11/21/2014 02:20 pm ET Updated Jan 21, 2015

No Vacancy: Is America Really at Capacity?

I don't really understand the complexities of immigration reform. Surely it's more complicated than what is inscribed at the entrance to the Statue of Liberty. "Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free..." There's more to it than that simple and inspiring vision of America. Media reports in the past few days share that the past few presidents, Democrats and Republicans, have called for immigration reform. Something needs to be done. And, like so many fellow Americans, I feel completely baffled by what I can do. In this season of thanks and giving I have decided one thing I can do is lose myself in the service of others. I can make good on the noble aspiration at the doorstep of Lady Liberty's residence to take in the tired and poor and in doing so learn a little bit more about the immigrants story.

I have worked in a college community engagement office for a long time. I have had the privilege of joining college students on alternative breaks. This morning one alternative break in particular is occupying my thoughts. I cannot shake the memories. Some images and sounds so familiar I can imagine myself in Belize. It is healthy, I think, to remember and reflect. Here's what I recall:

The rain is pounding on the tin roof as students prepare medical lectures alongside doctors from Cuba and Costa Rica. We are seated in tropical Belize, a small, rural country, devoid of industry and teeming with immigrants from Guatemala and El Salvador. Along with 15 students I have embarked on a mission of service and in return we all are receiving an awakening experience. Poor immigrant families express their health concerns and in doing so speak of a life of struggle and pain, of worry and concern, of constant sickness over things that access to health care could fix.

Travis and I share a bunk. We talk often and openly about what we witness. We arrived with the prospect of diagnosing hundreds of patients with guidance from seasoned doctors and we hoped to fix at least a small portion of a larger than life problem. We all quickly realized that our medical advice and treatment is small and temporary. As we gained a cursory understanding of tropical diseases and initial diagnosis evolved from a daunting task to somewhat routine, we recognized patterns of illness. Community members live alongside animals and are exposed daily to contaminated drinking water. Flooding causes human waste to intersect with drinking water and sickness ensues. Immigrants endure much worse conditions. Many arrived recently from Guatemala and El Salvador. They do not speak English and they do not have a social network of support. They set up camp with nothing. Cardboard and tin scraps become building materials and plastic bags serve as bedding. Children play and laugh and do what you hope kids will do, but they approach life with trepidation. They know too much too soon, and they grow up before their time. We become friends with community members. We build bridges across human made barriers. We seek similarity rather than becoming fixated on material differences.

Hope lingers. Each small community we visit is blessed with a community leader or two who paves our path along dirt roads to residences. A devoted pastor lifts spirits in Cotton Tree village and a persistent young woman leads us along our path in St. Matthews. Her presence is a powerful voice in an otherwise quiet village. Children do dream of a brighter future. One girl insists that she will be a doctor. Her name is Grace, my oldest daughter's middle name. I cannot forget her. Her dreams are similar to those of our children. Grace's path will be so much steeper, more treacherous, and she may not prevail.

So many are young and scared, women with young children struggle to hold together their new family and wonder about illnesses that in our circumstance have names and treatments. Lucille reminds me of you wife, Amy. She is determined to provide for her children, sacrificing her own well-being so that her kids can have a better life. In the afternoon, as we are driving along a dirt road we pass two men, one older and one younger. Our guide stops and after some time talking with them, she welcomes them on to the bus. They'd both recently been deported from the United States, a father and his son. They'd gone out to get food, were taken to custody and never returned to siblings, children, mother and wife. We dropped them at an orchard where they would be working. I wonder often if they ever reunited with their family.

We departed with more knowledge than we imagined. We learned about the mighty struggle of immigrant families seeking a better life for their families. Service is complicated. Reaching the end of the shift or visit can prompt such emotion, some good, some really bad. It can too signal a rebirth and prompt personal reflection.

There are just as many critics as there are advocates for committing to service. It is temporary. It is selfish -- makes the giver feel good. It is voyeuristic -- privileged others peering into the lives of the poor. This is true and this is sobering. That said how could we not at least try to understand the path of the immigrant when we, as a citizenry, are making decisions that will impact their life?

We tell the world that America is a melting pot, a grand experiment and that we are the place where others can come for a better life. The immigrant story has been part of the American story and yet many of us have lost that connection to the story over the decades and generations. We no longer feel a connection to the tired and the poor because for many, we've expelled that part of our story from our family narrative.

Empathy is a tough emotion to embrace. Over time our nation and our world will need to evolve in order to come to own empathy. To rationalize inertia with ambiguous legal protocol turns our attention away from the central concern of human suffering. We abandon our commitment to love one another for the "he is wrong, I am right" narrative. For now, maybe the best we can do, one citizen in a big world, is to abandon our cell phones and step away from the television and see for ourselves, in service, what Emma Larazus requested in her appeal to our citizenry, "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me: I lift my lamp beside the golden door."