Victor Chininin Buele
Should you read the opinion of somebody who grew up being afraid of the INS (now ICE)? Should you read the opinion of somebody whose blood pressure goes up a bit and starts sweating when he drives by the ICE office downtown St. Louis even though he doesn’t need to go in? Stories matter, right? Well, you should read. Let me tell you why.
I am up at 4:30 AM on a Saturday morning. Why? That should be clear to you by the end of your reading. But I digress.
La Migra has been part of many horrendous stories in my life. There always was a story down in Ecuador from a friend or a relative of somebody who had a bad encounter with this institution while they were crossing the Río Grande illegally to go to the United States. You know the media. In Ecuador, for decades we’ve been seeing stories like the ones that have recently made you aware of abuses. And the headlines were always horrible: people shot, murdered, imprisoned, mistreated, killed in the desert. But like every other person, I grew up thinking, “Well, that may be true, but it won’t happen to me.”
By the grace of God, I never had to leave it all behind and turn myself over to a coyote to carry me through the mountains and valleys, deserts and jungles of the Americas. Instead, I boarded Continental Airlines flight 750 from Quito to Houston. I was greeted by an INS officer who lawfully admitted me.
But lawful doesn’t mean easy.
I grew up in the mountains. First, I needed to go to the coast city of Guayaquil for the most intimidating interview of my life at the U.S. Consulate General. That in itself was the first hardship. Have you ever tried wearing a long sleeve shirt in Guayaquil? Everything from the security guard to the consular officer was off. This was the beginning of my encounters with the complete opposite of U.S. justice. You see, this side of the border you are innocent until proven guilty. The O.J. Simpsons of the world get to be justified. Those who can hire an expensive attorney to find reasonable doubt in what a police officer has clearly seen was a murder can go free. The other side of an encounter with ICE or a consular officer is a very intimidating place. You are guilty until proven innocent, and innocence is measured at the discretion of the officer. You are assumed to be lying about your intentions to travel to, remain, and leave the United States unless you can convince the officer that you are telling the truth. I would travel with every possible document I could think of for years — employment letters, bank records, tax returns, work products, school official letters, a copy of my college degree, property title of my house in Ecuador, college transcript, grades. In retrospective, I can see such was the fear of running into an odd situation. But it happened anyway.
One day I was almost sent to secondary inspection for failing to answer a question satisfactorily. The very important question was, “What is your favorite video game?” I am a musician. I am a amateur theologian. Just because I have a computer science degree and a job related to software, it doesn’t mean I know what video games are popular or that I play them or that I enjoy them. I had no answer, and the officer immediately changed the interview at the port of entry. Something didn’t add up in his case: a computer guy who doesn’t play video games.
One day one my dearest friends came to my dorm in college knocking and shouting, “La Migra, La Migra,” and I was on the phone with my mother. We both got a very big scare. We can laugh now, but the idea of the INS coming to my home was not something that would have surprised me.
Until very recently my social security card bore the inscription in all caps, “VALID FOR EMPLOYMENT ONLY WITH INS AUTHORIZATION.” You see, the INS and I go way back! It’s ingrained in my mind. Every time I write down my social security number I visualize that.
One day, the INS changed my priority date (and the priority date of thousands of fellow permanent residency applicants) by mistake. It was around my birthday in 2007. I rushed to file the paperwork required for my application to continue to move forward only to receive on my birthday the news that it had all been a mistake. A bad April Fools’ joke of sorts. Take your expenses, eat them, and get back in line. Thankfully, there was a class-action lawsuit, the court saw the harm caused, and we were allowed to keep that date and move forward. But it made for a very sad birthday–kind of like you taking away from your child whatever special toy you just gave them for their birthday.
Then there was the time that USCIS (the name has changed over the years) turned me into an undocumented immigrant thanks to the combination of a lawyer’s incompetence and bureaucratic backlog. I had my papers ready six months ahead of an H1B renewal, but this lawyer refused to file them then. He kept saying that his office had more important cases, and that he would file by the required date. And that it didn’t matter that USCIS was taking 3-6 months to process this type of an application because I had a built-in grace period. For fifteen days, I was in that fun and exciting legal limbo. I couldn’t work. I had no paycheck. I couldn’t travel. My wife and I visited the USCIS office downtown, and she came in, brightly smiling and carefree. She couldn’t understand why I was so afraid to go in. She assumed the best of the U.S. government. When we crossed the doors into that sterile environment and we encountered the officer who would be answering our questions, my wife understood the reason for my fears. This wonderful civil employee held in her hands everything she needed to send me to detention and initiate deportation procedures. The sad thing I saw that day was that nobody could tell us where my case was, what its status was, how long it was going to take, and when I could return back to work. I am a technology worker! These should be very simple questions to be answered from a network of computer systems.
And then, there was my wonderful citizenship interview. I know that many people have a truly wonderful experience. But mine was a very strange grilling that ranged from scary to offensive, from condescending to reassuring. It was way weird.
Thanks for getting through that. I’m getting to the point now.
These are my horror stories. In the process, the INS/USCIS/ICE did a number of things that are worthy of affirmation: they did their best to ensure I wasn’t a dangerous criminal, that I didn’t have a disease that would have been a public health risk to the U.S. (though it would have made more sense to do this before I came rather than 7 years after I was admitted at the port of entry), that I had all the proper documentation to work.
I was so terrified of them that when I was married, I chose to remain under my own ongoing immigration processes rather than submit my wife to ICE questioning about the authenticity of our marriage. Sure, I’m a prideful person and wanted to do it all on my own and not need to depend on my wife. Let’s keep it honest.
I have a choice at this point. My horror stories (and it’s always easy to just focus on the horror stories) can be found to be consistent with the overall narrative of today. I could take my Saturday and go to a park or go outside of the ICE office downtown and bring a #AbolishICE sign.
Or I could take the time to speak about institutions and our allergy to them.
Change is needed. That’s for sure. We are thirty years late to the conversation, but hey, let’s talk. We all have blood in our hands. This is one of the most uncomfortable truths to hear in America today. We all have blood in our hands. We all have a part on this immigration debacle. Or you mean to tell me you’ve never bought a tomato in the winter or a suspiciously cheap batch of strawberries? That you haven’t sat in a toilet cleaned by somebody with my skin color or that you haven’t hired a white man to do a construction job only to find somebody with my skin color show up at your door and do his best to tell you in English what he’s come to do and to find out what he needs to know before getting busy delivering somebody else’s promise? The conditions have worsened over the years reaching this tipping point. I am not minimizing anyone’s role in this – President Trump, his administration, Congress, corporations, lobbyists, consumers.
Abolishing ICE is a very interesting reaction to all of this. There are a lot of things that this institution accomplishes. And people may not have taken the time to think through them. This is a question that never gets asked, “What are the implications of what I am proposing?” We focus a lot on the feelings that we suspect taking this approach will result in, but we don’t think things through all the way. Have you really considered the chaos that would come?
I am not an ICE fan, obviously. But I am not going to call for ICE to be abolished. Reformation is needed, that is for sure. I will focus only on one simple idea, what if we applied the same standard of justice that we apply this side of the border? What if we assumed a person was innocent unless proven guilty? What if we assumed that a person is not a liar to begin with? I have some theological issues with my own idea that I would be happy to discuss some other time, but if I am picking out one thing to start the conversation, this would be the start. Not because this is necessarily an implementable idea, but because it would help us see how people end up thinking things like stereotypes of “sleazy Mexicans.” Our government has been calling immigrants liars forever. Can you imagine how the treatment of an applicant would change if we were not thought of as deceivers to begin with?
Why am I up at 4:30 AM? Because the Church matters. I have a lot of work I need to do today to love and serve the church well. I would really like to go back to bed, but I can’t. The Church is my focus today. Wait, why are you talking about this? Did you go crazy?
Because it should not be surprising to us that people talk about abolishing ICE when they’ve abolished the Church in their minds for so long. Whether the reader is Christian or not, Christ is King. And He gave the Church authority. The reformers of old knew that the church would need constant reform (always reforming) because we are sinners. The institution of the Church is given by grace to sinners. Will sinners abuse authority? Obviously so. Will sinners sin? Obviously so. Does that abolish the institution established with the authority of Christ? Absolutely not. Should this drive sinners to work to earnestly seek her care, reform, and beautification? Absolutely.
The discussion about abolishing ICE is just one more way our culture is showing our conflicted views on institutions. We think they can save us. We think they are the problem. Neither is right. Neither salvation nor the solution to our problems will come with/from/without an institution. But they are also not the entire problem. Can you imagine the power that would come from a right relationship with Christ and His Church? Yes, there will always be a separation of Church and State. We don’t want to marginalize those who haven’t come to know Christ yet. But when are we going to see the truth that religion and politics don’t separate? Our religion determines our politics, whether we call ourselves secularists, atheists, Christians, Muslims, … It is always somebody’s morality that is being legislated.
What would happen if you would stop holding every institution guilty until proven innocent? What if you would do that for the Church? If you would dethrone yourself from your high place and would assume the Church is innocent of the evils ascribed to her and not properly ascribed to sinners within her? What if you would drive down I-35 or I-435 this Sunday if you lived in Kansas City and you’d come spend a couple of hours with us and see what it’s all about? Come see us: kcprovidence.org. Or just come see an old friend you haven’t seen for a while. You may get a free lunch out of it. Just saying.