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Politics of Scripture

Pandemic and Migration

While the pandemic challenges our physical borders, it simultaneously bridges our differences, revealing that we are all migrants.

45:1 Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, ‘Send everyone away from me.’ So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. 2And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. 3Joseph said to his brothers, ‘I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?’ But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence.
4Then Joseph said to his brothers, ‘Come closer to me.’ And they came closer. He said, ‘I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. 5And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. 6For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither ploughing nor harvest. 7God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. 8So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. 9Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, “Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay. 10You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. 11I will provide for you there—since there are five more years of famine to come—so that you and your household, and all that you have, will not come to poverty.” 12And now your eyes and the eyes of my brother Benjamin see that it is my own mouth that speaks to you. 13You must tell my father how greatly I am honoured in Egypt, and all that you have seen. Hurry and bring my father down here.’ 14Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, while Benjamin wept upon his neck. 15And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.

Genesis 45:1–15

The story of Joseph confronting his brothers takes my memory a few years back, when I was detained at a U.S. airport with my mother. I was in South Korea for the summer break to see my family, when my father unexpectedly passed away. I invited my mother, who had recently retired, to accompany me back to the States and stay with me for three months so that we could grieve together, an action which is often a privilege for many migrants.

In the airport detention room, with all the right documents along, with my mother’s return ticket in hand, my body starts shaking irrationally. After finding no fault in my documents, an officer asks me why my mother was traveling with me. After hearing my reasons, he looks at me and says, “Your mama is staying with you for too long, and she shouldn’t.” I bite my lips and hold back from saying that there are no grounds for my mother’s stay to be shortened, because I know this is not the time to be right or factual. After a few seconds of silence, the officer asks me again, “Do you understand what I’m saying?” I nod. “You can go now.” The memory of being shaken has stayed with me, becoming a physical reminder that some bodies are more vulnerable than others.

When Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers after a long interrogation, his first words are “Is my father still alive?”—the simultaneous simplicity, intimacy, and urgency of the question continues to resonate with migrants’ experiences today. We know that much time has passed since Joseph last saw his father, but Joseph refrains from asking this question until the end. Joseph maintains his persona as a viceroy for Egypt right until the moment he can no longer hold back his question. This withholding is heightened by the presence of an interpreter, whose mention, as pointed out by Robert Alter, breaks the assumed immediacy between Joseph’s speech and inward feelings. The interpreter here is only one of the many Egyptians officials present at the brothers’ detainment. One can easily imagine the tension in the room, like Joseph’s own inner feelings, simmering to the point of eruption.

Our text began with Joseph commanding Egyptians out of the room for privacy, which becomes necessary because of Joseph’s increasingly uncontrollable emotions. With the officials and the interpreter removed, Joseph finally comes to the moment of unmediated communication with his brothers. In Genesis 45, Joseph’s fractured speech and emotion come back together, perhaps at the very moment of Joseph’s dramatic switch to his mother tongue—when he bursts out, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” The brothers, who sold Joseph to Egypt and caused a separation between him and his father, are speechless and it is finally Joseph’s turn to speak as himself. He asks his brothers to bring his father without any delay and settle at a place where he can provide for them for the remaining years of famine. Being physically present with his brothers, Joseph expresses one of the most fundamental human desires: “You shall be near me” (45:9).

In our shared precarious condition caused by the pandemic, we are facing the challenges of being absent from our loved ones. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, mobility and proximity have become privileges. We are learning the hard way that technology may allow us to communicate but it does not guarantee intimacy and comfort. Limited mobility and heightened isolation may be the new normal for many; but for migrants, this is a familiar territory. For example, Melissa Borja  shows how the pandemic affects migrants, specifically the Hmong refugees in the United States. As Borja writes, migrants always have faced “the dual affliction of death and forced family separation.” And while she warns against overestimating migrants’ resilience and ingenuity in terms of dealing with the dual affliction, Borja highlights that migrants often find creative ways to combat this dual affliction, physical or emotional. This story is as ancient as Joseph’s dramatic rendezvous, where he desired so ardently to be near his family that he “wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it” (45:2).

The same story continues today, although the reasons for family separation vary. On July 6, 2020, the Trump administration signed the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) statement that prohibited international students taking full online courses from residing in the U.S, in spite of the fact that the pandemic has forced many schools to stop in-person teaching for safety. Nearly one million international students in the U.S, whose lives were already shaken by travel restrictions without having any safety net, faced the new challenge of having to cancel their education. The usual time during the summer when universities issue documents for international students turned into an opportune moment for the government to push for a premature reopening of schools and businesses, effectively taking international students as hostages for such negotiation.

This ICE directive reached an anti-climactic pause when the Trump administration rescinded its statement only a few days later, after facing the immediate lawsuit action from more than twenty universities, led by Harvard and MIT. Many international students, who were already familiar with the challenges of mobility and isolation, faced the new fears of their legal status being revoked or deported unreasonably. Even after the withdrawal of the original statement, many international students felt that they were being threatened to leave, or were used as instruments to showcase state power in the midst of a global pandemic. As one of the one million, I felt the same bodily reaction that I once had at the airport. Being close to my family has already been a challenge. Now, given the willingness of the administration to gamble with the status of a million people, creating a situation where no document can guarantee stability, I feared that I might be arbitrarily forced to leave without any prospect of returning.

The pandemic has reminded us how mobile we used to be. Like the famine in Egypt had brought Joseph’s family together, the pandemic brings us together beyond the existing borders. While the pandemic challenges our physical borders, it simultaneously bridges our differences. It is through the shared limited mobility that we can see our newly precarious life as a closer reality to that of migrants. If you are frustrated with not being able to be near your loved ones, losing face-to-face interaction, or missing weddings, funerals, and new births, welcome to the lives of migrants. Since we are all in the same boat during the pandemic, may we also share in our struggle and longing for connection.

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