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“We may have different religions, different languages, different colored skin, but we all belong to one human race. We all share the same basic values.” ~ Kofi Annan.
When I was 16 years old, I rarely thought about skin color, language, or religion outside of a textbook.
Day after day, I meandered between the ocean of white faces and dingy cinder block walls of our high school. Within the borders of our small town, the human race existed as only a varying shade of peach, and until I was 18, there were only two religions in my world—Catholicism and Lutheranism. If you did not attend Saturday evening mass at 4 p.m. to reinforce your religious beliefs, you were sure to show up on Sunday morning at 10:30 a.m.
I spent evenings and weekends cooking at a hole-in-the-wall pub serving half-pound greasy cheeseburgers and baskets of roasted chicken to the locals with the hope of offsetting the growing cost of college. My senior year in high school, I ran cross-country with a team of young women who brought me along for a state championship win. Then, I went on to earn a competitive education and graduate from a Big 10 University in the heart of the Midwest.
Looking back, I was truly blessed to have the privilege of a childhood. Many children are not as lucky as I was.
Imagine a 16-year-old, who, only a few months ago, woke up to find his father lying dead in the backyard, mistakenly shot by one of the two rival gangs that run the city. His 34-year-old mother now leaves their apartment before the sun rises, desperately trying to earn enough money to put food on the table for him, his eight-year-old brother and his five-year-old and three-year-old sisters. Even though she never makes it home before the sun falls back to sleep, the $162.50 paycheck she earns barely pays the landlord for their two-room rusty metal shack.
One morning while preparing the tortillas and milk for his siblings, the radio sounds a special news report that catches his attention: “The next migrant caravan will be leaving Tegucigalpa in two days, headed north to the United States.” His heart pounds through his chest and the hunger deep down in his belly seeps into every muscle of his underfed body. The encouragement rings in his ears, “You can do this. You can join the caravan. You can find work in the United States and send money back to your mother to bail her out of this crazy hell. Yes, you will leave in two days.”
This was not a story I read in an online magazine. This was the story of one of my students—of so many of my students.
They were 16 and 17-year-olds from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. They were 12 and 13-year-olds who walked over 2,000 miles to cross the dry, choking heat of the Chihuahuan Desert. They were 14 and 15-year-olds who slept on the cement floors of the detention centers in which they were held.
Each child’s personal belongings—their cell phones, colorfully hand-woven huipiles, and prayer-worn bibles with ear-marked pages—were confiscated by border patrol officers when they crossed the frontera. Some children arrived with fathers, brothers, aunts, or other family members, who unfortunately were over 18. This meant that they would say goodbye to their family and leave for a shelter assigned to unaccompanied minors somewhere in the United States. Here, they would join other children who made the journey alone.
All of my immigrant students had witnessed things I had only seen on the big screen at the Marcus Cinema in town. Some spent their days walking the dirt floors in their one-room, put-together shack up in the aldeas of Guatemala. They spoke their traditional Mayan languages while cultivating the colorful fields of maíz, radishes, and decades of agricultural knowledge passed down from their families. Some had walked the scenes of a Vice News documentary, narrowly escaping the reality of being the next casualty of the Barrio 18’s revenge.
But, whatever their background, they were all here in search of a better life for themselves, for their families. They were here to make it.
Some of my students had not stepped into a school in six or seven years. As they walked down the stairs to their classroom, their eyes were fixed on the floor and their hands trembled. With a warm smile and a handshake, I welcomed each student. I introduced myself and let them know what a genuine pleasure it was to have them join our class. Then, to begin our school day, we united our voices confidently in our daily affirmations: “I am safe. I am smart. I am strong. I am beautiful. I matter.”
In six short weeks, which was the average stay at the shelter for most children, the majority of my students went from naming the colors blue, black, and red in English to being able to ask to use the bathroom, naming the months of the year and days of the week, and correctly writing simple sentences in English. Many students entered the shelter reviewing second grade subtraction with borrowing and reunited with their sponsors being able to add, subtract, multiply, and divide fractions and decimals. There were also those students who could barely write their first name when they arrived. They proudly made their final walk up the stairs having written the most vivid and heartfelt poems about their culture, their family, and their homeland.
Day by day, I watched each child’s self-confidence grow. She was no longer the “burra” she had been called in her home village. She quickly found out that she was worthy of learning, that she belonged in school, that she had purpose beyond selling handmade tortillas at the local mercado or harvesting the fields. She realized she could go to school here in the United States, and actually achieve her dream of becoming a teacher, a lawyer, or a psychologist. For the first time, the dream that she had hushed down deep in her heart was stretching its arms and whispering, “It’s time to make this a reality.”
These children did not swim in their past. They used their experiences to ignite a fire and push them through the frustration, through the tears. Their whole lives they had dreamed of coming to the United States, and they were finally here. They were going to be someone.
But in this country, we label them illegal aliens or undocumented immigrants.
We are inundated with politicians’ opinions rather than these individual stories of survival.
We hear conservative news reports call them criminals, drug lords, gang members, or anchor babies—young mothers who only want to give birth to their children here in the United States to attain citizenship.
But these labels are no more true for all immigrants than it would be to call all Wisconsinites farmers or all Texans cowboys. People are individuals. Each person has a story.
President Trump stated that he views undocumented immigrants, whether asylum seekers or not, entering the United States as a national emergency, making it imperative to spend billions of dollars to fortify the Mexican-American border with a 30-foot high cement wall that “must be built in a such a way that it would take at least an hour to cut through it with a ‘sledgehammer, car jack, pick axe, chisel, battery operated impact tools, battery operated cutting tools, Oxy/acetylene torch or other similar hand-held tools.’”
With Trump, we can only imagine what the real motive is behind building a wall that needs to scrape the sky. But, one thing is for sure. Whatever the motive, he continues to play with the emotions of the American people and shroud our minds in fear.
By labeling people by their immigration status—whether illegal aliens, asylum seekers, refugees, or undocumented immigrants—we automatically compartmentalize them in our minds. They become a problem that America must deal with rather than people looking to earn a living wage, human beings looking for a chance to breathe safely in a much too violent world.
How, then, do we change the stigma that surrounds immigrants and immigration in this country?
Well, the first step is to take Malala Yousafzai’s advice, “Do not know someone through the news, but go and visit your neighbor.”
It is up to us to unlock our front doors and unlatch our wooden gates. It is up to us to wave hello at the Latino family who moved into the sky blue bungalow across the street when we smell their delicious mix of savory spice and sweet onion marinade floating up from their smoking grill. It is up to us to take the opportunity to strike up a conversation with the professionals that Home Depot sends over to install our new laminate floor or our plush, cobblestone-colored carpet. It is up to us to choose a seat at the bar at our local taqueria the next time we crave tacos al pastor, so we can toast “Salud” with the gentleman pouring our preferred brand of Herradura Silver tequila.
Immigrants are not here to steal our jobs or make our community a drug dealer’s lair, as some politicians would lead us to believe. They are human beings—the same as you and me. They are here to work hard, to have a home, to turn their dreams into reality. They are here to “make it,” just like our very own ancestors did when they too immigrated to this nation not so many years ago.
So, the next time we are doing our everything shopping at Walmart and happen upon a Spanish-speaking mother counting backward from 10 to 1, having just explained to her six-year-old son for the 36th time that they will not be buying the latest Captain Marvel toy, or we find ourselves waiting to check out at Aldi’s behind a woman wearing a black obsidian abaya dress with only the sparkle of her eyes showing, we will not look the other way. We will not build our wall higher, but rather we will tear it down, one smile at a time.
We will smile because we are not afraid. We will smile because we hear more than the words they speak. We will smile because we see beneath the color of their skin and beyond the outer layers they wear. We see our sameness. We see the human race reflected in their eyes and in their struggles. We will smile because we know that we are all just trying to make it, one day at a time.
Together, you and I can look fear in the eye and prove it wrong. We can change the inhumane perception of immigration in this nation to one of compassion and justice. We can turn off the nightly news, knock on our neighbor’s door, and invite them over for a Saturday afternoon playdate or a Sunday morning pot of hazelnut creme coffee. We can tell our stories and discover that we share the same basic values after all.
We can be the ones to extend our hand in humanity and welcome them home.