An Open Letter to President Obama and Members of the United State Congress: Turn the Grief-Bearing Ship Around

An Open Letter to President Obama and Members of the United State Congress: Turn the Grief-Bearing Ship Around August 29, 2014

By Ellin JimmersonEllin-Jimmerson

Dear President Obama and Members of Congress,

I am a Baptist minister in Alabama and full-time advocate for unauthorized immigrants and guest workers. My ministry has focused on production of a migrant justice documentary called The Second Cooler, narrated by Martin Sheen. I first felt called to make the documentary because I was heartbroken for the families, especially the mothers, whose children died under the blazing Arizona sun as they were trying to cross the heavily militarized border into the United States.

Through a terrible twist of fate, I joined them in grief.

On the night of April 17, 2009, my sixteen year old daughter, Leigh Anna, and her precious boyfriend were killed by a drunk driver in Huntsville. The car exploded on impact and Leigh Anna’s tiny body was consumed by flames. The driver was an undocumented migrant from Mexico.

My family and I lost a lot that night. A daughter, an only sister, a granddaughter, the son-in-law we might have had, grandchildren, an aunt, cousins. And on that fiery night we became one of the broken families with broken hearts and broken dreams.

One of my favorite memories of Leigh Anna was the day, about two years before her death, when she went with me to Athens, Alabama. The Ku Klux Klan was holding an anti-immigrant protest. We went to participate in a counter-protest. I remember her holding a neon-yellow sign, as big as she was, that had one word written on it in big, black letters: LOVE.

I have my memories, but I grieve and I grieve and I grieve.

There is nothing special about my grief. It is no different from that of the young mother in Huntsville whose infant was suffocated by an anxious coyote in that treacherous southwestern desert. Or the grandparents of other children who have died of the brutal cold there, alone and scared. Or of the children whose fathers have been snatched from them and put into deportation. Or the mothers now making plans for someone else to take their children if they should be deported.

And I am reminded of Mary, prostrate with grief at the foot of her crucified son.

I am reminded that recklessness does not belong only to drunk drivers. Or to police officers engaged in high-speed chases.

Recklessness also belongs to the powers, princes, and potentates who wash their hands of the grieving people they accept as the collateral damage of their policies and programs. Who wash their hands of the broken families, broken hearts, and broken dreams.

And as I think long thoughts about Leigh Anna and that reckless night, I recall that I worship the God who said, “No!” to Pharaoh and his recklessness. The God who said, “No!” to Nebuchadnezzar and his recklessness. The God who said “No!” to Caesar and his recklessness.

I worship the God of the Exodus, the God of protection for those in fiery furnaces, the God of Resurrection. The God who takes sides with the broken families, broken hearts, and broken dreams. The God who defies expectations and delights in dramatic reversals.

I remember Saul on the road to Damascus who heard a voice saying, Saul, “Why do you persecute me?” And he encountered himself in that profound moment and Saul became Paul, announcing the reality of the God who had effected the dramatic reversal, the dramatic “No!” to Caesar, the dramatic Resurrection.

And I recall John Newton, steering his deadly ship filled with desperate, grieving human beings bound for slavery. And that in an unexpected moment John Newton encountered himself on that alien sea, encountered his own recklessness, turned around his ship with its cargo of broken families, broken hearts, and broken dreams unsold, and wrote those endlessly beautiful words, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now I’m found, was blind but now I see.”

President Obama and members of the United States Congress, in the days and weeks ahead, the political talk and strategizing about “comprehensive immigration reform” will resume. In its guise as the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act, “reform” is a deadly ship, a ship filled with nothing but more broken families, more broken hearts, and more broken dreams.

But I believe you already know this. In your efforts to further militarize our southwestern border with this package, carelessly disregarding the more migrants who are sure to lose their lives there, you already know you are being reckless with other people’s lives. In your effort to extend the system of indentured servitude duplicitously called the Guest Worker Program, you already know you are being reckless with other people’s lives. In your effort to push all undocumented people into the deportation system under the guise of a “path to citizenship”, you already know you are being reckless with other people’s lives.

I am asking you to encounter yourselves as did Paul and John Newton and turn this deadly grief-bearing ship around. I am asking you to reject political calculating with other people’s lives and begin working for justice.


Rev. Ellin Jimmerson, Ph. D.
Minister to the Community, Weatherly Heights Baptist Church
Huntsville, Alabama

(256) 881-8839

The Rev. Ellin Jimmerson has an MA in Southern History from Samford University, a Ph. D. in U. S. History from the University of Houston, and a Masters of Theological Studies from Vanderbilt Divinity School with a concentration in Latin American liberation theology. She is Minister to the Community at Weatherly Heights Baptist Church in Huntsville. She writes, speaks, and preaches on the intersection of history and faith and is a prominent advocate for illegal migrants, guest workers, and domestic laborers. Jimmerson is the writer and director of the award-winning migrant justice documentary, The Second Cooler, narrated by Martin Sheen. Released in 2013, it won Best Feature Documentary at the Peace on Earth Film Festival in Chicago, the Film 4 Change Award (the top award) at the AMFM Festival of Film, Music, and Art in Palm Springs, CA, and the Film Heals Award at the Manhattan Film Festival. 

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4 responses to “An Open Letter to President Obama and Members of the United State Congress: Turn the Grief-Bearing Ship Around”

  1. The inscription on the Statue of Liberty says, in part,

    ‘Give me your tired, your poor,
    Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
    The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
    Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
    I lift my lamp beside the golden door!’ ”

    It doesn’t say “keep out all you Latinos, Asians, and Middle Easterners” or whatever ethnic group is being targeted this week. The current plight of the South American children sickens me. They should be allowed into the US, educated and allowed to become citizens, not incarcerated and forced to return to a dangerous and dismal future.

  2. I’m SO very proud to say I am your friend Ellin. You have taught me so much about compassion….than I ever thought possible. I hope you can do the same for the rest of this country!

  3. Rev. Ellin Jimmerson is part of the very problem she complains about. She’s arrived at her position almost completely through emotion, without thinking through the impacts of her position. Making geopolitical decisions based largely on emotions doesn’t work.

    Because of people like Rev. Ellin Jimmerson, those in foreign countries know that if they make it over the border they’ll find a support network: crooked businesses that will hire them, NGOs (like the ACLU) that will sue for them, corrupt media sources that will agitate for them, and so on.

    As a result, some of those in foreign countries decide to try to come to the U.S. And, some of those end up dying in the desert, drowning in the Rio Grande, getting raped, etc. etc. Some amount of those who survive the trek commit crimes in the U.S. The number of crimes committed in the U.S. rises, even if some studies find illegal aliens commit crimes at a lower rate. Corrupt businesses get cheaper labor, harming struggling American citizens.

    Rev. Ellin Jimmerson will never get the open border between Mexico and the U.S. she wants, but she will get the situation described above.

    The more humane, more Christian, more pro-U.S., and more pro-Mexico alternative is to discourage people from crossing the border by increasing enforcement and by discrediting the support network of which Rev. Ellin Jimmerson is a part.

    Doing that will result in fewer people dying in the desert, higher wages for struggling American citizens, more pressure on the govt of Mexico to reform, and elites of both U.S. and Mexico that care more about the citizens of their countries than they do now.

  4. Those who express hate toward immigrants need compassion to see that these folks are simply human beings in search of a safe place to live. Liberals need more than emotional arguments to discover fruitful policies and strategies to bring healing and hope to broken immigrant families. The problem is global. Solutions offered here will need to be global. America alone cannot solve all the problems flowing out of a multitude of countries where violence is the order of the day and not the exception. No perfect answer exists. Compromise will be required by folks on all sides of this issue. If both the general public and the politicians refuse to compromise, the suffering and death will not only continue, it will get worse.

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