When the news first broke about the identities of the Boston Marathon bombing suspects, I heard many news reporters and anchors expressing confusion about how these young men could have allegedly committed such atrocities. Though the Tsarnaev brothers were ethnic Chechens, they had immigrated to the U.S. many years ago, and I repeatedly heard them being described as having been “fully assimilated.”
But as more details emerged, it appeared that the “fully assimilated” assumption may have been far from accurate. In a widely quoted statement, older brother Tamerlan Tsarnaev had been featured in a photo essay stating “I don’t have a single American friend. I don’t understand them.”
Their story prompted researchers Marcelo and Carola Suarez-Orozco to comment in The New York Times, “The alleged involvement of two ethnic Chechen brothers in the deadly attack at the Boston Marathon last week should prompt Americans to reflect on whether we do an adequate job assimilating immigrants who arrive in the United States as children or teenagers.”
As the child of immigrants myself, I wrestled with issues of identity and assimilation, especially in my adolescent and young adult years, even though I was born here in the U.S. and never had to struggle with learning English at an older age or relocating from another country. And if I found it difficult to “fully assimilate” into American culture as a natural-born American citizen, how much harder must it be for millions of young people who are trying to make their way in a nation of immigrants that is not always kind to those with a more recent immigration history?
Immigration is a charged and complex issue, and one that does not tend to be often addressed in church. But as Matthew Soerens and Jenny Hwang ask in their book Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion and Truth in the Immigration Debate, “If the church does not respond now, it will eventually have to respond in one way or another. Will our response be one that we can look back on a century later and say we were proud to have taken?” Whatever personal convictions a church or individual might have on this subject, the fact remains that there are millions of young, legal immigrants in the U.S. who could use the Church’s assistance.
For my family, the Korean church we attended was an enormous source of support for my parents and for many other first-generation parents who were all trying to survive in an unfamiliar land. But for many of the children of these immigrants, either second-generation like myself or the “1.5 generation” who came to the U.S. as children or adolescents, our immigrant churches were not always able to help us navigate the challenges of being bi-cultural Americans. Many of us had absentee parents who were just trying to eke out a living and who left us alone for many post-school hours; not all of us were able to make good choices with that kind of freedom and lack of supervision.
From all accounts, the Tsarnaev brothers were left to fend for themselves when their parents divorced and both left the U.S. However well-adjusted they may have seemed on the exterior to American life, trouble was brewing inside. The New York Times reports that in 2012, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev tweeted, “a decade in america already, I want out,” followed in April by “how I miss my homeland #dagestan #chechnya.” Being an American in name was no guarantee that he had adjusted to being an American in reality.
Of course, none of this excuses the crimes that he and his brother allegedly committed in Boston. But one wonders what would have happened had they received relational support from a community that could have shown them true love and compassion. Today’s Church has an opportunity to step in the gap that exists for immigrant children, teens, and young adults, to offer support, tutoring, counseling, and any number of other services that could make the difference between merely surviving the transition to living in America. It’s one thing to intellectually understand what it means to be an immigrant in this country, but as Soerens and Hwang point out, “[U]nless we reach out and interact with the immigrant communities ourselves, we will not be swayed by what we know secondhand.”
As we seek to love mercy, do justice, and walk humbly with our God, let us not forget the segment of Americans who could use an additional measure of support and encouragement as they work to assimilate into their new home country. Perhaps this kind of relational connection may not have made any difference in the lives of the Tsarnaev brothers. But just think about how much less agony there would have been in Boston on Marathon Monday if it had.