at the table with us. There had been a roundup of persons at a particular place of employment, and I looked at the reaction of the children to the conversation about this. They recoiled; they became very fearful; they left the table; they began to cry. This was hard enough for the adults. But, for the children it was even more so.
Having been a teacher myself, I realized the children were not able to articulate their feelings. And so, I later spent time sitting on the floor in this room where they were playing. Rather than asking them questions, I began to use felt puppets to tell the story of Ruth and Naomi and how they had immigrated. Then I allowed the the children to retell me the story with the same figures. In doing so, the children used the figures to tell their own stories. I began to see how they were feeling. When I finished my time with that community, they came to me and said, “Where is your book on all of this that you have presented to us? We need you to write a book.” That to me felt like a call, and so that’s what I did. But I wrote the book not so much from the perspective of the adults, but for the children and their needs.
What are the primary challenges these children experience?
Immigration is a trauma. Even if you came here and you are a citizen, immigration is still traumatic. Let me create a metaphor for you to describe it. If I take a bunch of dominos and I stand them up and create a pattern with them, that is life the way we know it, where we are sure about the different institutions and how life is, how the culture names things, what our traditions are that create parameters around our identity and so forth. If I take my fists and bang them on the table, the dominos fall apart and the patterns that are there fall apart. Some of the dominos may even fall on the floor. That’s how immigration feels. The patterns of life and everything about life as you know it falls apart. You may try to rebuild, but there are pieces that you lose in the process.
Then, on top of that, if I take a bunch of marbles and I roll them out on this same table with the dominos, now you’ve got all these elements of life that you have no idea how to manage. You have to take the dominos, which are the things that you think you know how to manage and you have to use them in new ways to keep all these marbles from falling all over the place. In the midst of your trying to do that, I can continue to come back and bang my fists again, and the things that you thought you had begun to construct again once more fall apart.
When children are living in the midst of that, it is very traumatic. It says there’s no routine, there’s no structure, and the most important thing that children need in life is routine and structure. The routine creates the structure. Not having work creates chaos and poor families don’t have a sense of structure. That affects the child’s intelligence. That affects their ability to organize their thoughts, it affects how their brains are formed and so forth. Putting together life parameters, relationships, and so forth becomes twice as difficult.
Children also have a sense of abandonment. The adults can leave them at any point. They have no control over any of those things. Trust cannot be built. When families are separated for long periods of time, you see how difficult it is for children to reconnect to parents and parents to children. And so, there’s this continuous sense of loss that people are experiencing, but they can’t quite put their finger on it.
How can those of us who may be in relationship with immigrant children support them and their families?
In everyday life we are on committees in the community perhaps, we have food banks, we may be in the PTA, wherever we are, we can find opportunities to help change or expand the agenda of that place so that it is sensitive to those who may be alternately documented.
If a church has a program to the community and is serving these persons, then they need to be aware of how their program can address these needs, or how they can partner with others so that rather than being limited only to what their program has to offer, they have a network of other programs to pull from in a moment of crisis.
Advocating for the laws at this time is very important. Writing to our different legislators does make a difference. Legislators do listen to that. What does it take to have a night where you serve soup and bread? I say soup and bread, because it’s a very simple meal and it’s probably what persons who have just arrived here are going to have to eat. In solidarity, what we do with this evening is we pray, we have this meal, we write these letters, we talk about the issues, and we send the letters out. It forms the compassionate heart of a people of God who do justice. And what does God require of us in Micah? Whatever it takes that we can internalize persons who are different from ourselves, whose lives are different, that’s what we want to do as the faith practice of the church.
Given your target audience’s transience, how will readers find the book?
Remember that there is the network of churches and families. That is a network that’s beyond marketing. They pass it along. For example in the summer, I teach in Texas. People come from both sides of the border to learn. They’re pastors and lay persons and they’ll use the book. They’ll take it back across the border. The section on preparing children for border crossing or separation is helpful not only to people who might be thinking of immigrating, but it is also helpful to persons who may have already done so. It allows them the opportunity to reflect on what they did or didn’t do, so that then they can ask themselves, “Oh, what do I need to do at this point, because I did it this way or that.”
How would you respond theologically to those who may criticize you for providing helpful information to people who may be planning to do something illegal?
First of all, the theological piece has to be informed by a political piece, because theology is not done in a vacuum. People need to realize that the laws of our country and the free-trade laws are taking land away from people and making it impossible for many of the farmers [in Latin American countries] to survive. Those countries do not have the safety net that we so far have. And so, I would love to see those critics find themselves hungry, with nothing to feed their children, with no way of having a job and prayers that seem to go unanswered. I’d love to see how they would stay within the confines of what they call law.
What Christians need to ask themselves is: “When is the law unjust?” If it is unjust, then it is not a law according to the purposes of God. Our response to that should be that the church is called to denounce unjust law. Corrie ten Boom was a Christian. We glorify her story because she saved the Jews. She broke the law of her time. Today, after the fact, we say, “Oh how wonderful!” We’re also okay with those who break the law in China because they become Christians, but we’re not okay with people breaking the law because they’re hungry, or because the law is unjust?
I recall from research I did for an article I wrote in 2006 that the number of legal immigration slots for Latin American countries is the same as that for countries with whom we don’t share a border. Is that still the case?
Yes, it is. And the thing for people to look at is the following: The United States has a history of always needing cheap labor. Ever since we had enslavement, we have needed cheap labor. It’s just which immigrant group gets to be the cheap labor. That changes. In order for us to ensure that cheap labor what we do is we create an underclass of people with the law. So we say, on one hand, “We need you to come and work,” but on the other hand, we create laws that say, “If you come, we can’t give you citizenship; we can’t give you your benefits and your rights as a human being.”
Matthew 25 speaks about what human rights are. It speaks about it in the language of the kingdom of God. And so, for someone to eat, to drink, to dress, to be sheltered, to have human companionship, those are the things that are important for sustenance, and the kingdom of God is about sustenance. When we have laws that do not provide for the sustenance of a group of persons, then we are the ones who are against the law, but it’s the kingdom law that we are against.
There’s a discussion in the book about the “worthiness” of immigrants and you advocate using terminology like “alternately documented” and “uncertain” or “precarious” status instead of “illegal alien” and “undocumented.” What’s wrong with using language like “illegal alien”?
The most important thing for Christians is to recognize the Imago Dei, the image of God in all human beings, because to do so is to honor God. To fail to do so and to shut our wells of compassion is to dishonor God. How we call one another needs to reflect what we truly believe. I don’t believe that you are the only one who is in the image of God just because you happen to come to my church or you look like me, or you’re a citizen like me. All human beings are. When we do mission work—and these churches are very happy to go out and do mission work—is it only because it makes them feel good? Or is it because they believe in the image of God in others?
And so, the theological and biblical roots of worthiness come from there. Worthiness also comes from the laws in the Old Testament about how we are to treat those who are foreigners in our midst and how we are to treat the poor and the widows in our midst. There should be no one who is poor in our midst. There should be no on who is discarded in our midst. The words we use have to reflect honor. Rather than using words that reflect distance from others and categorizing them as not being a part of ourselves, we should use words that demonstrate the ministry of reconciliation. In 2 Corinthians 5, we’re called to be ambassadors of reconciliation. “Illegal” and “alien” are words that reflect disconnect with others and say they’re not my neighbor, so I don’t have to watch over them. They are words that go along with a current in our country, and around the world really, that categorizes human beings politically as being far away from us, and not deserving of any type of rights as the rest of us, whereas in the eyes of God, that is not how to do it. And so, we need to use words that allow the space for worthiness.