The Common Good

The Advent Yearning of Families Separated by a Broken System

This Advent, the Church's cry of deep longing and anticipation for her bridegroom strikes a chord straight through my own life. Yes, Christ is already with us, and he walks us gently through the valleys of shadow and death, but even so, we eagerly anticipate the day when he will come again to make things right.

Because things are not right. For a year and a half now, because of a broken immigration system, my stepfather has been separated from my mother and siblings, Charlie (age 10) and Heidi (age 8). The roots of our immigration story go back long before this separation, to when my mom and stepdad still lived in China, nearly twenty years ago.

In 1991, my mother and father were still married, and our family received permission to immigrate to the U.S. on my dad's student visa. Fast forward seven years: my family is doing well in America, and on our way to becoming permanent residents. Domestically though, marital problems have led to my parents' divorce, and as a result, my mother was removed from our application for permanent residency. She was faced with a difficult decision: her visa would soon expire, at which time she would legally be required to return to China. But returning to China would mean being apart from me during my most formative years as a teenager. Going back to China with my mom if she chose to return was not an option for me, since one of the primary reasons for my parents moving to the U.S. was to allow me a chance to be educated here. My mother chose to stay, knowing that this decision would change her legal residential status to "undocumented."

Because her undocumented status prevented her from being hired in many places, one of the only ways to find employment was by starting a Chinese restaurant. This is when she met my stepfather.

My stepfather also had complicated immigration issues. In China, he had only received a middle school education, and had been working difficult jobs of manual labor while receiving a pittance. His education also prevented him from coming to the States legally, as the U.S. mainly confers visas upon highly-skilled, highly-educated people. Still, my stepfather was determined to have a chance in the "land of opportunity" and, borrowing over $30,000 from family and friends, entered the country illegally by ship in 1991.

For his whole life in America, my stepfather has lived under the radar. He worked in Chinese restaurants, where employers did not check for legal employment status. In 1998, he met my mother and a year later they married. They had two children, both American citizens. Eventually, through long work hours and careful savings, they bought a house and car, and slowly became integrated into the southeast Texas community where my mom still lives. In all these years, they had received no notice from the immigration department regarding their undocumented status.

Early one morning in June 2008, Department of Homeland Security officers banged on my parents' front door with deportation orders for both my stepfather and mother. They immediately detained my stepfather in a prison two hours away from our home. They did not detain my mom because the two children needed somebody to take care of them. After nearly 20 years in the country, and without warning, my mother and stepfather were suddenly ordered to be deported, without even a chance to defend themselves in court.

We quickly hired a lawyer who began to investigate my parents' cases. We sent in an appeal to reopen my mother's case, but the lawyer was uncertain that any legal action would help in my stepdad's situation. My stepfather spent 9 months in prison, until in March 2009 he was finally deported back to China. He now has a 10-year bar from re-entering the country.

Meanwhile, my mother had to close her restaurant, our family's only source of income, because she could not run it on her own while also taking care of her children. My mother could return with my siblings to China, but my parents feel so strongly about the lack of resources and opportunity in the Chinese education system that they are trying all they can to give Charlie and Heidi the chance to grow up in America. We are trying legal means to reopen my mother's case and, if it is reopened, I as a U.S. citizen can petition for her to become a permanent resident.

My mother is allowed to stay in the country while her case is pending (it has been pending for 10 months already), but in the meantime is not allowed to have legal work status. Through odd jobs and savings she is piecing together an income to support herself and the children. In the meantime, my stepdad is trying to find work in China. He cannot return to America for 10 years, and my mother cannot go back to China without forfeiting her chance to return to the U.S. For one and a half years now, they have been separated by either prison bars or an ocean, and by the dysfunctional regulations of the U.S. immigration system.

As I wrestle with the tragedy and seeming futility of my family's situation, my heart finds a place of rest in the themes of separation, immigration, and yearning for home that flow through the biblical narrative. After Eden, we have always been a people separated from our God and aliens in a land far from true home. Advent is a time of yearning for Christ to once again come and make things right, to once and for all bring to his creation a full reconciliation between God and humans, humans and creation, and to reunite broken families and communities.

I long to see my family reunited and together again in the small Texas community where they have invested many years of their life. I echo the Israelites' exile cry: "How long, O Lord, how long?" How long will families be torn apart? How long will people work hard and be mistreated in return? How long will we, your Church, remain deaf to the cries of the poor, widowed, and alien in the land? When will you come to make things right?

Even so, come Lord Jesus!

portrait-liuan-chen-huskaLiuan Chen Huska immigrated from China to the United States with her family when she was three. She grew up in Texas and California and recently graduated from Wheaton College with a B.A. in Anthropology.

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