writing on suffering and awakening

We're better than how we're treating our immigrants.

There is something truly grotesque about the way elements of the United States government are treating immigrants right now. Arrests by ICE, the federal agency charged with enforcing immigration laws, shot up 40 percent in 2017. This included over 37,000 people whose only crime was living in America without legal authorization—more than double the 2016 figure. 

It’s not just about numbers either. President Trump campaigned on a platform of mass deportations of immigrants from Mexico and South America. Thomas Homan, the acting director of ICE, has publicly stated his agency wants undocumented immigrants to feel afraid. His agents have backed that up, seizing and deporting people who have lived in the United States for decades with deep ties to their communities and children who are American citizens. While past presidencies, including the Obama administration, also carried out substantial numbers of deportations, they did not engage in cruel and deliberate psychological warfare against vulnerable families. Such behavior demeans both our law enforcement personnel and our nation as a whole.

ICE isn’t just being cruel for cruelty’s sake. They are trying to send a message: that America is only for certain people, and everyone else should leave or not bother trying to get in. There are words for this attitude like racism and nativism, and given the president’s stated preference for immigrants from northern European countries, those words can certainly be fairly applied.

But just branding our current immigration policy as racist isn’t going to actually change it. Even a change in government—a Democratic Congress or president taking office—won’t do anything about the fact that a substantial number of Americans genuinely believe that some people shouldn’t be here simply because of where they happened to be born. Politics can’t change what’s in our hearts.

What can? Well, changing how we view ourselves is a good start. If we can understand that there is room for us no matter what, we can feel safe enough to see that there is room for others too, even if they seem different from us.

I live in an apartment on a block that is full of other apartment buildings. It’s also just a few blocks south of one busy commercial district, and a few blocks north of another. It’s crowded.

I find myself getting frustrated a lot—walking the dog when it feels like half the neighborhood is doing the same, trying to find a place to park, hearing loud noises from the neighbors. Just ordinary stuff, but it brings up a feeling that there’s no room for me, that there is no space in the midst of all the chaos and busyness. It’s a suffocating, frightening sensation.

I think much of our resistance to immigration boils down to a version of that same belief: a fear that new people and new cultures coming into America means there won’t be any room for the people who were already here. That rather than being a positive influx of new life and energy, immigration means the destruction of our society as we know it, and thus, must be resisted by whatever means necessary. In other words, immigration feels like an existential threat to some. From that perspective, ICE’s behavior is an unpleasant but justified cost of doing business. 

There is some truth to that fear: immigration does change the culture of a nation. But so does everything else: culture is never static, but ever-shifting, morphing with the birth of each new breath, day, and generation. Those changes are often wonderful: I love Mozart, but I’m thrilled that the Beatles came along too.

By fighting the inevitability of change, all we’re doing is making the changes more painful. We may not all be rounded up and forced to leave our homes, but such inhumanity will seep into the fabric of our society to the detriment of all. Many of our neighbors are now living in terror of being cast out of the homes they have known for years or decades. Is this really the kind of country we want to live in?

Of course not. We know better than to keep doing this. We are better—as individuals, as a country, as a people. We can stop tearing apart families and embrace everyone who wants to be here. We just need to have a little faith, and a willingness to open up to our fear.

With practice, we can soften to our fear. We can make room for our belief that there isn’t room for us and let it fully come to life in our consciousness. If we do this, we can actually start to feel space opening up. Whatever sparks our fear—immigration, deportation, trouble finding a parking spot—can be an opportunity to welcome that fear into the light of our awareness.

Rather than strengthening our fear, this actually sets it free. By setting our fear free, we set ourselves free. Make room for our fear, and it will return the favor.

We can learn to see that we don’t need to fight for space, because there is always room for us. Not just for some of us, but of all of us. We don’t have to earn it, or defend it, or hold onto it. Space—spaciousness—is a virtue of our existence. No one can take that away from us, because it is us. The space for us is inside us, permeating all that we are, embodying our deepest and truest self. 

Just take a look.

Ian Cooper