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We are More Than the Sh*tholes We Came From

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I’m hesitant to add any words to this story or give one more minute of attention to the painful sentiments expressed. Especially because I’m kind of a prude when it comes to language and I’m easily scandalized. But for a second, I want to walk past the horrifying language that was likely said (although I guess there’s some debate about the actual comment) and just take the question at face value:

“Why are we having all these people from sh*thole countries come here?”

I’ve got some thoughts about that.

As much as I’m scandalized (but not necessarily surprised) by such crude language, I’m not interested in arguing about what does or doesn’t qualify as a “sh*thole country.” What I am interested in addressing is the value and importance of immigrants from those very places.

We are a nation of people whose ancestors left their countries of origin to come here, in hopes of something better (aside from our Native American population and our African American population who had no choice in the matter). Maybe our ancestors left with tears in their eyes and a fondness for their homeland. Maybe they left with joy, glad to be out of that “sh*thole” and on to better things. However they came, their country of origin did not define them. They became Americans and like my immigrant son, they blossomed in a place where they were entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Why should we let these people in? Because we are all more than where we came from. That is such a foundational part of being an American. We treasure and value our ancestry, but we are not limited by it.

When you let in an immigrant from a troubled nation, it is an act of faith that people are more than their circumstances. When you surround those people with a supportive community, give them access to education and work, and treat them with dignity, you allow them to reach their full potential—a potential not determined by the GDP of their country of origin.

I have no problem with sensible immigration policy. We made our way through the complex and costly rules that are required by our immigration process on behalf of our son and we believe it’s best that others do the same (although our experience gave us MUCH more empathy for how difficult legal immigration is). What I am saying is that the question has a simple answer:

We let in people from sh*thole countries because they have every potential in the world to be great thinkers, to be valued citizens, to be our Olympic athletes, our concert violinists, our scientists and teachers, to be whatever God created them to be. Having watched kids from trauma blossom and bloom for years now, I have come to fully believe that environment matters and sh*thole environments do not mean certain people are sh*thole people. Take them out of those environments and you’ll get a more true picture of who they were made to be, even when those environments have a long-lasting impact that has to be acknowledged.

Ten years ago we were filling out immigration paperwork as part of our international adoption process. We paid fees, met with government workers, sent copies of innumerable documents and were granted permission to bring our son into the US as an American citizen. We had to be interviewed at the American embassy in his birth country and answer questions I can’t even remember now because the whole situation was so tense and terrifying. We wanted to bring this child home safely (at the time of his adoption, his birth country had the fourth highest infant mortality rate in the world and he had already been hospitalized twice before 10 months of age) and knew this official had the ability to approve or deny our request.

The embassy was packed with other people making similar pleas to get out of the country, but without American citizen parents vouching for them, documents in hand. It was heart wrenching to watch and definitely made us appreciative of our privileged status—a status our son now has as part of our family.

His birth country was beautiful and the people we met were kind and quick to smile. There was also intense poverty like I’ve never seen. Kids like my son did not have access to an education and their future prospects were limited. As his parents, we continue to live in this tension of wanting him to have a love and appreciation for the place he was born while also being honest about the desperate situation of many people who still live there. We hope we’re doing it right, but I’m sure there are ways we fail.

I look at my beautiful son and sometimes wonder what his life would have been like if he hadn’t been able to become an American citizen. Would he have survived at all? Would anybody know he’s got the kind of brain that can memorize complex algorithms and solve a Rubik’s cube in seconds? How would he be using his natural ability to charm a room and make anybody feel at ease? What kind of man would he become without the opportunities he’s been given? I don’t know.

I know I am not his savior. I know he could have had a beautiful life in his birth country and in some ways that would have saved him a lot of pain as far as separation from his history and what was once familiar to him. “American” does not mean “better,” but for the people standing today in lines at the embassy and in immigration offices, I don’t blame them and I believe they have something of value to offer us and our country.

Many of us can look through our family trees and find the moment our ancestors believed they could reach the potential God created them for by leaving where they were from and coming to America. Why are we having all these people from sh*thole countries coming here? Because we were once those people and if we’re wise, we’ll have the empathy and perspective to recognize these people have something to offer. Because we are all more than where we came from, no matter our complex feelings about that place.

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