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Good fences don’t always make good neighbors

A group of nearly 400 women draw from their own lives and family histories to dissect U.S. immigration policies.
26 Sep 2018 – 12:14 PM EDT
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While a storm raged across America over President Donald Trump’s policy of separating children from parents at the U.S.-Mexico border, a woman from Birmingham, Alabama, had an unusual question.

“Can common ground be found between those advocating for immigrant children at the border and those fighting for the right to life for the unborn?” asked Tiffany Rouse.

Seven hundred and fifty miles from Birmingham, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the question resonated with another woman in a deeply personal way. Sarah Shotland is a professor at a liberal university who comes from a “very Catholic, very pro-life” family. While pro-lifers are routinely accused of being hypocrites who do not care for children once they’re out of the womb, and specifically do not care for immigrant children, Shotland says her parents were consistent about their beliefs. They adopted two children who were once unaccompanied minors from Vietnam and had lived in Cambodian refugee camps.

But for Rouse’s question, Shotland would never have thought of the intersection between the pro-life and the pro-immigration movement, or how it shaped her family.

Shotland and Rouse are both part of a closed Facebook group called The Many, a colorful medley of nearly 400 women across the ideological spectrum in the U.S. who engage in hard-nosed political discourse, often those they disagree with. The Many is an experiment in community-building by Spaceship Media, an organization that works on bridging the divide between people in an increasingly polarised world.

" The Many is in stark contrast to the liberal bubble in which I live, where colleagues, students and friends paint all conservatives with the same brush. The conversations on the group are the proof I collect for real-life discussions on the subject,” says Shotland, pointing to the wide range of people who call themselves conservative, particularly evident in conversations around immigration, and just how far ajar the door should be kept for those who want to get in.

The conversations meandered, and women, both liberal and conservative, spoke as much about the politics of family separation, as they did about how it made them feel. Some said the policy would make them vote against their traditional political leanings. Deeply religious Christian women were furious over Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ use of the Bible to justify the policy. Some even compared it with the misuse of the Quran by radical Islamists.

In comment after comment, women spoke of how it made them sick to see a book they loved being used to justify family separation. Some spoke of how those in the current administration who claim to read the Bible every day “cannot be praying to the same God I do.” The conversations acknowledged that Christians did not have a perfect track record when it came to using the Bible to justify terrible things, as the scriptures have, in the past been quoted in defense of “slavery, oppression of minorities, homophobia...” Others talked of how, if faced with a situation such as this, Jesus would have shown compassion for those seeking refuge in the U.S.

Every few weeks, Lauren Peabody from Alabama says she is recruited or emailed by different Christian organizations to “solicit funds to sponsor kids in South America.”

“I see a contradiction in spending $ 2,000 to fly all the way to another country to help people, if we do not show people from these countries any hospitality when they come to our doorstep seeking safety,” she says.

Women on The Many drew from their own personal experiences and their family histories to inform their views on immigration.

“I am the granddaughter and great-granddaughter of immigrants,” says a paralegal in upstate New York, who wishes to remain anonymous for professional reasons. Her family migrated to the U.S. from Germany and Italy a hundred years ago. “At the time, you needed a sponsor and a job in order to live here. My great uncle’s sponsor died while he was on his way to the U.S. from Europe. He spent four months on Ellis Island while his family scrambled to find him another sponsor,” she says.

She cites her family as an example of folks who used the correct channels to enter the U.S.

In a discussion on Trump’s border policies, she asked on The Many, “Is it morally right for, let’s say me, to decide that your house and lawn is nicer or safer than where I live, so, I am going to cross a property boundary and live on your lawn, uninvited and you personally are now responsible to feed, clothe, house and educate me and my family, possibly for a little while, possibly forever. Also, please keep in mind that I may not be the only person to decide to do this. How many families or people living on your lawn will be acceptable? How many of us can you take care of? And for how long? What if we tell you it’s not your choice and you will have to just let us keep arriving?” she asks on the group.

She views the separation of families at the border as the consequence of an offence committed. “When someone does something wrong in the U.S., they go to jail and their children get taken in by social service,” she adds.

But Ashley Edwards, the daughter of immigrants from the Caribbean, points out that America was founded by people who did not come to the country ‘legally,’ but stole the land from native populations, who continue to live in poverty. “It’s hypocritical to suddenly shut down the borders for vulnerable people who want to seek refuge here, because they’re not using the correct channels of immigration. When the early settlers came here, there were no documentation processes like the ones we have now, where people have to bend over backwards to prove they deserve to be here. The early settlers, on the other hand, simply took the land for themselves,” she says.

She posts on The Many about the white supremacist origins of U.S. immigration policies, and how descendants of the early settlers, who were ethnically white, designed immigration policies that would privilege white folk.

In response, some said that irrespective of what had happened in the past, they were concerned about border security today, and wanted immigration regulated, irrespective of the color of the immigrants.

But Edwards insists that the past is relevant today. “We have to look at the historical context in which the immigration debate exists, because nothing exists in a vacuum. We can’t say that race and skin color don’t matter anymore while talking of immigration,” she adds.

The conversations on immigration would sometimes leave Edwards frustrated. And yet she’s grateful for the opportunity to have such conversations. “It’s easier for all of us to surround ourselves with people who agree with us, and yet it’s so important to stretch ourselves every once in a while, and talk to people who differ from us,” says Edwards.

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