Who is in and who is out? A narrative of inclusion and exclusion lies at the core of the immigration crisis in the United States.
One side claims that people are coming to our borders need to be kept out in order to maintain safety, preserve law and order, allow us to filter who enters, and ensure they do it “the right way.” Others argue that we should let people come, claiming that immigrants are hard workers who boost the economy — why not let people come and work?
Yet both sides are asking the wrong questions and missing a key piece of this story.
I work at Casa Chirilagua, a nonprofit in the Chirilagua neighborhood of Alexandria, Virginia that serves a community of Central American immigrants. As the Youth Programs Director, I oversee after school programming for sixty first-eighth grade students, coach our youth program staff, and provide academic and emotional support for students and their families. The work we do is highly relational, with most of our staff living in the neighborhood, living and working alongside community members.
As I have spent the last three and a half years in this community—and deepened my understanding of my own identity as the daughter of an immigrant—I have come to the conclusion that the immigration crisis isn’t a question of law and order or of economic benefit, it’s one of caring for people who we must acknowledge as our neighbors.
I recently participated in a trip to Guatemala, El Paso, Texas and Juarez, Mexico. The purpose of this journey was to better understand the realities of life in Central America and the push and pull factors behind why people are immigrating. We learned from those working in Guatemala and on the border to support people who are forced to make the incredibly traumatic decision to leave their homes.
Our time in Guatemala and El Paso reminded us that we cannot let “neighbors” be defined by borders. In Guatemala we encountered countless individuals who chose to be neighborly to us, demonstrating hospitality and vulnerability as they shared their lives with us.
While in Guatemala, I had the opportunity to have dinner with the family of one of my students from Casa Chirilagua. This experience made the distance between Alexandria, Virginia and San Juan Ostuncalco, Guatemala seem incredibly small. They shared a meal with me and cared for me like a next-door neighbor would. In these moments, my neighbor wasn’t just my student and his family who live a street over from me in Chirilagua. My neighbors were his family, and the entire community of people he and his family had left behind when they came to the U.S.
In Juarez, we sat in one of many migrant shelters housing those who have fled Central America and listened to the story of Andres.* After reporting the case of one of his neighbors abusing their children, Andres was forced to flee Guatemala because his life and family were being threatened by family members of the man he had accused. Because he had chosen to stand up for a vulnerable member in his community who was being mistreated, he was threatened with drive by shootings, people stalking him, and his own brother being shot.
Andres moved to various parts of Guatemala fleeing the threats, but those seeking to cause him harm always found him. Seeing no other option, this man left behind his wife, son, and unborn child to seek asylum in the United States, praying that this would lead to an end to the attacks. He shared with us how he longed to return home, but how that would put him and his family at risk again. His eyes welled up with tears as he showed us pictures of his newborn daughter, who he has never held, and as he told us he was anxiously counting down the days for his first court date in his asylum case. There are thousands of people in the U.S. and Mexico waiting for their asylum cases to be heard, who left their homes because they had no other choice.
My time on the border brought up the reality that we all live in the “borderlands.” The situation and the individuals and families at the border are not staying at the border— they are moving to live in communities across the U.S., just like Andres is hoping to with his family. They become neighbors with whom we share the rhythms of day-to-day life, like I do with my neighbors in Chirilagua.
We are prone to figure out who we accept and who we don’t, and this isn’t new. As a Christian, I think about how, centuries ago, a man asked Jesus: “Who is my neighbor?” He wanted to know the same thing many of us ask ourselves today: Who do I have to love and who can I ignore?
Jesus answered with a story. He described how, when a man is beaten and left for dead on the side of the road, multiple religious leaders bypass and ignore him. Yet a Samaritan—someone from a group despised by the story’s listeners—stops for him. He bandages his wounds and takes him to an inn, where he cares for the man for two days and leaves the innkeeper with money to cover any additional medical expenses.
At the end, Jesus turned to the man who had asked the question and returned it, asking “Who do you think was a neighbor to the man in need?” By reframing the question according to how a neighbor acts, Jesus implied that everyone is our neighbor. The Samaritan, the true neighbor, represents those who are often excluded, people like Andres and families like those who I live and work alongside in Chirilagua.
We need to have the conversation about immigration in the United States knowing that our lives are inextricably linked to the lives of the immigrants who come to our borders seeking what we all long for: safety, opportunity, and the acknowledgement of each person’s inherent value. By excluding people like Andres and forcing into the shadows people like my students and their families, we also reject individuals and families who could serve as incredible moral compasses, leaders, and good neighbors in our communities and our country.
Marissa Salgado grew up in a multicultural Mexican American home in California, where she developed a fluency in Spanish and a passion for cross cultural relationship building. She joined Casa Chirilagua in 2016 and serves as the Youth Programs Director. Prior to her time at Casa, she spent 8 months volunteering in Mexico and Guatemala, learning about incarnational ministry and grassroots community development. She holds a bachelor’s degree in International Affairs from the George Washington University. Marissa is passionate about community and leadership development, immigration, and justice and reconciliation in the church. She and her husband live intentionally alongside their immigrant neighbors in the Chirilagua neighborhood, learning to love their neighbors as themselves.