In Love Undocumented, Quezada takes readers on a journey deep into the fraught world of the U.S. immigration system. With wisdom from Scripture, sociology, and her own experience, Quezada explores God’s call to welcome the stranger, which forces Christians to consider how to live faithfully in the world of closed doors and high fences. How can followers of Jesus engage in the thorny polemics of the immigration debate? Is it possible to eschew fear and cultivate authentic relationships with new arrivals to our country? What if hospitality to our immigrant and refugee neighbors puts us at personal risk? How can churches create safe spaces for those living at the precarious edge of our society?
With Quezada as your guide, discover a subversive Savior who never knew a stranger. Turn away from fear and paralysis. Get to know the God of the Bible, whose love and grace cross all borders.
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Stairwells and Bunkers
A small bell chirped as the ice cream vendor pushed through the crowded sidewalk. Colorful stickers slapped on the sides of the cart advertised ice cream sandwiches, rainbow popsicles, chocolate-dipped concoctions rolled in nuts. Impeded by the crowds, he bumped over the curb and into the street, pushing his cart faster and hollering "¡Helado!" (Ice cream!) to the parents and children teeming up and down each side of the busy street. Loud, tempting sizzles cracked in the air as street vendors fried hot dogs wrapped in bacon. Norteño music blared from the park on one side of the sidewalk and Spanish pop flowed from storefront pupuserias (Salvadoran restaurants) across the street. Bass beats boomed from cars waiting at traffic lights, and mothers pushed strollers and held tightly to toddlers while crossing the intersection.
I tried not to gawk. The day before, I had driven my Nissan Sentra, crammed with all my personal belongings, into downtown Los Angeles. My dear friend Jennifer had spent the last week driving with me from Kentucky — more than two thousand miles across the country — to help me get settled into my new place before she flew back home a few days later. We had lived together for the last two years while I attended graduate school. After graduation, I had accepted a job at an L.A.-area Christian university to help lead an urban studies program. It was my dream job, so I'd packed up and gone west, even though I knew no one nor had any idea what I was getting into.
Our plan had been to walk from my new apartment to the nearest subway station, which I could take to get to my office. But we were not entirely sure we were heading in the right direction, so we instead allowed the swell and flow of people to push us along. I felt jostled from every side. Teenagers bumped me as they passed. Families squeezed together so pedestrians could form makeshift "lanes" on the narrow sidewalk. Men leaning against buildings on the corners of alleyways whispered "Psst!" to catch my eye and offer "ID? ID?" while rubbing their fingers together. They looked at me imploringly. I had no idea what was happening. Still, I resisted the urge to pull the neatly folded Los Angeles map out of my back pocket, where I'd hidden it to avoid looking like a tourist.
But I'd never felt more like an outsider. My travel experience was limited, and I had been outside of the United States exactly three times, two of those to Canada when I worked as a summer camp counselor in Vermont and chaperoned kids to Canadian attractions. The other time was a visit to the Los Angeles ex-burbs with some friends when we decided to "go to Mexico for lunch." We made no plan and consulted no map. We figured if we got turned around, we just needed to ask "¿Dónde está la playa?" (Where is the beach?) and then turn right. Clearly the well-thought-out itinerary of savvy, international travelers.
But as Jennifer and I walked toward what I hoped would be the Westlake/MacArthur Park subway station, I felt as if I had left the States once again. Spanish floated through the air and adorned business signs, no one I saw looked like me, and the pedestrian crowds were overwhelming. In fact, the area was the second most dense neighborhood in Los Angeles, with more than 38,000 people per square mile. It was also a heavily immigrant community, boasting a high percentage of foreign-born people even for L.A. Approximately 90 percent of residents were Latino or Asian, and Mexico and El Salvador were the most common countries of foreign birth.
I may have come to Los Angeles to guide college students through an urban semester program, but I was woefully unprepared for this expression of America.
The changing face of the country has dominated the political discourse, as well as dinner table conversations, off and on throughout U.S. history. The topic of immigration has flared again, with particular attention to undocumented arrivals from south of the border, as well as the surging refugee population from war-plagued countries like Syria. According to the Migration Policy Institute, in 2015 around 13.5 percent of the U.S. population, or 43.3 million people, were immigrants. And immigrants have continued to move, whether legally or illegally, into communities throughout the country.
These new arrivals make an impact in their local neighborhoods, and longtime residents have mixed reactions. As well-known journalist and Spanish-language news anchor Jorge Ramos said in an interview, "There's no question that we are in the middle of a demographic revolution that is affecting everything, from the way we eat, to the way we dance, to the way we vote. ... This trend has created two very different reactions. On one hand, millions of Americans embracing immigrants and embracing foreigners and embracing the changes, and a few other millions rejecting that change."
Many of us have witnessed the fear and distrust of immigrants and refugees grow, especially as new arrivals have been saddled with the weight of all social ills. Drugs, violence, unemployment, gangs, rape, terrorism, secularism, and more are fashioned into a narrative that scapegoats some of the world's most exploited and vulnerable peoples.
But while some politicians prey on fears of the Other, many people, including Christians, feel uncertain about what is really going on with immigrants. Is it true that unchecked masses are pouring over our borders? Why aren't people just following the proper procedures? What does reasonable and compassionate engagement look like? In my interview for the Los Angeles position, I had been told my job would include working closely with immigrant families. I was enthusiastic about this prospect, although I admitted in the conversation that I knew almost nothing about the political "sides" regarding the topic. In an effort to assure the interviewer I could serve families in this capacity, I mumbled something about liking to meet new people and generally favoring that others feel welcomed in this country.
That halfhearted answer pretty much summed up my entire "opinion" on immigration. Heated political debates and sensational statistics just didn't resonate with me. I know I'm not alone in preferring to avoid these fiery approaches to the topic. Conversations about immigration can feel exhausting, and they are often divorced from the real people hiding behind the speeches and the numbers. So much nuance is lost in the binary perspectives of liberal versus conservative, Republican versus Democrat, or Left versus Right. But I believe Christians want to engage immigrants in their communities — as well as the national immigration conversation — in ways that uphold the Bible and honor the dignity of people from all over the world.
Unfortunately, few churches are having conversations about immigration. A 2015 study from LifeWay Research revealed only one in five evangelical Christians said their local church had ever encouraged them to reach out to immigrants in their communities. Yet almost 70 percent of those surveyed said they would appreciate a sermon that taught how biblical principles and examples could be applied to the issue of immigration.
Navigating the vehement tones of the current immigration debate can be unsettling. How do we resist the political fearmongering? How do we balance our desire to love our neighbor with real questions and concerns about the ways immigration affects us? How do we talk with sisters and brothers in the church about what has become a "political" question — even and perhaps especially if we disagree?
As I flowed with the crowd along the buzzing, swirling street, I felt completely overwhelmed. I grabbed Jennifer's arm and pulled her into a small staircase descending from the street. A low wall shielded us from the pulsing sidewalks. I sat down and took a breath. I was surrounded by strangers, people I didn't know from places I'd never seen, speaking a language I'd barely learned in college.
Growing up, my generation was warned about "stranger danger" — the idea that someone unknown might very well be a threat. The best way to handle a situation with unfamiliar persons was to flee, to run and tell a grownup, to find safety. Under no circumstances should you escalate the interaction by speaking to a stranger, accepting their candy, or climbing into their windowless van. Unfortunately, I never revisited this childhood strategy, or developed a more robust and mature approach to encountering the stranger. I'm not sure my friends or other Christians I knew had either.
Are we taught how to thoughtfully engage with people who are unfamiliar? As Christians, do we really grapple with how Scripture instructs us to welcome the stranger? In The Irresistible Revolution, author Shane Claiborne writes, "I had come to see that the great tragedy of the church is not that rich Christians do not care about the poor but that rich Christians do not know the poor." This sentiment rings exceedingly true when we talk about immigration. Barriers like language, religion, and cultural customs — not to mention the fact that communities are segregated by race and class — make relationships between native-born citizens and immigrants challenging. Many of us born in the United States simply do not know immigrants. It's especially unlikely that we have relationships with those who are undocumented and living in the shadows of mainstream society. That isolation certainly described my own situation when I pulled into Los Angeles as a young adult.
Lack of relationship is a breeding ground for fear. Fear and anxiety pervade the conversation about immigrants and refugees. Indeed, these feelings seem to have taken up permanent residence in the American psyche. In a 2016 article for Curbed, journalist Patrick Sisson spoke with contractors and security firms specializing in high-end fortified panic rooms and bunkers. While privacy concerns prevented these companies from sharing specific numbers or details about clients, Sisson reported that everyone interviewed for the piece testified they'd seen business growth in the last decade. These modern-day luxury clients are hiring professionals to construct bulletproof family rooms, bomb-safe bedrooms, and underground bunkers complete with swimming pools, exercise rooms, and shooting ranges.
Of course, some protective structures, particularly storm shelters, have always been a part of some Americans' lives. "Built with neighbors," Sisson notes, "they were a symbol of a new settlement and an expanded community." But then Sisson makes a very startling distinction: "Today, shelters and bunkers are an escape from community, motivated by a belief that our society is fraying and unable to cope with coming civil unrest, terrorism, or other destabilizing events." Fear is escalating isolation, which yields even more insecurity and uncertainty.
Jennifer and I hid out in our own staircase bunker and spread the map over our legs. I gingerly traced the roads from my new apartment, peeking out from behind the wall to read street signs. My finger landed on my current position in the Westlake/MacArthur Park community, a mere block from my destination subway station. I felt a tiny spring of tears at the corner of my eyes. We had not taken a wrong turn. In fact, we were right on track. This chaotic and noisy walk was my new commute to work. I felt unsure of myself. I felt overwhelmed. I felt a little afraid. And my reaction surprised me.
My penchant for new experiences, as well as my faith background, had merged into a foundational belief that fear, while an acceptable emotion, was not something on which to dwell or on which to make decisions. I'd grown up memorizing Bible verses with G.T. and the Halo Express. From one of their songs, I discovered my favorite Scripture, Isaiah 41:10: "Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand." I had never assumed that the Christian life would come without uncertainty or suffering, but I was relatively confident that God would be present in any unfamiliar circumstances.
I also took great comfort in the many Scriptures in which the people of God are reminded not to be afraid. Over and over, when God bursts onto the scene, the first command is to "fear not." When God shows up in a vision to Abram, the initial dialogue in Genesis 15:1 is "Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great." Then God proceeds to make a covenant with him. When Gabriel visits Mary to tell her she's carrying the Christ child, she is confused by his greeting. He immediately responds, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God" (Luke 1:30). Similarly, the shepherds are surprised by an angel of the Lord, who leads with "Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people" (Luke 2:10). When Jesus overhears others telling Jairus that his daughter has died, Jesus interjects himself into the conversation, saying, "Do not fear, only believe" (Mark 5:36), before he heads to Jairus's house to raise his daughter from the dead. Hagar, Joshua, the disciples who see Jesus walk on water: all these people of God and more are reassured that, though they are encountering the unfamiliar, the audacious, the overwhelming, they don't need to be afraid.
So how do we welcome strangers in a world that defaults to fear? When the divine breaks into our day-to-day lives, will we panic and miss God's presence? To avoid the isolation that cultivates fear of the Other, we have a pressing need for community. Relationships across cultural barriers are an antidote to fear. The distant, mythical immigrant "out there" is much more intimidating and menacing than, say, the immigrant mom at preschool pickup who is trying to convince her own stubborn toddler that leaving the playground and going home to take a nap is a great idea. When presented with risk and fear of the unknown, we have the opportunity to choose our response. We can be wary or be welcoming.
When Sisson interviewed the founder of Black Umbrella, a safety business that helps families prepare for disasters, she made a similar observation about the ways Americans are reacting to life's threats.
It would be my personal preference that people confront these security issues by becoming more a part of the community, better at tribe building, and more resilient. The trend appears to be heading towards social isolation and pessimism, to build an island in my house and close the door. It's great to have in your back pocket, but it doesn't replace everyday situational awareness. I don't want to critique other Americans, but it's like the difference between working out and plastic surgery. Both things will get you where you want to be, but one thing will leave you more prepared. I would love to see our country do more of the hard work.
Community building in an age of fear: what a beautiful and countercultural opportunity for the church. What would it look like if we took the lead in stepping out across the lines of fear and uncertainty? What if Christians began to see relationships as central to repairing a broken social fabric and worked together for compassionate change? We are not called to fear and isolation. The thread of Scripture draws us over and over again into relationship with God and relationship with others, all the while reminding us not to be afraid.
Love Undocumented recounts my story of risking trust in a fearful world. Join me as I meet new people and experience unexpected situations. Both during these real-life events and in the telling of them here, I have been constantly learning and asking new questions. I have been surprised by the appearance of God in the face of the Other, and I have marveled at the ways that God has nudged and tugged me out of fear and into trust. I hope you will find the same.
Sitting on those concrete steps, listening to the accordion music floating through the air, I didn't yet know that the invitation to welcome the stranger is an open door to abundant life filled with cake, dance parties, and piñatas. I had no idea that I would soon meet a handsome stranger from Guatemala, or that he would lead me into a hidden world of experiences I'd never known — from construction sites to Central America to lawyer's offices and back again.
All I knew was that this diverse, bustling city was my new home, and I needed to find my way. Jennifer and I stood up and ascended the stairs. Pressing back into the streaming crowds, we headed toward the subway station.
Excerpted from "Love Undocumented Risking Trust in a Fearful World"
Copyright © 2017 Herald Press.
Excerpted by permission of Herald Press.
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Table of Contents
Author's Note 13
1 Stairwells and Bunkers 15
2 Coffee with a Rock Star 25
3 Illegal 35
4 Coyote Inn 47
5 Red Flags 61
6 Cough Syrup and Sandwiches 75
7 Garment of Destiny 85
8 Mountains of Paperwork 99
9 Celebration 111
10 Alien Relative 123
11 Hiding in Plain Sight 135
12 Fences and Walls 147
13 Bed Quota 161
14 Citizenship without Borders 173
The Author 205
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Sarah Quezada's, Love Undocumented brought back all of these memories of what it must have been like for my mother as she married an immigrant willing to sacrifice it all to obtain the American Dream, for all that means at this juncture in life. Quezada takes us on an educated biblical journey of meeting, falling in love with, and marrying Billy, an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala. Absent of the romance novel language, she defines different laws and political acts to help us understand the process of undergoing filing for citizenship. I love that Quezada comes from a place of privilege (and recognizes that) and writes from having zero understanding about the process to walking through it entirely with new understanding. This book is a 180-page introduction to undocumented immigration and alegrando los papeles. Quezada explains her and Billy's experience with the lawyer. I respected her perspective as she noticed the language barrier that was separating her from comprehending what Mateo, the lawyer, and Billy were talking about. Language barriers are fierce. Sarah felt what so many non-English speaking immigrants face on a daily basis in that session. "But they held my future in a language that I couldn't unlock. I would have to wait to find out the truth until someone decided to include me" (Quezada, 102). In Love Undocumented you will learn about the Bracero Program, DACA, among others, that my father in law assisted in. You will learn about what Jesus and the Bible say about welcoming the foreigner. In my opinion, Love Undocumented is written for white folks who need a better grasp of knowledge on what it means for undocumented immigrants to come and live in this nation. Books written on the plight of the immigrant from the perspective of the actual immigrant or the child of an immigrant are available. Quezada references a couple. I urge you to use this book as a launching off point to do more research. With the language of 45 in play and his unabashed prejudice toward humans of color, it would behoove the Christian audience to dig further into our laws and provide knowledgeable, biblical responses to our undocumented family.
This is a needful book in pressing times. Sarah offers us a beautiful look at what it means to love and the complicated nature of our current immigration system. God calls us to welcome the stranger and Sarah leads the way in this book. To better know the rocky road of becoming an American citizen read the journey of the Quezada's. Know their story is one of many. Hear the call to respond.
I've followed Quezada's blog for quite a while, so I knew some of her and her husband's back story but I enjoyed reading a more detailed description of everything from how they met to where they are today. I appreciate her candor as she tells their story. I also find her sincerity refreshing as she admits how little she knew in the beginning about immigration and how much she has learned. Of course I also enjoyed reading about their dating relationship and how they fell in love. The balance in this book between personal stories, research, and scripture is superb. The book could have been written as just a memoir of their personal experience without all of the research and still would have been great. But with the extra time Quezada took to learn more about the details of immigration and the specific scriptures to back everything it took the book to another level. I gained a new perspective reading about Moses, Joseph, Esther, Noemi, Ruth, and even Jesus himself in light of immigration. I hadn't ever thought about any of those stories that way and learned a lot. It was good to be reminded that we are called to reach out to others no matter their socioeconomic status, race, language, or culture. I've previously read books by immigrants or about immigrants, have a Master's degree in Spanish, and am an ESL teacher at a school with many immigrants so much of the information in this book wasn't brand new news for me. But I did appreciate the perspective of a person to whom it was all brand new information. She included a lot of details I might have missed and assumed more people knew. I like that she was careful to dispel myths and misconceptions that many people have about immigrants. I love it when a book makes me really stop to think. I pray that through my job I can continue to be a light in the lives of my immigrant students. I also pray that everyone that reads this book will feel called to go outside their comfort zone and be Christ to an immigrant in their church, neighborhood, school, or workplace. I received an advanced copy of this book through the publisher on NetGalley. All opinions are my own.