Celebrating Latinas as Leaders Achievements through LUCHA's Bilingual Girl Scout Troop

This month, February 2019, Girl Scout Troop 5020, sponsored by
LUCHA Ministries, Inc., celebrated its 5-year anniversary.  It’s been 4 years of intense learning experiences as well as service to the community.  Troop 5020 is a bicultural multi-age troop that formed when some of the women participating in LUCHA Ministries’ Project Adelante shared their frustrations with their daughters’ desire to participate in community clubs and activities.  The moms wanted to be involved as well, and their lack of English proficiency meant that they weren’t able to participate as fully as they wanted.
And Troop 5020 was born.  Judy Maggio agreed to help form the troop and became its first Troop Leader — on a “temporary” basis.  Five years later, Judy continues to guide this group of young women — and their moms! — along a path of leadership and personal development.  “In the beginning,” said Judy, “we were like deer in  the headlights, but the moms focused on community service, and this has become our strength.”
The Troop has developed and embraced Latino cultural values, such as familismo, with activities and projects that often involve the whole family, such as hiking in Shenandoah National Park, or a community meal, where the scouts did the planning, but their entire families pitched in to help prepare and serve the food.  Or respeto, which values the wisdom and status of the elderly, an important cultural value than can be easily lost as immigrant children lose touch with their grandparents and extended families due to migration. The Troop has worked in several area assisted living facilities and nursing homes, proving an annual Christmas program and engaging in other activities.
In 2018, two Scouts earned top leadership awards in their grade levels.  Junior Angelica C. earned the Bronze Award, which is the highest award a Junior Scout (4th or 5th grader) can achieve.   Angelica’s Project, “Angie’s Cards”, was an effort to help residents in an area nursing home “feel happy, and not forgotten.”  Angelica prepared a “garden” of over 200 handmade cards with uplifting and inspirational messages, and residents can choose a card to read and return to the “garden,” to be enjoyed later by another resident.  Her cards have touched approximately 170 residents at two separate facilities.
Cadette Britney C. earned a Silver Award (6th through 9th graders) for researching and developing an outreach model to benefit the immigrant population of the Greater Fredericksburg Area.  As part of her model, Britney partnered with two local organizations to serve a Latino meal to approximately 150 low-income and homeless persons.  Britney shopped and secured food donations, and she coordinated 45 Latino immigrant volunteers to prepare and serve the meal, using Bolivian, Mexican, Salvadoran, and Panamanian/Puerto Rican recipes.  There were no Latinos present as guests for the meal, but Britney and her team gained valuable experience as they seek better ways to engage the immigrant population.
Also, Ambassador Marisol C. received the Troop’s first VALE $1,000 scholarship for Girl Scout excellence from LUCHA Ministries, Inc. for her leadership and academic achievements.  Judy saw Marisol evolve from a young, unfocused girl with a good heart but who wasn’t sure she wanted to be in the troop to a “responsible, focused young woman with a good heart who is the unofficial scout leader of the troop,” a role that she has embraced and welcomed.  Marisol is attending a 4-year university and enrolled in a combined bachelor’s/master’s degree program. Marisol has continued with Troop 5020 as an adult alumnae.
Troop leader Judy Maggio was awarded the 2018 Volunteer of Excellence Award.  Judy expressed her gratitude for the enormous support she has received from the moms, Scouts, Council, Service Unit, and LUCHA Ministries, Inc.  This award is by nomination and recipients are selected by the Council for outstanding service as they seek to encourage, motivate, and mentor the girls.  Judy, a retiree with no children of her own, provides an excellent example of volunteer service.  As a Latina with Panamanian/Puerto Rican heritage, she is a role model and mentor to not only the scouts, but also to their mothers.  She pushes them to exceed in academics, to engage in leadership, and to rise above any self-doubt about their ability to succeed, always encouraging them to “reach for the skies.”
Throughout these four years, LUCHA’s support to the troop has been unwavering.  LUCHA was instrumental in the creation of Troop 5020, and its interns and leaders have been actively involved and assisted the Troop in various ways.  The Girl Scouts of the Commonwealth of Virginia awarded LUCHA Ministries, Inc. with the 2018 Girl Scouts Community Award for their outstanding service in support of GSCV’s mission-delivery to girl and adult members.
These achievements have inspired the girls of Troop 5020.  Currently, six of the eleven Scouts in the Troop are pursuing Girl Scout leadership awards (Bronze, Silver, or Gold/NYWOD), and all four Scouts who are in high school are high academic achievers and are making plans to attend college.
Troop 5020, keep reaching for the skies!

Ripping Families Apart: How Did Our Nation Get Here?

by Sue Smith

I traveled internationally with my sons on two separate occasions several years ago.

I was “estadounidense” (“American”) and gave little to no thought to whether I was able to travel alone with the kids.

We were U.S. citizens, which is to say, we were somewhat oblivious to the rules, regulations and visa requirements that most people face.

With my older son, Jason, when we arrived at the airport to board our flight home, I was asked for country-specific paperwork that showed I had the authority for him to leave Costa Rica with me.

This involved an application process, complete with signatures from both parents, interviews with government officials and properly notarized documents with “timbres” or official stamps.

I had purchased an exit visa that showed that Jason was a legal permanent resident, which placed him under Costa Rican protection as a minor. I was free to go home, but not Jason.

For my younger son, Kyle, Costa Rican law had recently changed and all minor travelers born in Costa Rica, regardless of their nationality, country of residence or passport, were covered by child protective services and required the government-issued travel documentation.

For both kids, the system promised to be responsible for them until a time when I could return and present the proper paperwork in order to take them home.

There was no way I was going to be separated from my kids. I was horrified at the idea that they could be taken away from me, the parent, or held in the country simply because I hadn’t known about current Costa Rican policy and law. I acted like a typical parent – I was pretty hysterical and irate.

Today, as I contemplate our government’s recent separation of children from their parents with no apparent thought given to reunification, I’m reminded of that day in the airport, being told Jason couldn’t travel.

What if he had been taken from me, moved to a shelter or placed with a family until I could return with proper documents? What if we hadn’t lived near Washington, D.C,. where my husband was able to travel to the Costa Rican consulate and present the necessary documents for Kyle to return home?

What if none of us had spoken Spanish? What if we had known no one in Costa Rica who could help us? Or if I had been accused of smuggling the kids and detained?

I don’t have a clue what Costa Rica would or could have done with my children, but I wouldn’t have immediately known how to get them back, especially if they had been moved well over 1,000 miles away (which, from Costa Rica, would be the equivalent of moving them several countries away).

For many of the parents who arrive at the border with their children, the idea of being separated probably never crossed their minds until they saw it happen right before their eyes.

In the hospital, a patient is given an armband that is checked and double checked by every healthcare professional who engages with that patient.

Children are checked in and out of schools, daycare facilities and church programs, always under the care of their parents.

Parents don’t entrust their children into the care of strangers, no matter how attractive the program or nice the representatives seem.

So, exactly how did we as a nation get to the point of believing it’s a good thing to take children away from their parents?

What was the plan for reuniting them, and what were parents told? How are they to go about getting their children back, once they are released from detention?

In my situation, both of our sons returned to the U.S. with me, and all is well. This makes a great family story about how Mom brought Jason home with a new tourist visa – after purchasing baseball caps and a change of clothes for both!

And about the days spent dealing with government agencies to obtain permission for Kyle to return home.

But what stories will be told by the thousands of children and parents separated through “zero tolerance” enforcement?

*This article first appeared on EthicsDaily.com, July 17, 2018

Honoring the Parents Reflecting on Hispanic Heritage


Each year, Americans observe National Hispanic Heritage Month from September 15 to October 15, by celebrating the histories, cultures and contributions of American citizens whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America.

An estimated 17% of the population of the US can be identified as Hispanic. Second only to English, Spanish is the most frequently spoken language in the US, spoken by 38 million Hispanic people and 2.6 million non-Hispanics. 13% of the US population speaks Spanish at home.

What strikes me most when I think of the contributions of Hispanic Americans is the people behind the success story. While not all Hispanics or Latinos are immigrants, many are, and they are courageous and self-sacrificing individuals who want a better life for themselves and their children.

The immigrants I know aren’t looking for a “free ride”; they’re looking for opportunities to work hard and make a new life, to invest in our country. Folks like Miguel and Maria, who worked in the fields in California; Jaime, a construction worker, and Silvia, a stay-home mom to four boys; Dominga, who picked berries in Washington — they’re all immigrants and now US citizens.  And they’ve made sacrifices on behalf of their children.

They’ve sacrificed their homeland.  Their language.  Their own comfort. Their dignity. Despite limited English or strong accents, functional illiteracy in their native language, long hours at low-paying jobs, and living in impoverished neighborhoods, they’ve raised caring and considerate children who are bilingual, bicultural, well-rounded youth and young adults with bright futures ahead of them. They are our future.

As Christians, we are called to embrace the stranger. What might that look like in your community? Tutoring a student? Welcoming a Spanish-speaking family to your neighborhood? Teaching English? Helping someone study for the citizenship test? Incorporating children and youth from immigrant families into your church? Helping them with college admission paperwork or scholarship applications?

Many of us can think back to someone in our lives who has made a sacrifice or has helped us get to where we are today.  Take a moment and give thanks, and then honor their gift to you by helping someone else.

What’s Happening on Summer Break Bridges of Hope provides summer activities

Each summer, parents want to keep their kids engaged and occupied.  And for working families with limited income, this can be particularly challenging.  Healthy meals, safety in the neighborhood, monitoring television viewing, time spent playing video games — all of these issues are important concerns.

While some families schedule camps and activities and family vacations to keep their kids busy, the summer months can be the busiest at work for many of our Latino families. Parents juggle work schedules to provide adequate supervision and rely on older kids to care for younger siblings. Many parents leave easy-to-prepare meals for breakfast and lunch. A trusted adult is only a phone call away, but days can be long and boring for the kids when spent indoors.

Through Bridges of Hope, LUCHA is providing a variety of activities this summer to keep the kids engaged and to involve the parents as much as possible, with the hope that they’ll be ready for school again once classes start.

First, we addressed the issue of having meals that the kids could prepare safely at home, to encourage responsibility and independence. In May, parents and other volunteers worked alongside the Stafford Rotary Club to package easy-to-prepare fortified pasta meals that were then distributed to families in our community. Parents helped the kids learn how to properly prepare the meals in the microwave. We’re hearing back from the kids that the meals are “delicious” – and the parents are impressed and proud when their children are able to make their own lunches when necessary.

In June, on the first weekend of summer break, LUCHA’s Girl Scout Troop headed to Shenandoah National Park with parents and siblings for a day on the trails. We began hiking on a misty, foggy trail where we encountered a bear. We all put our “what do you do if you encounter a bear” skills to work and slipped safely by while the bear ignored us. When we reached Hawksbill Summit, the highest point in the park, the skies cleared as we ate lunch overlooking the beauty of the valley. We finished the day with a hike to Dark Hollow Falls, completing nearly 7 miles of hiking.

Tuesdays during the summer are filled with trips to the local pool. We’re blessed to have “Pastor Paul” Harfst who teaches kids to swim. He works individually with them until they swim well enough to pass the swim test, which gains them access to the “deep end” — but more importantly, to the slide! As each kid swims the length of the pool to complete the test, others walk alongside the lane and cheer them on. So far, most of the 30 or so kids ages 10 and up have passed and are able to go down the slide – along with Pastor Paul!

On Thursdays, LUCHA sponsors a summer enrichment program at the library under the direction of ESOL instructors. The children are divided into age groups to read stories and engage in activities that support reading comprehension. Jazmine, a 17-year-old, is the oldest participant; she brings her younger sister and 2-year-old brother, who is our youngest participant. Jazmine is able to improve her reading skills in English, while Jesús sits quietly in his teacher’s lap as she reads aloud to him.

Two newly-arrived girls from El Salvador will enter US schools for the first time this fall, and the program gives them the opportunity to meet teachers and make new friends in an English-speaking setting. Both kids and parents are encouraged to apply for library cards and given guidance on how to use the library.

As the summer winds down, we’ll make sure that the kids are ready for school with new supplies and backpacks. We focus especially on the middle and high school students, as they are most sensitive to the fact that their parents may not be able to purchase everything on the supplies list. We ensure that they have the basics: 3-ring binders and tabs, 3- and 5-subject spiral notebooks, composition books, pens and pencils, etc. Your donations of either school supplies or funds to purchase additional supplies are appreciated.

And finally, we’ll remember our college students, many of whom are DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) holders or “Dreamers”, with $50 gift cards to start off their fall semester. Many of these students have participated in LUCHA’s programs since they were in elementary school, and we’d like to reward them for their accomplishments. While $50 isn’t much, they are encouraged by even a small gift that shows they are remembered.

What Will Happen to US? Halfway between September and March, DACA recipients wonder what their future holds

“If DACA ends, life as I know it will end, too. I won’t be able to drive anymore because I’ll lose my license. And I won’t be able to work, or go to school . . . . I don’t know what I’ll do!”

This statement exemplifies the feelings of DREAMers everywhere, who anxiously await the final fate of their current temporary status.  DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, is a program that has afforded nearly 800,000 young immigrants the opportunity to come out of the shadows of the undocumented world.  But it is scheduled to end in March 2018.  Brought to the US as children by their parents, they had no choice in being here and most think of themselves as Americans.  Many are college students and aspiring young professionals.


Christian,* age 19, is a full-time second-year community college student who is studying Computer Science. He lives at home with his parents and three younger sisters (who are US citizens) and works five days a week to pay for his school expenses. He’s thinking ahead and plans to transfer to a four-year university once he earns his Associate Degree.

We first met Christian when he was 7 and in the second grade. He participated in our after-school program, Study Buddies, and he became a volunteer during middle and high school, tutoring elementary-aged students from immigrant families. Christian is a natural tutor and role model for the kids, with his calm, quiet manner and ability to explain homework assignments to them in either Spanish or English.

For Christian, losing DACA means losing his work permit and thus his job, which means he will no longer be able to afford to pay for college. Like most DACA students, he has no student loans and must pay school costs out-of-pocket or on a semester payment plan. He will also lose his drivers’ license, which will impact his ability to get to and from class or work –and his ability to help his parents with transportation. Christian and his dad commute to work in the same restaurant approximately 45 miles away from their home.

Without DACA, this young man who has lived in the US since age three will revert to status as an undocumented immigrant, working at unskilled labor jobs for cash, and his education will come to an end without the ability to pay for tuition, books, and materials.

José* is 21 and a student. He lives at home and works a 40-hour per week night job in a call center, which allows him to take classes during the day at the university. He’s lived in the US since second grade.

DACA had a huge impact in Jose’s life. As a middle-schooler, his family moved to a new home and he became aware that he was an undocumented immigrant. He was bullied and called “the Mexican kid” at his new, mostly-white school — even though he repeatedly explained that he was not from Mexico. He most likely had ADHD but no services were provided, and he struggled in school, even though he was very bright. Outgoing and friendly, José made friends quickly at Passport Missions camp and loved helping others, but he was also known for his impulsiveness and jokes.

José gave up hope. “What difference does it make if I do well in school?” he said. “I’ll still be an illegal immigrant – just look at my parents!” His dad, a university professor in his home country, worked in the kitchen of restaurants in the US, and his mom, an accountant, was stocking shelves in a small retail store. But then, José’s sister earned an academic scholarship to a four-year private college, and he saw that her hard work really had paid off. Soon afterward, DACA came along, which meant that college would be a possibility for him, too.

José suddenly had hope, hope for the life his parents had sacrificed so much for him to have. But it was dependent on him to do his part, to learn responsibility. He quit skipping school, began to focus on his classes, and sought help for areas where he was struggling. He became a good student, and he found new friends. When he was approved for DACA, he was able to get his drivers’ license and obtain a part-time job to save money for a car and for college.

More than the loss of his good job, car and drivers’ license, or ability to study, the loss of DACA for José means he loses hope. José saw what he could do with his life if he just put forth an effort, but without DACA, he’ll go back to what he once dreaded being, just another “illegal immigrant.”

When Yerendi,* received school supplies from LUCHA Ministries in the third grade, she grabbed the bag and danced around the room before sitting down to sort and organize her backpack for the first day of school. “I love school,” she said. “Summer is so boring, and I can’t wait to get back! One day, maybe I’ll be a teacher. Or maybe a doctor. Or maybe . . . something else!”

It’s no surprise that Yerendi, now age 22, took charge of her DACA application once she was old enough to apply. She soon had a job, a car, and was looking forward to college. She was able to pay for her own clothes and help her parents out with expenses – plus becoming the family’s “taxi” as she took her younger siblings to activities and her parents to appointments. Her dad, a self-employed mechanic with a third-grade education, bought and refurbished a car for her.

Yerendi began working for a physician’s office part-time, primarily getting the job because she had served as a volunteer interpreter for one of the physician’s Spanish-speaking patients. The job turned into full-time position, and she had to make a decision about school. She opted to work full-time and study part-time. In the meantime, the practice became part of a university system, and now she qualifies for significant tuition assistance as an employee of the university. Plus, she determined she liked the medical field and has a heart for interpretation.

For Yerendi, the United States is truly her home. While she was born in Central America, she’s lived here since she was 6 months old, and her brother is in the US Marine Corps. “My parents will eventually be OK. My siblings are US citizens and can petition for my parents. It’s me – I’m the only one left out.” What will the loss of DACA mean to Yerendi? “I honestly don’t know,” she said. “For now, I’ll keep on working and studying. I have time to figure out what my next steps will be.”

Carlos graduated from high school last spring and recently turned 18. He’s been in the US since he was 2 years old. Carlos was born with spina bifida, a birth defect affecting the spine. Carlos has a severe form of spina bifida and has no use of his body below his waist. He will spend his life in a wheelchair.

When his parents learned that there was nothing that could be done for Carlos through the hospitals in his country, they made the decision to come to the US. They simply couldn’t accept the grim prognosis that he would soon die. Almost as bad were the heartbreaking thoughts of the bleak existence that he would face as a person with disabilities in his home country if he survived. Carlos’ dad came to the US to find a job and a place to live, and Carlos and his mom followed later.

In the US, they found help for Carlos in the form of charity care, free clinics, and a program through the National Children’s Hospital in Washington, DC. He received needed surgeries and medical care, and was soon able to use a wheelchair and go to school. Carlos’ mom has dedicated her life to caring for him and serving as his advocate, while his dad has ensured that there was somehow enough money to keep a roof over their heads, food on the table, and a somewhat reliable vehicle large enough to accommodate Carlos’ wheelchair. They’ve paid many of the costs associated with Carlos’ care out of pocket, with no form of health insurance.

After recovery from spinal surgery, Carlos can move forward with his life. With DACA, he can work or continue his studies, normal everyday things that would be much more difficult for him as a person with disabilities in Mexico.


The Devastation of Deportation A Mom Leaves the US fearing Separation from her Children

Mirna  was 5 years old and Emilio was 7.  Mirna was a kindergarten student, Emilio was in first grade when I met these children. Their parents are from Honduras.  As an ESOL teacher, I became involved with this family because both kids were struggling in school. They were missing many school days, and both had repeated kindergarten.

Last summer, their father was deported to Honduras. Zoila, their mom, began trying to find a job but it proved to be almost an impossible task. She didn’t have a driver’s license, so job hunting was especially difficult, and no one would offer her a job without a work permit. As time passed, she became depressed to the point where she could barely function.  Getting out of bed required great effort, and there were many days when the children missed the school bus.  And when they came home in the afternoons, they would often find their mom sitting in the same spot where they had left her hours before, unable to fix a meal or do the laundry.

For over a year, the community has surrounded this family and tried to help, but without legal status, there are few options available, particularly for single moms.  The children’s school was very supportive as faculty, staff, and administrators realized the family’s difficult circumstances.  With extra attention and support at school, Mirna was making some progress but Emilio continued to struggle.  LUCHA helped the family with counseling and with food from the food bank, and their church has pitched in as well.  But it wasn’t enough.

Zoila made the difficult decision to return to Honduras.

Once the presidential election was over, fear and stress over the future plight of immigrants in the US made their situation worse, and Zoila began to think of returning to Honduras.  She feared separation from her children, thinking it will be just a matter of time before she is caught and deported to Honduras, like the children’s father.  And as American citizens, her children will be left alone in the United States, with no source of financial support and without their parents or other family members.

Zoila, Emilio, and Mirna left the country on March 14, despite the fact that Zoila is very fearful for her future and for that of the children.  She fears the  violence in her home country and understands the lack of job opportunities there.  While the children speak Spanish, Emilio is terrified.  He’s seen many of the challenges that his mom has faced since his dad was deported, and while he tried to be “the man of the house,” it wasn’t enough.  He’s also old enough to have heard things about living in Central America.  If he was already struggling in school in the US, studying in Spanish in Honduras is going to be even more difficult.  Not to mention the cultural issues he will face as an “American” kid.

However, there are few choices available to Zoila.  She wonders if she has failed her children by not being able to provide the future for them that she dreamed of — high school, college, good jobs and a stable future.  She hopes that once she is surrounded by her extended family, she will have the emotional support necessary to begin to heal her wounds and address her issues of depression and low self esteem.  She knows she will face poverty, but there will be peace in her heart knowing that nobody will separate from her children.

*This article was written by an ESOL teacher.

Actions Have Consequences The Decision to Leave a Child Behind

“How do you feel when your parents migrate to the US . . . and leave you behind?”  This wasn’t an easy question for students to answer in El Salvador.

We were visiting an inner-city high school, Instituto Isaac Newton, located in the heart of San Salvador.  The seven of us, all Baptists, were seeking to better understand this country and how churches and individuals in the US can come alongside and help with the challenges faced by families there.  And to learn more about immigrants in our own country in the process.

The challenges of the neighborhood were apparent just outside the entrance of the school, where we saw young men being cuffed and interrogated by the police.  We walked through busy streets lined with vendors and learned that many were parents of students at the school.  It was a section of the city rarely seen by tourists.

Many students asked to meet with us, to tell their stories and ask questions about the United States.  Approximately 25% of the students said they had a parent living in the United States, and more than 75% had a close friend or family member in the US.  Only a few had not been directly touched by emigration.  Public education is free through secondary (9th grade).  Isaac Newton and other similar schools seek to provide a high quality private school education for upper-level students at minimal cost (less than $40/month).  These students are studying for careers in healthcare, tourism, business, etc., largely thanks to assistance from parents and other relatives in the US who send money back.

Ana*, a petite girl standing in the back of the packed classroom, raised her hand and bravely answered our question.  “It’s hard, really hard” when you don’t have both parents with you.  “My dad is in the US, and I miss him so much.  But I know he’s away because he loves us and we need the money he makes there.”   There’s no work for him here, Ana said, and she wouldn’t be in school if her dad wasn’t sending money back home to support the family.  She said she was very appreciative of the sacrifice he had chosen to make for her and for her family.  And then Ana broke down and sobbed uncontrollably as another student hugged her.  Other students swiped at teary eyes.

While the kids often feel hurt, abandoned, or lonely when their parent or parents leave them behind, they say that they have other family around to help, and they know that the absent parent has made a hard decision that is for the good of the family.  Immigrant parents say that one of the hardest issues for them is the decision to leave a child behind.

However, Latin Americans often view children as part of a rich family tradition where the members are strongly connected and where aunts, uncles, grandparents and even older siblings all share in the raising of a child.  The decision is often a family decision, made in the best interest of the child as well as the extended family.  “How could I bring my son with me, to a place where I had no job, no place to live?” said Maria,* a mom from Honduras.  “I think it would have been too hard.  He was better off with my mom until I could get established.”  After a few years, she sent for her son, Jorge,* who was 10, to join her.  Maria rents a room and works part-time at McDonalds to support her family.  Jorge is able to petition for asylum.

But even the best intentions can cause pain for the immigrant parent.  Martin* talks about his teenage son with regret for what he’s lost.  “My son stayed in Mexico, on the ranch with my parents, and he goes to school and rides horses and helps my dad with the cattle.  He talks about girls.  He’s a great kid — almost a man,” said Martin.  He can count on one hand the number of times he’s seen his daughter.  Martin’s wife eventually divorced him and remarried.  While he thought of bringing his children to the US, he decided they were better off in Mexico.  They’re healthy, happy, and safe; they do well in school; and his son will one day manage the family ranch.  And the kids are a big help with his aging parents.  “It seems to have worked out well for everyone but me,” says Martin, who is an undocumented roofer.  “I just work and send money so they can all live well.”

The decision to bring children later on to join parents doesn’t always work out well, either.  Cecilia* was almost 16 when she joined her mom, stepdad, and four younger siblings in the US.  Coming from a rural part of El Salvador where she had lived with her grandparents, she missed the freedom of the country.  “Here, I can’t go outside — there’s no place to go, and I don’t feel safe.”  She doesn’t speak English, and doesn’t relate well to her siblings.  “I don’t even like them; they’re so spoiled and self-centered,” she says.  While Cecilia worked the land and helped grow beans and corn and vegetables until coming to the US, that concept is totally foreign to her US-born siblings.  They seem to her to be unappreciative of her parents’ hard work to provide a good home for them.  “I think they make fun of me.  I hate it here, I just want to go back home.  I didn’t know it would be like this,” she said.  Cecilia’s mom agrees that perhaps it was a mistake to bring Cecilia to the US.  “But I wanted to make things right, to have us live as a family.  I always felt guilty for leaving her behind.”

The decision to emigrate is a highly individual decision based on a number of factors, including violence, safety and security, poverty, economic and educational opportunities, and the desire to provide the best for one’s children.  It is never made lightly, and it isn’t without sacrifice, for both parents and children.  It changes the family dynamics forever.  The children, like Ana, grow up quickly and adopt a mature attitude regarding their parents’ reasons for emigrating.  On an intellectual and practical level, she knows her dad made a good decision for his family.  But her tears are evidence of the pain and heartache involved.

*names changed

Where Do Immigrants Come From? And Why Do They Come? Understanding the Context for Immigration

Marcos* was a Salvadoran immigrant in his late 20s whose story caused me to dig deeper in order to understand his home country.  Since then, I’ve studied the history of El Salvador and last year, I visited there.  I’ve made Salvadoran friends both in the US and in El Salvador.  It’s fairly easy for non-immigrant Americans to look at immigrants who struggle in our country and wonder — often aloud — why they are here.  But perhaps if more people had the opportunity to visit their countries of origin, they would understand a little better.

I met Marcos in the homeless shelter following his 2-week stay in the local hospital.  He was traveling from Texas to New York and became seriously ill.  His “friends” called 911 and dropped him at a rest stop along I-95.  He was totally alone, with nowhere to go, and he didn’t know anyone in Virginia.

Marcos was 14 when he came to the US, fleeing increasing threats to his family if he didn’t join a local gang.  “They threw rocks on our tin roof every night, and no one could sleep.  And they threatened my family.  The gang leader said they would rape and kill my mother, and kidnap my sister if I didn’t join. So I left to keep them safe.”

He was alone in a large city, surviving on the streets, and was soon involved in drugs.  And now, 15 years later, Marcos has AIDs. I asked him if he would have emigrated had known how life in the US would turn out.  “Yeah, I would have still come.  I’d rather live with AIDs than face what I was facing in El Salvador.”

masacre-listApproximately 1 of every 5 Salvadorans lives in the United States, making Salvadorans the 6th largest immigrant group in the US.  A large number came as a result of the civil war, which ended in 1992; others came as a result of natural disasters that affected the country; and relatives have joined immigrants through family reunification.  Today, much of the influx is due to violence and the growing control of Salvadoran communities by gangs, like Marcos experienced.

In my last visit to El Salvador, I couldn’t help but think of Marcos.  I experienced first-hand the reality of life in impoverished neighborhoods where gangs rule.  I saw the fear of engaging in simple routines like travel to a neighboring community, where one can inadvertently cross from one gang’s territory into another’s.  I was surprised when friends chose to meet me for dinner at a restaurant rather than in their home, because “my neighborhood wouldn’t be safe for you.”  I secretly wondered if my presence would have put them more at risk for extortion if gang members knew they had an “American” friend.

a-momOne of the things that Marcos most wanted to do was to contact his mom in El Salvador.  He hadn’t spoken to her in years because he was ashamed of his life.  We called “to let her know I’m OK,” — even though Marcos knew he wasn’t OK.  “I know she loves me and prays for me.”  And Marcos wanted me to go with him to church.  As we worshipped, prayed, and talked about God’s grace and unconditional love, Marcos made peace with his life.  Soon, he was well enough to move on to his waiting job in New York.

Most immigrants I know have sacrificed much to come to the US: language, culture, family, social status, dignity.  When they talk with their families back home, few ever reveal the truth about how lonely or hard their lives are in the US.  And yet they still choose to be here, because for many, the worst life imaginable in the US is still better than what they faced in their home countries.

The Power of Presence Placing the focus more on the "how" than the "what"

As the year draws to a close, program directors and agencies reflect back over what they’ve accomplished – how many families fed, how many volunteer hours served, how many persons enrolled in classes.

But I’m not going to do that.

One of the things that distinguishes LUCHA Ministries is not what we do, but how we do it.  Every leader associated with LUCHA strives to share Christ’s love with those among whom we serve.  So, I want to share with you what we consider our most important “accomplishments” this past year.

We held the hand of a newly-arrived Guatemalan mom as she gave birth to a still-born baby.  We prayed together, and we shed tears as she held him andclaudia-gravesite-small said goodbye.  We were the lone mourners at a graveside service for baby Angel, and knelt in the dirt with Carolina and her 6-year-old daughter to fill the tiny grave.

We sat in the hospital waiting room with Carolina’s long-time friend, Fernando, who stayed with her during the birth and offered his name for baby Angel’s birth certificate when there was no father.

We picked up an angry teen from school who claimed to be sick.  Mina, a US citizen, has spent most of her 14 years with her grandmother and hates everything about her life in the US.  She just wants to return to Mexico, where she can do as she pleases.  Mina tries to make her mom’s life miserable, thinking she’ll send her away.  We provide parenting classes, counseling, and support to her mom and step-dad as they struggle with Mina’s anger, resentment, and destructive behavior.

We marched with Lucy, age 7, and Alan, age 13, in a demonstration in fronwendys-familyt of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) building in Washington, DC.  Their mom, a citizen of Spain, has been detained since July and may receive her final deportation order before the end of the year, as she has run out of options for staying in the US.  Their dad, from Bolivia, struggles to hold the family together.

We’ve spent hours on the phone and in the offices of various healthcare providers, hospitals, and collection agencies on behalf of an uninsured patient with diabetes and renal failure.  Andrés is on dialysis and unable to work, and his teenage daughters are trying to manage his care.

We sat for hours in the ER with a quiet, shy 14-year-old from Guatemala.  His depression had progressed to the point of being suicidal, and he was admitted for in-patient treatment.  Daniel became a special volunteer for LUCHA over the summer, helping with the food pantry, working with younger kids at the pool, and leading recreation and soccer during Kids’ Camp.

We celebrated events with young adults who grew up in LUCHA’s youth groupgerardo-small, and we remembered the challenges they had growing up.  Rosie, from Mexico, now has a new baby, a new job, and became a US citizen this year.  Gerardo enlisted in the Marine Corps, and his Guatemalan family threw a party to celebrate his completion of boot camp.  Antonella, from Nicaragua, graduated with honors from college and is marrying her high school sweetheart.

We’ve been in all the hard places this year – hospitals, cemeteries, court, jail, detention, police interrogations – to remind people that God is there, too.  Wasn’t that God’s point in sending Jesus to live among us, to walk with us in the joys and struggles of life?  To understand and develop a relationship with us?

No one should have to face life’s challenges alone, and it makes a difference when we take the time to be present rather than just provide services.

Statistically speaking, these are 8 client families representing 33 individuals receiving services in 3 program areas. That’s the “what” of our ministry.  The “how” is the relationships and trust we build, the value we place on each person as a child of God, and the mutual respect we share.  It’s relating to our clients in ways that demonstrate God’s love and care for each one of them.

Immigrant Fears Information is Key in Addressing Immigrant Fears

Recalibrating, thinking about shutting down refugee offices.

Consoling children and comforting parents fearful to leave home.

Reminding DREAMers of the risk of applying for DACA.

Grieving for people of color.

Struggling to address questions and fears among immigrant friends.

And Praying Together.

Immigration advocates and agencies – including LUCHA Ministries in Fredericksburg, Virginia – found themselves reacting in just these ways following the US presidential election of November 8.  As a part of World Relief’s Immigrant Legal Services Network, LUCHA Ministries has a goal to provide the most accurate information possible while reminding our immigrant friends of God’s constant love and presence.

Beyond expressing shock and dismay, advocates and organizers renewed their commitment to inform and educate the immigrant community on how best to respond to the election and its aftermath.

Some of the best advice advocacy groups can offer immigrants is the following:

  • Remind immigrants that, for now, nothing has changed.  All existing immigration benefits remain in place.
  • Immigration law is defined by Congress, and the majority of current US laws can only be changed by Congress.
  • Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, is still in effect.  DACA provides eligible, undocumented young people who arrived before age 16 an opportunity to remain in the US and apply for work authorization.  Those with DACA renewal should renew it within the timeframe required, before January 2017’s inauguration if possible.  Those who have never requested DACA should consult a reputable legal provider for advice before filing a DACA application.
  • Consult a reputable legal provider to be screened for other benefits besides DACA. This can be done at the same time as the DACA consultation.
  • Refugees should apply for a green card at one year of being admitted to the United States. Seek a reputable legal provider for advice and guidance.
  • The government’s priorities regarding who is to be removed from the US have not changed.  Those who do not fall in one of these priorities are less likely (but not impossible) to be deported (current removal priorities)
  • Beware of notarios and other unscrupulous people.  Only seek legal help from reputable legal providers.

It is also important that immigrants are prepared in the unfortunate event they or a family member are detained or face deportation.  You can encourage immigrants to do the following:

Make a plan now, before such an event occurs.  Educate all family members, and especially children, on where important papers are kept; important phone numbers to be memorized; which adult is in charge of children in case one or both parents are detained; and the name of an immigration lawyer to call.

Review the “Know your Rights” factsheet, and know how to respond.  According to the National Immigration Law Center, everyone has certain basic rights under the Constitution.  Here are some recommendations:

  • Exercise your right to remain silent.  You have the right to refuse to speak to immigration officers.
  • Carry a “Know-Your-Rights” card and any valid immigration documents you have.  Show them if an immigration officer stops you (click here to link to resources in English and Spanish from the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild)
  • Do not open your door unless an ICE agent shows you a warrant signed by a judge.
  • You have the right to speak to a lawyer.
  • Before you sign anything, talk to a lawyer.

Within immigrant communities, much of the news and information that they receive is in their native language.  This includes both formal sources, such as news through television, radio, or online websites, as well as informal community networks, such as people sharing information with friends and neighbors.  We can do much to calm fears and dispel rumors by remaining educated and informed, and pointing our immigrant friends to credible, trustworthy information.  And by praying.

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