Living in a Border State

Living in a Border State February 24, 2013

I spent elementary school in a Mexican neighborhood in Austin, Texas. I attended birthday parties with piñatas and ate in a school cafeteria that served home-style enchiladas, tamales, and beans made with lard. And because of my dark hair I truly didn’t realize a difference between the other students and me until fourth grade, when my Latino classmates nicknamed me the Holy Ghost on account of my fair complexion.

I came home in tears, alarming my parents. But when they asked the reason they couldn’t help but laugh at my classmates’ creativity. These were my friends, they said, and the Holy Ghost was always with me. I considered these truths and cheered up.

My classmates and I were still the same.

Fifteen years later I got a job in Dallas, teaching eighth grade Spanish to Latino kids who spoke Spanish better than I did, but who couldn’t write in their first language. The goal was for these children to complete a formal essay and give a speech at the university level. If they succeeded they would receive both high school and college credit.

I couldn’t always understand my students’ banter, but I pretended and continued with false confidence into the realm of thesis statements and college acceptance, encouraging my students to believe that they could find success on the other side of an AP exam.

“But what if you don’t have papers?” a boy named Cesar asked one day.

“Which papers?” I asked, stupidly – my mind on essays and homework.

“You know, Miss, Papers.”

The entire class looked to me, their teacher, who was teaching them to succeed.

“You can still go to college,” I answered. “Texas offers instate tuition to residents, legal or otherwise.”

“But you can’t get a job,” Cesar answered.

I took a breath. He was right. Several kids looked down at their desks. I wondered how many of my students were trying to make good grades and go to college so that they could be unemployed.

I didn’t know what to say so I said, “Maybe you can, at some point.”

“I don’t have papers, Miss.” Cesar said.

Cesar disappeared a few weeks later. He never withdrew from school. I could say that I don’t know what happened to him.

But I do.

Turns out, the color of our skin wasn’t our only difference.

During that same time, my husband completed a surgical residency at Parkland Hospital in Dallas County. There, regardless of legal status, county residents receive medical care for free or they’re offered “pay what you can” insurance so that they can attend area clinics and receive preventative care.

But undocumented workers are afraid to sign up because they fear deportation.

I myself gave birth to our daughter at Parkland—she was the only Anglo baby on the floor, despite the fact that they deliver the second highest number of babies worldwide.

When my parents arrived, the nursing staff pointed to my room before they even exited the elevator.

“How do you know who we’re looking for?” my dad asked, jokingly.

“You know how I know,” a stodgy nurse answered.

Later, an orderly wheeled me past the nurses’ station, and we passed another new mother, clutching her stomach and pleading with the nurses.

“Please tell them,” she asked in Spanish, holding her hand out to me, “I need to go home.”

“You need to heal, it’s just a couple more days,” I answered.

“I can’t,” she said.

She was afraid immigration would deport her from the hospital.

In a border state, our taxes pay for all students to be educated, for women to obtain hospital care, for children brought here illegally to receive vaccines. The residents of Dallas County foot the bill when a worker falls from a roof, or when the public school system needs capital improvements for their ever-increasing student population.

Our own property taxes went up so drastically one year that my husband and I could barely make our mortgage payment.

But when he operated at the hospital, and I taught in my classroom, we realized that our ambitious belief in hard work proved true only some of the time. Our blissful American ignorance was torn away in our own backyard.

There were big differences between our lives and those from south of the Rio Grande.

Now we live far from the border, and I find myself approaching complete strangers when I hear them speak Spanish. I am so homesick. Yet, I find myself patching my ignorance with distance and comfort.

Injustice exists here, but it doesn’t stare me down and ask me questions like in my border state.

But as Congress discusses immigration reform, I can’t help but wring my hands and swallow the rising lump of hope back down into my throat. Because I still don’t feel that different than I did in fourth grade—and I sometimes dream about Cesar and that woman in the hospital.

I don’t have the answers for my border state. But ignorance is an inexcusable luxury when we live amidst the truth. Still, that same truth must be sought.

Somehow, truth is both granted and earned; grace not works – but still, work must follow.

In her song, Up to the Mountain, a tribute to Martin Luther King Junior, Patty Griffin pinpoints the nebulous answer – the work of calling. The work of seeking truth paired with the grace of receiving it.

I went up to the mountain

Because you asked me to

Up over the clouds

To where the sky was blue

I could see all around me


I could see all around me


It’s work, climbing the mountain of ignorance into sight. But we are asked to live on the border and to gaze unabashedly at the faces we see there.

Only then, by grace, will we cross together.

Photo above: Juan Rulfo

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  • The problem with the immigration debate isn’t that there aren’t enough people who care about humanity in the broadest sense and want to see people from underprivileged countries succeed in bettering their lives. There are plenty of us who, coming face to face with the real people behind this debate, grieve for their very real desire to simply acquire a better life by whatever means presents itself. But paying their hospital bills and educating their children in our schools–at our expense–is simply Humanism. It’s not an application of Grace, which is something entirely different than Humanism. The root of the problem isn’t money (or, more accurately, the lack thereof)–or even the Central or South American Immigrants themselves. The problem is Evil festering in the places they’re coming from.

    The morally bankrupt Mexican, Guatemalan, and South American societies from which these immigrants come are wretchedly sick. If we are not focussed on exporting Christianity, a respect for human dignity, and a respect for Law into these places of the world, then it makes no difference what we do here as a matter of immigration policy. Whether they come and stay on some visa program or whether our hearts are pained to see them sent back to the corrupt societies they ran from in the first place makes no difference if the root and core issue isn’t dealt with: the corruption of the Human Heart and their need for The Savior and a comprehensive education in how one human being should treat another through the guidance of Paul and David.

    The truth we refuse to be confronted with isn’t that our heartstrings are plucked when faced with the humanity of a new mother scared to death she’ll be deported. The truth that assaults us is that the place from which she came is a vacuum of Christian principles and that the corruption, crime, and evil festering there is left to proliferate while we argue about the logistics of how to pay for the influx of refugees fleeing that evil.

    As a Church, we’re more concerned with the constitution of the jam band on the stage of our cheap metal building that passes for a church and their “worship” song playlist, than with the hard work of evangelizing the cesspools of the world.

    • My father is an immigrant from South America.

      I’m interested to hear what cultures you are specifically talking about that are “morally bankrupt” and “wretchedly sick.” And, more to the point, how they are any worse than culture in the United States.

  • Jessica, thank you for your candid witness to what life is like for the precious people in our midst who don’t “have papers.” I have lived in southern Arizona and experienced just a bit of what you describe: the constant fear among our Mexican sisters and brothers and their children, who are dehumanized by our country’s current policies. I share your glimmer of hope that our government will finally enact a more humane immigration policy (if only because our politicians want to get the Latino vote!).

  • T.Martin Lesh.

    And yet once again another fine example of uninformed Christian Political Correctness that has zero foundation in the Scriptures as well as the OT … without taking into account even for a moment that those crossing the border ….. hold on to it now ….. Illegally … are in fact BREAKING the law .

    Therefore they cannot as this article tries to do : be considered ‘ Victims ‘

    They are ‘ Criminals ‘ Period !

    And as far as those so uninformed as to call our US Immigration Laws & Policies ‘ inhumane ‘ might I suggest they look into what it takes to immigrate to Canada ( got $50k cash in pocket ? No ? Sorry .. no entry ) – Denmark – Iceland- Germany and now Belgium the Netherlands etc etc . You might just find ours is one of the more lax immigration policies World Wide which makes those that enter illegally even more culpable for their actions . Prejudice you say ? Have a good look how poorly immigrants , even legal ones ( especially those of color ) are treated in France , the UK and especially now in the Nordic as well as the Benelux countries .

    This is the problem when we as Christians attempt in any way to make everyone with any sort of difficulty into a ‘ Victim ‘ without completely reviewing the facts . We become so blind due to our Victim Mentality agendas as to completely ignore reality .

    • Many of these “criminals” are coming to the United States to take a shot at living a life with greater opportunities. In some cases, crossing the border is a circumstance of life or death.

      We happen to have been privileged enough born in the United States (due to know special effort, knowledge, or good moral character of our own, I might add). We have certain luxuries that other people only dream of.

      Would you not risk life and limb to make a better life for your family? Sure, they’re technically breaking a law, but consider their intentions. I’m sure some people come over looking to take advantage of the system. That happens. But it seems like a comfy response to wave a broad brush, call these people criminals, and continue snacking on our Doritos and Diet Coke.

  • Jessica, Reading your thoughtful prose is always pleasure. But I especially appreciated today’s essay. Those of us having to care for those on the fringes cannot use abstract policy discussions to fix the people standing before us. As the previous comments suggest, the immigration issue sparks sharp differences of opinion, opinion–even opinion I might agree with– that is offered with heaping portions of moral righteousness. But what your words contained that most other discourse on this subject does not is the combination of personal engagement with an attempt to see other points of view or at least some possible unintended consequences. As you point out, the responsibilities of caring for illegal immigrants are not borne equally among all citizens. You and many other Dallas citizens were the ones called upon to sacrifice for everyone’s responsibilities. All of us want a National policy that is humane and fair; but any solution must also fairly appropriate the responsibilities. Thank-you for engaging both issues in such thoughtful manner.

    • amanda

      I wanted to say something, but couldn’t put it better than this. Thanks for writing, Jessica.

  • Theodore Seeber

    What I don’t get is why anybody would want to move to a country that has killed 56 million of it’s own citizens since 1973.

    Things may be bad in Mexico, heck, things are bad in Mexico. But here, despite our materialism and high standard of living, it is worse.

  • Mary Kay

    Jessica, this is your BEST summited writing yet! It is beautiful in thought and substance. I am very proud for you! MK

  • Vic

    And you will say to him, “When were you hungry and we did not feed you? When were you thirsty and we did not give you drink? When were you sick and we called healing you at our expense ‘Humanism’? [Whatever that is supposed to mean.] When were you on the run, desperately trying to earn a living and feed your family, and we called you ‘Criminals’ Period!”?

  • Jessica Eddings-Roeser

    The reason I wrote this post is because NPR had political analysts discussing whether or not Romney or Obama would tackle immigration before the election. They all agreed that candidates should avoid discussing it completely because it was too polarizing. This made me very sad. Regardless of one’s opinion, shying away from tough conversations is never the right way to go. I know it’s a divisive issue, and it’s complicated. But being afraid to have the conversation is where real danger lies. Thanks for speaking up and being a part of it!