Alumni ProfileNathan Poel '07
Illegal immigration: Real faces, real names

All through college Nathan Poel ’07 wanted to hear God speak, to hear a directive about what he was to do with his life. When he did, it wasn’t what Poel expected.

In spring 2007, Poel was studying in Honduras on Calvin’s international development semester. During a unit on migration, Professor Kurt Ver Beek brought to class Hondurans who had attempted the trip to the United States without documents in order to work.

“Their stories of what they had to go through to get here stunned us,” Poel said. “All through my Calvin career I had learned what it means to be a Christian. When I heard their stories, it seemed like a mandate. I had to do something.”

Poel and Steve Eaton, a Westmont (Calif.) College student also on the Honduras semester, decided that something they could do would be to learn more about migrants’ perilous journeys—and to learn more directly.

A year later, in May 2008, Poel returned to Tegucigalpa, home of the Honduras study program. He interviewed Hondurans who had made the trip north and their families. Then he took a bus to Guatemala City where he met up with Eaton. From there the two tall, fair-skinned men put themselves in the company of hundreds of Central Americans headed for the U.S. border.

Read Nathan Poel and Steve Eaton’s blog.

“It was not something we took on lightly,” Poel said. Both men grappled with their motives and with the dangers. They decided not to take some of the risks that migrants take every day: They didn’t sleep in the streets (though one night they did sleep in a ditch); they didn’t walk between towns, where thieves prey on migrants; and they didn’t ride the trains.

Except once, which provided the moment in the trip that made Poel feel most vulnerable. In the middle of the night, asleep in a gondola car with a group of migrants, they were wakened by men with flashlights extorting money for the privilege of the loud and bruising ride.

The story in detail, with pictures, is posted on the blog Poel and Eaton kept during their four-week trip. It records observations, reflections and stories of their encounters with migrants, aid workers and townspeople from Tegucigalpa to Tucson.

“We want people to see migrants as people first, regardless of their documented status,” Poel said. “Often we deal with immigration solely as if it were an economic policy or some complex international idea, as if it didn’t have real faces and real names. Many migrants are devout Christians. I think it’s very important to give weight to the perspective of other brothers and sisters in Christ, who happen to come here without documents.”

Not that economic policy isn’t important in understanding illegal immigration, Poel added, but economic policy, too, has to be seen in its effects on real people. “Then, as complex as the issue is, the answers for Christians come from the most simple of our teachings: If you see your neighbor hungry, you feed him, or naked, you clothe him.”

Poel and Eaton are working on a book that traces their journey and offers the stories of migrants they met. For his part, Poel hopes it’s not his last journey along life’s edge. “We saw Jesus out there. We saw him at work taking care of people as they went north. I can’t imagine living a life where I’m not trying to seek that out.”