I saw you yesterday pulling on a frayed nylon cord to tie down the mattresses on the roof of your car. You’re leaving town and we never got to say ‘hello.’
I’ve seen you in the Food Lion and the Wal-mart and I’ve been tempted to try to speak. But my high school French, which I would use to approximate your Creole, always comes out as rusty Spanish—the language I’m used to breaking out in talking to my immigrant neighbors. I know. Haiti is a long way from Mexico in so many ways, but I’m sometimes laughably limited. I also order in Spanish at the Chinese restaurant.
So, no, we haven’t said ‘hello.’
And now you’re leaving.
I imagine that it has been a strange sojourn for you here in this small town. Traveling to this rural peninsula in Virginia to work on farms and in chicken processing plants must have seemed a hopeful opportunity after the earthquake in 2010. Our government gave you Temporary Protected Status to allow Haiti to recover and now it has revoked that authorization, giving you until next summer to go home.
Our town changed when the Haitian community came. Oh, not in the ways some politicians say. You didn’t run down the town. You occupied buildings that would have remained vacant. You didn’t ruin the economy. You kept Dollar General and our legendary five-and-dime humming. You opened a Caribbean market on the square. You began a church. You filled jobs when the poultry farms expanded. Crime didn’t spike. The town police say we have one of the lowest crime rates in the state.
So, even though we never got to know one another, I felt like our town was better with you here. I wish we’d gotten to share stories. It is not good for people sharing the same land to be ignorant of each other’s deepest hopes and needs. We need to see each other’s humanity.
The Bible I preach from tells us to love the sojourner because we were once sojourners [Deuteronomy 10:19]. A wandering Aramean was our ancestor. [Deut. 26:5] We will always share something with the immigrant.
These are hard times for immigrants in my country. Most of us found our way here from someplace else, but we have begun to believe that ‘foreign’ means ‘threatening.’ We talk about immigrants as criminal, predatory, and dangerous. We use verbs like “infest” to describe your actions. Our fear leads us to closing our eyes to the gifts you bring and the people you are. Our fear leads us to cruelty. Unfathomable cruelty.
This week we couldn’t close our eyes because we couldn’t close our ears. The sounds of children being torn from their parents to be caged in old Wal-marts converted into warehouses couldn’t be ignored. Something is broken, not only in our immigration system, but in our spirits as well. And the most vulnerable, as always, suffer the consequences.
Your story is not so loud. You came quietly and you are leaving just as quietly. If I had not passed you yesterday, I would not have known. I would just notice slowly that the town was changing again. The malanga and plantains would disappear from the shelves. I would notice fewer people walking around town and wonder where they’d gone. There won’t be crying children on the news when you leave. Just more silence.
Like much of rural America, our silence is growing as our population is declining. Each year in our county there are more deaths than births. The most common narrative for our young people is that they leave for college or job opportunities elsewhere and they don’t come back. The result is a spiritual crisis of confidence. You interrupted our stories of decline. You helped us understand that we are not dead. But we live by being connected.
Yes, we need border control. We need an immigration reform that makes sense—that keeps people and businesses from having to live in a furtive secret economy. And if you have the opportunity to return to your home after it has recovered from a devastating disaster (something that I don’t believe has really happened in Haiti), of course, that is a good thing.
But I will miss you. You reminded me that our stereotypes of what we are can be challenged. That we could be something different. Something more.
I watched your car as it bumped out of the dirt driveway and onto the road, the edges of the mattresses flopping over the rooftop. The back right wheel lacked a hubcap and there was a worrying squeal coming from the engine. I wondered where you were headed. I wondered if you would make it safely.
I wondered where we were headed, too.
Thanks to Yossi Klein Halevi and his Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor for the inspiration for this letter.