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Asleep in a Prison: Reflections on Borders and Identity

“Why, when God’s world is so big, did you fall asleep in a prison of all places?”

~Rumi

The day after attending Pacific School of Religion’s “Borders and Identity” 2017 Earl and Boswell lectures on March 17th in Berkeley, I swam from Alcatraz Island to San Francisco. The island and its infamous prison looked desolate and lonely surrounded by an iron sea and a gray sky. I shivered in my bathing suit on the deck of the boat that was approaching the island and stared wide-eyed at the 58-degree water I would have to dive into soon. Doubt crept into me like the cold – I was not sure I would make it across.

When it comes to immigration, America has confined itself in a prison. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and undocumented immigrant Jose Antonio Vargas gave the keynote lecture the evening of March 17th. He is the founder and CEO of Define American, a nonprofit organization dedicated to sharing the stories of immigrants in order to elevate the conversation around immigration.

Vargas distributed a fact sheet to his audience to counter the stereotypes and misinformation circulating about immigrants. Do you think immigration is tied to higher crime rates? Actually, higher immigration is associated with lower violent crime rates. Between 1990 and 2013, the immigrant population increased from 7.9 percent to 13.1 percent and during the same period of time, violent crime declined 48 percent. Only 1.6% of immigrant males 18-39 years old are incarcerated, compared to 3.3% of native-born males.

Donald Trump’s border wall would complete the prison America has chosen to fall asleep in. Forty percent of undocumented immigrants were visa holders, which means they entered the country legally, and Asians are the fastest growing group of undocumented immigrants. A border wall would be ineffective.

Once we arrived at Alcatraz Island, I dove off the boat into water that took my breath away. I gasped and started swimming away from the prison and towards San Francisco to warm myself up. After a few minutes, I had settled into my pace and enjoyed the feeling of the cold water. At one point, I stopped swimming to appreciate the panoramic view of San Francisco. God’s world is so big when you’re looking at it from the middle of the ocean – it’s full of homes, bridges, and sky.

“Legality is a power construct,” Vargas said during his address. Law can be an instrument of oppression – Jim Crow laws and the Holocaust are obvious examples. Oppressive laws make our world smaller, they make our world a prison when there is actually space at the table for all. When we do away with borders of power, we find ourselves in a world of abundance and have to make do with more and not less because we value other human beings.

“No human being is illegal,” Vargas said, quoting Elie Wiesel, who gave the Earl Lecture at Pacific School of Religion in 1981.

Photo of Jose Antonio Vargas © Bruce Cook 2017

During the last half of my Alcatraz swim, I felt like I had crossed a border and was now in alien territory. The temperature suddenly dropped and the water was thick with current that pushed against me. I picked up my pace to fight against it, but I was also afraid. The dark water suddenly felt abyssal to me, like it could swallow me whole.

A kayaker paddled over to me. “The current changed! Swim that way,” he said, pointing to the right where the entrance to the Aquatic Park, the finish line, was. His piercing blue eyes softened with concern. “Are you okay? Are you cold?”

I gave the kayaker a thumbs-up. “I’m okay.” And I pushed on through the current despite my fear and confusion.

Undocumented immigrants often live in a state of constant fear of deportation. Vargas used to be a journalist for the Washington Post and he described a time when he had to tell his boss and ally about his undocumented status. The coworker exclaimed, “I understand you 100 times better now!” Vargas constantly felt paranoid and lived in fear that someone would discover his secret.

In 2011, Vargas decided that he was tired of running and tired of the constant fear. He wrote an essay for the New York Times in which he “comes out” as an undocumented immigrant.

“I realized that coming out as undocumented was central to resistance,” Vargas said during his lecture. Vargas was invited to Donald Trump’s first address to Congress and his lawyers suggested that he lay low and not go because Trump could deport him. Vargas went against that advice and showed for Trump’s speech because “undocumented immigrants all over the country show up for work everyday despite the risk of deportation.”

I attended the “Where Identity Borders Meet Immigration Borders: Queer and Immigrant Youth” session at the conference. In that session, a young transgender, undocumented woman described how her mother was deported by Immigration and Customs Enforcement when she was in elementary school. She ran out of her school crying tears of relief when her mother came back to her a few weeks later.

The story reminded me of my friend from college who told me his father was deported to Mexico when he was a child. He hasn’t seen his father since.

“How do you find the courage to do this?” a woman asked Vargas after his address.

I scanned the shoreline of Aquatic Park, not sure where exactly to go. The blue-eyed kayaker urged me on. “Go, go!” I hesitated until I saw familiar faces in the crowd on the shore. I smiled and sprinted to the finish, where I was greeted and warmed by my community. They wrapped me in a towel, gave me hugs, and placed a cup of hot tea in my hands. My friend who did the swim with me arrived shortly after I did. Our community was complete.

Jose Antonio Vargas’ response to the woman’s question about courage was: “I am the product of the generosity of other people. When I find gratitude for those people, I find purpose and strength.”

It will take courage for America to leave the prison it has become too comfortable in, and America will find that courage when it finds gratitude for the contributions of immigrants, who have played a fundamental role in shaping this country into what it is today. This gratitude is the essence of community, and a true community has no borders.

*Originally published in Tikkun Daily

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Paige Foreman is a Masters in Social Transformation student at the Pacific School of Religion. At seminary, she’s exploring the intersection between interfaith work, social justice activism, and the arts. In her spare time, Paige writes novels for children and teens, composes music, and trains for swimming across the English Channel.

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