As we spent Monday in transit from Indiana to San Diego, I’m considering my own family’s immigration journey. When many Caucasian Americans think of their immigration story, they look back to places like Ellis Island, envisioning 1880s ships packed with huddled masses yearning to breathe free. I too am a product of the great 19th century European migration, but my family is also enriched and touched by the story of 20th and 21st century immigration as half my immediate family was born outside the US.
My mother was born in Liberia, the third child of missionary parents. They lived overseas until she was three, when they moved back to their native Canada. She spent her childhood in Canada and never expected to leave. However, she moved to the US after graduating high school to attend college, planning to return to Canada after college. It wasn't Ellis Island, but a crossing at Pembina, North Dakota that welcomed her to her new country.
Instead of returning home, she met an American farmer and never returned to Canada. Though she has lived in the US decades longer than she lived in her native Canada, she never changed her citizenship. She still carries a Green Card, a Canadian passport, and is proud of her Canadian heritage.
Being that my mother is a Canadian citizen, I had dual citizenship in the US and Canada until I turned 18. Without much fanfare, one day in 1998 my Canadian citizenship ceased and I was simply an American citizen. No paperwork, no visits to court. Just the stroke of midnight on a cold January day, and my citizenship changed to simply “American.”
My husband and I have spent a significant amount of time working with US CIS services. We’ve been fingerprinted, our backgrounds checked. In 2005, and again in 2008, we boarded an airplane bound for Ethiopia and welcomed our children home. O’Hare International Airport was our Ellis Island. A sealed manila envelope, two inches thick, accompanied us on our journey. Citizens of another nation, birthed by other women, by the stroke of a pen, the stamp of a document, became US citizens. And we became parents. “Welcome to the United States” was our greeting—a phrase echoed through the centuries.
It’s a complicated journey, this story of American immigration. Not all who wished to be welcomed had the privilege of setting foot on these shores. Not all who came to these shores did so willingly, but were instead enslaved, their blood shed so others could receive the American dream. But, no matter how complicated our story, we are assured that we have a God who joins us in the complexity of the journey. Joseph, sold into slavery and sent to Egypt. Israel, enslaved for 400 years and led through the desert for 40 years. Ruth “Where you go I shall go…your people shall be my people…” These accounts of immigration, of transition, of new lands are captured in scripture because they are OUR story—God’s story. The story of people, who, while citizens and residents of many lands, are citizens of God’s nation first. Wherever the journey may lead, we are assured that our God has gone before us, that our God joins with us in the story of immigration. Wherever we go, God shall go. God's people are our people. For we are citizens of the kingdom.