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Our Immigration System is Broken, But We can Fix It: Reuben

So much of the conversation about immigration during this election season has not been based on facts or on the biblical value of philoxenia (love of the stranger, see Romans 12:13 or Hebrews 13:2). There has been much talk about immigrants—and not enough listening to immigrants themselves. The Blessing Not Burden campaign is part of changing that. 

Our immigration organizer, Kate Kooyman, met with Reuben recently to hear from him: what would you change about our immigration conversation in the USA? This post is the third of 4 this month—visit this page to see the other posts or sign up to make sure you don't miss a post!

1. Tell us about your immigration story.

I grew up bouncing back and forth between Chad and the United States. My father was the first to immigrate -- he came to the States to attend seminary. I was a little kid when we first came, and during middle school I moved back to Chad, then I came back to the States to finish high school and attend college.

After college I had a visa called the Optional Practical Training (OPT) visa, which is meant for international students who want to get some experience working in their field after studying in the U.S. It allows you to work at a specific job related to your major, usually for a year or maybe two. I went to Texas to work with a youth organization, but when that organization shut down in the middle of my year there, my visa was in jeopardy. I tried to find another organization to work for, I started searching for grad schools to apply to, and lots of people suggested that maybe I just overstay my visa to buy myself time. But ultimately I decided to go back home to Chad.

I stayed there for 10 years, and and ended up working in the oil & gas industry for several companies, one of them being ESSO, an affiliate of Exxonmobil. In 2008, while I was there, Chad experienced a coup. For years, there had been Chadian rebels organizing in Darfur (Sudan), and they had made several attempts to get into the capital city, N’djamena, to overthrow the President. Because this had occurred before, the government was confident they weren’t a threat, telling people on the radio that there was no danger and no need to flee to safety. But within a few days, it was clear the government was wrong. The rebels made it to the capital and there was fighting all over the capital. The rebels managed to eventually to take the whole city except the Presidential Palace. Citizens who had trusted what they heard on the radio now rushed to get to safety in Cameroon or elsewhere. Many people died in the crossfire.  

Citizens who had trusted what they heard on the radio now rushed to get to safety in Cameroon or elsewhere. Many people died.

I was actually on vacation in Nigeria when the coup began. A cousin called me, yelling “The rebels are coming!”. I rushed to try to get back to Chad because I had family there and I wanted to ensure they were safe. There was a bridge that joined Cameroon to Chad’s capital city where the fighting was, but I couldn't get over it. I was now a refugee. People were crossing the river on canoes, packing the bridge, trying to get to safety. On the other side of the river, they were sleeping anywhere they could. We could hear the gunshots from where we were—just on the other side of the river, but in a different country and a safer situation. Those who had means were able to go further south in Cameroon, or even find shelter in hotels or other places in Cameroonian city of Kousseri, the city adjacent to N’djamena. I was part of a team in charge of ensuring those from Exxon (Chadian nationals; all the expats had been already evacuated a few days earlier) were safe and had shelter.

The rebels eventually retreated. The Chadian president held his ground and pushed them out. Slowly over the next few months people started returning to Chad and were able to return to their homes.

Because I’d come back and forth from the States so many times, it wasn’t very hard for me to get a visitors visa. In 2011, I did just that and then eventually got a student visa so that I could start seminary. I reconnected with a friend from my college years, we dated, and eventually married. Because my wife is a U.S. citizen, I went through the lengthy process of applying for and obtaining permanent resident status (green card). I hope to begin the process soon of applying to become a U.S citizen.

2. What kinds of messages are you hearing right now about immigrants?

What I’ve been hearing is a mix, but it's mostly been positive in churches. Lots of churches I’m connected with have growing ministries to welcome refugees. My own church is very supportive, and is a home church for young people who came to the U.S. as refugees.

On the other side, I’ve heard Christian friends talk about jobs being taken away.

My own church is very supportive, and is a home church for young people who came to the U.S. as refugees.

I have a friend who is an African pastor and works with many African congregations in Michigan who has an interesting perspective. He spends so much time dealing with the part after an immigrant or refugee arrives in the U.S.—and it’s not so easy. People are trying to get acclimated and assimilate, but often have very little help doing so. They can easily fall into issues with addiction, crime, or family stress. So many refugees have grown up in camps—they don’t even know the normal cultural life of Africa, let alone the cultural life of the U.S. If you haven’t even experienced that normal kind of life, then coming to the U.S. doesn’t automatically make your life better. It’s hard to “adjust” when displacement and trauma is all you know.  

I think the African church could be a voice for this. There are cultural understandings that we have that the Westerner doesn’t. We come from a communal culture. So for example, we don’t know this concept of talking privately to a therapist about our problems. Your counselor is your friend, your community in the African perspective. We need to be the voice of the cultural gaps to try to shape it in a way that both sides can understand.

3. How does the immigration conversation need to change?

My sister went to college, and after graduating she was running out of options to legally stay in the US. She had a lot of people telling her: don’t go back to Chad. Just stay here even if you’re here illegally. My dad wasn’t happy about that advice, and eventually she did go back there. But she wasn’t going back to a bad situation in Chad. People didn’t understand that “Africa” isn’t one monolithic place. What’s happening in Congo isn’t the same as what’s happening in Chad.

I can imagine that "ethical dilemma" being really different for a family if their home country was South Sudan. So my heart is pressed in that tension. If you’re going back to a life that’s harder than it is here, well that’s a challenge. But if you’re going back to persecution or to war or to a place that’s impossible to survive, that’s different.

You undermine the law when it is illogical in that way—when your only real choice is to violate it.

I hear the stories of kids who have been here since they were babies, but came illegally with their parents. And by the letter of the law, they’re undocumented. But the letter of the law must also accommodate common sense for justice to have its part. You undermine the law when it is illogical in that way—when your only real choice is to violate it.

The system is complex. But it's not an evil system. It's just a broken system. Can we use common sense, can we build in workable exceptions? These things are possible.

Want to hear more? Read more posts in the series here

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