Listening to a story radically changed my perspective about my immigrant neighbors. A Latino mom told about how her daughter would cry before going to school each morning because she was afraid that when she came home, her mommy would not be there—instead, she would be alone because her mom would have been taken away for deportation.
That story broke my heart. Until I heard it, my immigrant neighbors were faceless statistics to me. Suddenly they became flesh-and-blood human beings who, like me, wanted their families to flourish.
This story, and others like it, were told about eight years ago in a series of meetings on immigration issues sponsored by my church, American Reformed Church in Orange City. We met every Wednesday night for eight weeks to talk with our immigrant neighbors, not at or about them. After these meetings, a few of us met and decided that too many of our immigrant neighbors had been rendered “voiceless” by community members who didn’t want them around. We needed to help them tell their stories. We needed to get to know each other so that we could envision and work toward making northwest Iowa a region where all of us could flourish together, whatever our race or ethnicity.
Two concrete initiatives evolved, undertaken by CASA of Sioux County (Center for Assistance, Service, and Advocacy) for which I currently serve as co-director with Judy Hauswald. The first was an online petition to reform our immigration system, which gained the attention of a few of our political representatives. But, sad to say, nothing lasting came of that initiative because for many politicians, our immigrant neighbors are still faceless statistics who are viewed as threats to “our way of life.” They certainly don’t need to be listened to. How can anyone reach such conclusions about people they don’t even know?
Our second CASA initiative has thrived because it was based on the importance of getting to know our immigrant neighbors in a personal way. The seventh annual Latino Festival was hosted at Windmill Park in Orange City on June 26. Each year, many Anglo and Latino neighbors gather together to celebrate the riches of local Latino culture—to enjoy Latino cuisine, to listen to some splendid Latin American music and, especially for the kids, to enjoy games together where the color of one’s skin makes no difference. To be sure, too many of us still sit at tables with “our own kind,” but we are slowly bridging differences by getting to know one another better toward the goal of flourishing together in our community. This experience of human bonding gives a richer meaning to the word “diversity” than the anemic meaning that pervades American culture.
Too many Americans settle for a thin view of diversity that is, at best, co-existence. We live side-by-side, more or less peacefully, with those who differ from us. But we do not really engage with each other. As a result, we don’t learn to appreciate and benefit from the strengths and contributions of those from other cultures. As a case in point, I have benefited greatly from the emphasis on developing close personal relationships that I observe within many Latino families and other Latino groups, which is a much needed corrective to the hyper-individualism that permeates American culture.
The thick view of diversity that we need in America is one where we don’t just co-exist with those who differ from us. Rather, we must genuinely engage with one another by listening to and talking with them, enabling us to build relationships of mutual understanding and trust that make it possible for all of us to benefit from each other’s gifts and unique stories.
The failure of the first CASA initiative of a political nature, when compared with the success of our second festival initiative of a personal nature, may point toward a potential way to overcome the current deadlock in political attempts at legislating immigration reform. Even more broadly, it may suggest a new way to “do politics” in regards to any public policy issue—which would be a welcome change from the current dysfunction in the political realm.
Starting with a consideration of American politics in general, the primary cause of the current dysfunction is “tribalism,” what political scientists refer to as “affective polarization,” which is summarized as follows by Kevin den Dulk:
We often bemoan how ideology or policy preferences on hot-button issues push partisans apart, and indeed these are important concerns. But today’s most consequential divisions are more basic; they operate at the level of identity. Political scientists call this pattern affective polarization, a deep emotional resonance with a party – the “in-group” – and visceral reaction against the opposition – the out-group. Our partisan divide isn’t merely about liberals versus conservatives, pro-life versus pro-choice. Our lives as partisans have become downright tribal.
This tragic “us versus them” approach to doing politics too easily morphs from believing that “they are wrong” to asserting that “they are evil.” And it negates the possibility of having respectful conversations about public policy disagreements. After all, “my people are right” while “your people are wrong” (at best, or possibly downright evil, at worst) so what is there to talk about?
The only way to transcend dysfunctional identity politics is for those on both sides of a public policy issue to be willing to stop demonizing those who disagree with them and start seeking to get to know them. By first listening with an empathetic ear to understand what they believe, and hoping that they will do likewise, a foundation will have been laid for respectfully talking about the nature of our disagreements toward the goal of uncovering some common ground relative to public policy.
As I re-read my last sentence, it is almost laughable in our day of broken political discourse. But it is my dream nevertheless because the need for such respectful conversation about disagreements is central to my understanding of the Christian faith. In brief, it is my deep conviction that providing someone who disagrees with you a safe and welcoming space to express and talk about disagreements is a deep expression of love for the other person to which Jesus calls all of us who claim to be his followers. A corollary is that “you don’t love someone who you have silenced.”
So, how should all of this apply to the current vitriolic debate about immigration? First, at a personal level, take the time and effort needed to get to know your immigrant neighbors; listening to their stories of joy and sorrow will help you to gain insight as to concrete ways in which you can help them to flourish with you. That much you have control of.
What you do not have control of are the machinations of politicians in regard to the much needed immigration reform. Based on the premise that it is wrong to make decisions that affect the lives of others without first listening and talking to them, you can dare to be a vocal advocate for a radical sea-change in how politicians decide on immigration legislation; a change that expects politicians to have respectful conversations with their immigrant constituents before they cast their votes on immigration issues.
Here is my punchline: While you can’t predict beforehand the results of a genuine and respectful conversation (one of my favorite maxims), carefully listening and talking to those who differ from you or who disagree with you about immigration, or any other issue, will build much needed bridges in our polarized and fragmented world. And that is not just wishful thinking—I have seen it happen.