Note: This post was written for and originally appeared on The Huffington Post in April of 2013. But as the debate on immigration reform and executive action on immigration grows, I am reminded that it was through my frequent travel to the border region of Tijuana that I came to see this as more than an issue, but rather as human faces of immigration with stories and families that matter more than any political soundbite ever could. This is my opinion on how our hearts can transform our minds, if we’re brave enough to listen.

Social justice is human justice. So often in the midst of the rhetoric, the political debates, and the 30 second news clips of stats and figures we lose sight of what it is we are fighting for: real people. On Sunday, I stood along the border of Tijuana and San Diego, as a door was opened in the fence between Mexico and the United States, where bystanders were privileged to witness the reality of this driven home in the simple embrace between a man, and the five year old daughter he was able to hold and hug for the first time ever.

For the past year, I have been taking groups of students from Loyola Marymount University to Tijuana. De Colores is a program sponsored by the University’s Campus Ministry Department, and it’s a storied program with 27 years of history. Year after year, new groups of LMU students take the 142 mile journey from campus to the Mexican border, and spend a packed weekend meeting new friends and learning about justice through experiential learning and most important of all: Relationships.

Jorge, one of the children we have come to know very well while working in El Florido, Tijuana with Build a Miracle. Photo credit: Shannon O’Brian

We conclude our weekends at Friendship Park, a special spot by the beach, where families torn apart by the border can come together, and face to face through thickly meshed fencing, steal glimpses of one another, whisper words of love and encouragement, and perhaps stick a pinkie through the tight fence and touch the pinkie of the person on the other side.

But all this changed on Sunday. For the first time in the history of the fence, a small door was opened. As I stood there on the Mexican side, with my American students, we witnessed the miraculous: A young father, living and working in the United States, was given a chance to stand in the door of the fence, and hug and kiss his five year old daughter living on the Mexican side, for the first time ever. As the mayor of San Diego stood by his side and called for strong and meaningful immigration reform, we watched, and cried, as this man tightly gripped his young daughter. It was only two minutes, and then they were separated and the door was closed again, but not before the emotions of anger and hope could make their way through my group of students and other witnesses.

Jimena, The young girl who moments before was held by her father for the first time. Photo credit: Shannon O’Brian

Later, our group reflected in the shadow of the wall next to the ocean, not far from words painted on the Mexican side that recall the words from Emma Lazarus that once greeted migrants arriving by boat to New York as they passed the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses that yearn to breath free…”

The border wall in Tijuana with words that mean so much to my own immigrant story. Photo credit: Shannon O'Brian

The border wall in Tijuana with words that mean so much to my own immigrant story. Photo credit: Shannon O’Brian

As you sit under the weight of those words on that ugly fence, you can’t help but grow angry. And anger is a great place to start. It’s a recognition of injustice, and a realization that whether we acknowledge it or try to life blissfully ignorant of it, injustice anywhere, as Martin Luther King told us, is a threat to justice everywhere. But anger only gets you so far. The setbacks become overwhelming, and you can’t help but burn out, because human beings, I am convinced, aren’t meant to sustain on anger alone.

And that is where hope comes in. We can choose to look at this situation, and live in the anger. Or we can recognize that our anger is actually pain, an overwhelming emotion of love, interrupted by something so ugly we struggle to fully comprehend its existence and intrusion. I keep looking at the expression of this young father’s face captured in photos and video, and I tell myself what I believe with all my heart to be true: If more people are witnesses to the human story of injustice in our world, it begins to change. Poco a poco, little by little, change will sweep our nation the way this young father swept his daughter into his arms for two special minutes captured on film. How can it not? If you asked me what immigration reform was about before Sunday, I might have had a vague story or two, and some stats to sprinkle amidst them. To answer that same question today, it’s about Luis Angulo, his daughter Jimena, and a hug that I am convinced changed the lives of many of my students that day. The hope then, is that the time has come where we recognize this moment for what it was, and what it should be: A simple and touching miracle, that those of us fighting for immigration reform hope will become just another ordinary expression of love between a father and his daughter.

A student reflects at Friendship Park in Tijuana. Photo credit: Shannon O’Brian

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