What of the Potential?: Our Samuel moment at the border

Most of us have heard about the influx of children at the southern border of the U.S. Responses run the gamut; anything from the protesters who block the buses from entering their town to calls for compassion and an open door.

Of course, unaccompanied minors coming across the U.S. southern border is not a new problem, it's just that so many of them have been coming within such a short time span. Reports are that the vast majority are coming from violence- or poverty-stricken areas of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.

In some admirable attempts to move to higher ground, bloggers like theologian Roger E. Olson have encouraged us to look at the underlying cause of this influx. In a post that purports to identify "the underlying problem no one seems to be talking about," he points to "our American affluence, including conspicuous consumption and luxury, promoted to the world via movies and television as the result of 'the American dream,' combined with our boast to be a 'nation of immigrants.'”

I think there's truth to this assertion of partial American responsibility, but he later suggests that the only solution to the problems in these Latin American countries is for the U.S. to go in with our resources and expertise and fix them. Given that the U.S. government and CIA have been doing some shady business in many Latin American countries for more than a century, I'm not sure we have the credibility, even if that were a prudent approach.

But even these "other" perspectives--those that seek to go above the partisan divide--still fall into a similar trap. All the commentaries I've read or heard, even the ones calling for compassion, fail to grant these immigrant children full human dignity by recognizing their potential.

It's more obvious coming from the right. Sometimes it seems that anything except for "send them back" is seen as irresponsible policy. Texas governor Rick Perry decided to send in the national guard, apparently unaware that these children are giving themselves up to the first adult they see, rendering such a strategy totally useless. Others are blaming President Obama and don't seem to be aware that current protocol comes from a law signed by George W. Bush. (Obama, who has deported more immigrants than any other U.S. president, actually wanted to amend the law to make it easier to deport the children). The anti-immigrant sentiment is so unbridled among some that a group of protesters in Arizona mistook a bus full of YMCA kids for one filled with immigrant children. One must wonder how immigrants have so egregiously stolen the life and liberty of these "real Americans."

Among others, there's something more subtle but no less ingrained. Though some of us may look upon immigrant children with compassion, we still subconsciously maintain a giver-recipient distinction. They are the poor, helpless kids who have come so that we can take care of them, quote the Bible, and feel like good Christians because we have served "the least of these" (Matthew 25:40). We have so much, they have so little. We give, they receive. We feel good and it gives us a sense of dignity.

What about their dignity? Have you ever noticed that we look at these immigrant children as somehow different from our own children? Our own children deserve the best. For the young people in our own families, churches, etc., we are willing to bust our butts to make sure they have what they need, and then some. Our own children get bedtime stories, pictures on the refrigerator, trips to Disney World, and adults asking them, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" Who is reading these kids a bedtime story? Whose refrigerator has space for their work?

Most importantly, who is asking them, "What do you want to be when you grow up?"

Perhaps you saw the viral video of an interview with a homeless man named Ronald Davis. He poignantly communicates the realities of poverty, like an inability to escape the cycle and, most notably, the lack of dignity. These immigrant children and families lack dignity, and that's something that we have the power to change.

When I Grow Up, I wanna be... from Flickr via Wylio
© 2009 Mahmoud Eghtedari, Flickr | CC-BY-SA
What no one seems to be talking about is the potential of these children. Oh, we hear plenty about other kinds of potential. We hear about potential disease, potential cost, and potential criminal behavior. Is that really all we can see? Due to everything from the giver-recipient distinction to outright hatred and racism, we seem totally incapable of seeing immigrant children as having the same potential that our own children do. What if there was a future doctor on that bus you blocked from entering your town? What if there's a future chef or a nutritionist in that child that you only see as hungry and thirsty? How do we know that they have nothing to give us? Maybe they could teach us some humility. Maybe one of them might find a cure for cancer. Like any other children, their opportunities are limited to what we afford them. We could care for them and educate them and give them the opportunity to become contributing members of our society, or we can send them back to the hopeless life they left, and probable death.

Undocumented immigrants already contribute more than we think. According to Stephen Goss of the Social Security Administration, they pay about $12 billion into that system per year...a system many of them won't ever benefit from.

We have to be willing to invest in these children...spend time and energy now for the sake of a better future down the road. But recent public discourse and congressional budget battles have left me wondering if we even understand this concept. Think of it as a loan. When you loan money, your pockets are emptier at first, but through interest you may stand to get back more than you started with. Sure, sometimes you end up losing, but an unwillingness to invest is why the U.S. has a crumbling infrastructure and is quickly falling behind other countries in many categories. Anti-government and anti-taxation sentiments have left us with enough nuclear weapons to destroy the solar system but electrical grids that can't withstand a typical thunderstorm.

Garrison Keillor once said, "Nothing you do for children is ever wasted." When we see those pictures of children coming across the border or being crammed into makeshift facilities, my prayer is that we will not be filled with hatred or even pity but with wonder at their potential. What could they give and contribute, both now and down the road? Why is it we assume they can't or won't? We are already a country full of accomplished immigrants.

The U.S. gives out something called an O-1 visa. It's given to immigrants who demonstrate "extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics." We gave one to Justin Bieber, and he's already caused more trouble than most of these Latin American children would. We have a broken immigration system that prices most people out, even if they could manage to figure out the forms and requirements. Whenever people say something like, "They should just come here legally," they are revealing a lack of basic knowledge about what it takes to do so. It's not possible for most. You have to have connections, money, and time. Most desperate immigrants have none of those. If it were me, I'd sneak in too, especially for the sake of my children.

Precious few people know what is engraved on a bronze plaque inside our Statue of Liberty. It's a poem called "The New Colossus," written by Emma Lazarus. Here it is in full:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
Did you see that part near the middle? "Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!...Give me your tired, your poor..." According to this poem, the U.S. not only welcomes immigrants, but would rather have those who are currently hopeless and beaten up by life than those who come with fame, expectations, or entitlement. Lady Liberty might be onto something.

This is our Samuel moment at the border. In the Old Testament book named after him, Samuel is sent to Jesse's household to anoint God's chosen king. In the well-known story, David the shepherd boy is not even in the line-up. It seemed so unlikely that he would amount to anything that no one even considered it. But God said to Samuel, "The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart" (1 Sam 16:7).

Christian singer Ray Boltz once wrote a song inspired by this story: "When others see a shepherd boy,
God may see a king."

"They have diseases," some say. "They are a drain on our resources," some say. "They just want handouts," some say.

What if our ancestors had been turned away for the same reasons? What if, as we see only risk, God sees dreams waiting to come true?

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