On Monday I watched as my young DREAMer friends pause to pray from the “other side” of the fence in Nogales, Mexico before attempting to cross the border back into the Arizona. Rev. John Fife, founder of the Sanctuary Movement, walked with his hand on the shoulder of Marco Saavedra. As he approached the border, a reporter asked Marco if he had anything to say. “Perfect love casts out all fear,” he said. Then he stepped forward into the unknown.
All nine immigrant youth leaders grew up in the U.S., some of them qualify for Deferred Action for Childhod Arrivals, therefore are DREAMers. They chose to leave the U.S. to accompany their undocumented peers, who also grew up here, but who left or were deported because of a broken immigration system. They and their families are victims of the broken U.S. border policy. So “documented” and “undocumented” youth, standing together for justice, met on the Mexico side of the border an attempted to cross back into the U.S. together. They were immediately arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials and are now detained at the Correction Corporation of America’s private detention center in Eloy, Ariz.
Two months ago, on a beautiful North Carolina evening in late May, Marco and five other members of the National Immigrant Youth Alliance were sitting in our living room here at Rutba House. I’d invited these young people to come because I’m impressed by their leadership in the struggle for immigrant justice. As undocumented people who crossed the border with their families when they were young, they are DREAMers. They cut their teeth on America’s political process by trying to help Congress imagine a future for people like them.
But when the DREAM Act failed, these young people of great faith did not give up. They dug in for the long fight. Learning about grassroots organizing, they began helping communities advocate for neighbors in deportation proceedings. By telling the stories of real people, they were able to halt dozens of deportations. Still, they knew there were far more they hadn’t stopped. So, to draw attention to the plight of millions, they started doing civil disobedience at ICE offices, proclaiming themselves “undocumented and unafraid.” Last year, three of them infiltrated detention centers and began organizing detainees in deportation proceedings. Where it had taken weeks to contact people from outside to tell one story, they found they could collect dozens of stories every day inside detention centers. They came up with a new slogan: “Jails the Best You Have? Because Our Organizing Starts in Jail.”
These were the stories of courage and radical witness that caught my attention. Here, I thought, was the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee of today’s immigrant justice movement. The church has to stand with these young people — to learn from them and follow their leadership. But how? I asked them to come and spend a week talking with me and other faith leaders.
But I’ll never forget that first evening in my living room. I asked what I thought was a simple question: what are your hopes for this week? What came out, person after person, was deep lament. I realized I was listening to people who cannot imagine a future for themselves and the people they love most. They are tired of justifying their own existence, weary of hearing their hard-working, courageous parents derided as “illegal.” They cannot forget the horrors they’ve seen inside detention centers any more than they can silence the cries of mothers separated from their families by a border. I realized I wasn’t sitting in a strategy session for immigration reform. I was with Israel, up against the Red Sea, learning what it means to pray that God will make a way out of no way.
We cried a lot that week in May, but I knew as I hugged these young friends that they had given me and the other church folk who sat with them an incredible gift: they invited us into their struggle. They welcomed us into a story where God is bound to show up.
Congress has struggled this summer to find a way forward with immigration reform. Recalling our mandate to “welcome the stranger,” churches have struggled to discern exactly what that looks like in terms of advocacy steps. Truth is, none of us knows just how to get to the America that has not yet been. But the “Dream 9,” as they are now called, are putting their bodies on the line to lead us forward. They have, like the Levites who stepped into the Jordan River, already waded into the water. As people of faith, we know that this is the only way resurrection ever happens. By standing up and speaking out for the Dream 9, we can become the answer to our prayer: “Lord, bring us home to your welcome table where there is room for each of us.”
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, founder of Rutba House in Durham, N.C., is the author most recently of The Awakening of Hope. You can find out more about the #bringthemhome campaign supporting the DREAM 9 HERE or by calling Patricia M. Vroom, Chief Counsel at 602-744-2412 and demanding their release.