Last month, amid a discussion of refugees and immigration flowing from the novel Divided City, a student looked at me and said, “Immigrants are taking all our jobs.” The student didn’t really want to discuss this claim, but I lured her in with follow-up questions: Who is “our”? What kind of jobs? Why do you sound angry? and Why does this matter to you?
I was trying to help her articulate why this was important to her, and to understand where this idea had its roots. I’ve found that where there are possibly false ideas, good questions are needed more than a lecture on, say, contemporary Scottish economics.
And then I realized, rather suddenly mid-conversation, that for the first time in a discussion about immigrants, I was one, of sorts. I am living in Scotland, out of my nation of birth, for the near future. Having taught for years in Los Angeles communities populated with first and second generation immigrants, discussions of immigration and the economics and politics therein have never been far from my classroom.
But, it was strange to be on a different end of the equation, and I felt a brief wave of emotion at my student’s accusation. I knew that she didn’t “mean” me (she’d helpfully articulated earlier that she was talking primarily about certain racial minorities), but I glimpsed for a moment what it felt like to be both new and unwanted.
Héctor Tobar writes in his novel, The Tattooed Soldier, of a central truth of the immigrant experience:
Eventually he had learned what every other immigrant in the city seemed to know already. It was a fact of life that when you came to the United States you moved down in social station and professional responsibilities. Women with medical degrees became laboratory assistants, accountants became ditch diggers. Los Angeles made you less than you were back home.
More than vocabulary and idiom must be translated when you immigrate; lateral career moves are difficult. There is a nearly inevitable step down. I don’t pretend to be able to empathize with the experience of immigration forced by economics or political instability nor the burden of dealing with a significant language barrier, but I have gotten hints of the fear, frustration, and helplessness of trying to figure out how to do in a foreign county what you used to do at home.
There is the fear of new structures and procedures, the frustration of not being as good at something as you used to be, and the helplessness that comes from constant misunderstanding. And all of this has helped me feel the pain, if but for a moment, of the thousands of immigrants in my home city. This is the empathy which God charged the Israelites to have:
When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.
Leviticus 19:33, NIV
This challenge to Israel remained long after the generation who grew up in Egypt had died in the desert. It is repeated in Deuteronomy and echoed in the Lord’s words to Ezekiel. It is an empathy based in their specific experience, but also in shared history.
But, the real foundation for the charge is the Lord’s character and action: “I am the Lord your God” is often finished with “who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (see the Deuteronomy citation as an example). The Israelites’ treatment of foreigners was based in the character of God; the knowledge of their own dependence upon Him is never far from the equation.
I wasn’t a foreigner in the literal sense until very recently. My own spike in feeling gives me some sympathy for my student’s emotional frustration and for her difficulty in understanding a situation outside of her own experience. My empathy, as perhaps the first generation of the Israelites was, is acute right now, and I am striving to store these feelings in case I forget what it feels like to have been an alien.