The Sound of Distress and a Call to Action

Dreamers continue to live in the shadows. (image by Katty Elizarova/Shutterstock.com)

by Greg Smith

“Oh, I didn’t realize that.”  The words landed softly on my ear, almost inaudible.  That was all she could muster.  I guess there really wasn’t much more she could say.

The news on July 16, 2021 out of a federal district court in Texas hit the immigration world like a ton of bricks.  And it fell heaviest on Dreamers, the name given to the hundreds of thousands of young people brought to this country before age 16.  

The court ruled that DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, was illegal and that all new DACA applications – even those pending a decision before United States Citizenship and Immigration Services – were blocked.  For now the ruling did not take DACA away from those who’ve already been granted its protections and right to work legally, nor did it deny current DACA holders from renewing their grant of DACA when the time comes.

But it stopped all new DACA applications in their tracks – permanently.

This is what blew away the young Dreamer I spoke with.  We filed her DACA application in February 2021, but USCIS had not yet granted her DACA.  Oftentimes court rulings affecting immigration processes or benefits do not apply to applications already filed with USCIS, but not this time.  In one fell swoop, DACA was ruled illegal and therefore all new applications and indeed the program itself was brought to a swift, callous, and merciless death.

By eliminating DACA, the ruling plunged a dagger into the hearts of 600,000 to 700,000 potential DACA applicants, young people who had been counting on DACA to access a job, or affordable college tuition, or a state-issued driver’s license, so many looking forward to stepping out of the shadows and into the light of a full life and greater social integration.

I told my young Dreamer that we would keep her file open in the event the ruling were reversed on appeal.  I told her we would pray and not give up hope.  I told her we would fight for her and all Dreamers yearning to breathe free and without fear in the only country they have ever known.

The fight, though, has proven difficult, and an outcome giving Dreamers the right to call the United States their home legally and officially won’t come easy.  What can you and I do to stand with Dreamers in their quest to build their lives in the US without fear?  Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Let your US Representative and Senators know you stand with Dreamers.  Let them know your extreme disappointment and displeasure that Congress has yet to fulfill the wish of 72% of Americans who favor protections and a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers.  You can find how to contact your Representative here and your Senators here.
  2. Look in your community for pro-DACA and pro-Dreamer groups working on a solution to this needless quagmire, and support and/or join their efforts.  Some great nationally-focused groups to check out are United We Dream, Fwd.us, and Unidos US
  3. Spread the news through social media, the op-ed section of your local newspaper, and other means about the need for a solution that protects and supports Dreamers.  Here’s a resource providing tips for writing a strong op-ed, and here’s a link to the district court ruling on DACA.
  4. Get to know what the Bible says about welcoming the immigrant.  Read Christopher B. Harbin’s On Immigration for an extensive, well-researched treatment of the Bible’s embrace of the immigrant and immigration.
  5. As you come to know Dreamers, both those who already have DACA and those who are now barred from obtaining a grant of DACA, let them know of your support and prayers.  Ask them personally how you can enhance your support.  Become a trusted friend with a listening ear.  Do unto your immigrant neighbors, friends, and colleagues what you would have your immigrant neighbors, friends, and colleagues do unto you.

Two months have passed since that conversation with this young Dreamer. She’s begun another year of high school — her senior year, when she should be eagerly anticipating the same next steps as her classmates after graduation — college, a job, driving. And yet she’s still in limbo, still in the shadows, with no solution in sight.

Dr. Greg Smith serves as an Accredited Representative through the Department of Justice and assists many immigrants and refugees with low-cost immigration legal assistance.

Walls, Tables, and God’s Kingdom

by Renee Edington

I’m near the end of a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Student.Go internship. I’m Renee Edington, a seminary student at Baptist Seminary of Kentucky. This summer, I’ve been working with Sue Smith and Karen Morrow, CBF field personnel and two other interns on a social media campaign encouraging native born U.S. citizens to welcome immigrants to the United States.

A couple of weeks ago, Sue shared a picture she took of the border wall between the U.S. and Mexico, and I’ve been thinking a lot about walls ever since. I’ve developed a hatred of walls. This wall has a stark beauty that draws me in yet how can I enjoy looking at it when I know the purpose behind the tall metal sheets is exclusion?

Walls. Dividers. Barriers. Why do we have walls? In a house, walls divide or separate the rooms. Walls keep people in. Walls keep people out. Walls protect people. Walls separate people. Walls include people. Walls exclude people.

Tall walls, short walls, climbable walls, walls topped with razor wire. Why? Protection, exclusion, safety? Who are we protecting? Who are we excluding? Who are we keeping in and who are we keeping out?

Walls provide boundaries. Walls can be helpful or hurtful. There are physical walls and invisible walls. Invisible walls can oppress and exclude people. Invisible walls can keep us from becoming the person God imagined us becoming. Invisible walls pop up along our journey and stunt our emotional growth or push us in a different direction.

The sermon in church last week was based on Psalm 8, which talks about the magnificence of God and glorifies in the amazement that God is mindful of humans. God thinks about humans and cares for us. In fact, verse 5 says that we humans are made a “little bit lower than God” (NRSV) or a little bit less than divine. We are all unique nearly divine beings created in God’s image. ALL of us are created in God’s image. ALL of us are a little bit less than divine. There aren’t levels of humanity. Every single one of us is special and unique and created in the image of God.

Therefore, why in the world do some humans decide to exclude other humans? Why do some humans build walls? If we’re all indeed created in God’s image and in fact, just a little bit lower than God, how did it happen that some people take control of others through construction of walls?

God gave us “dominion over the works of (God’s) hands.” God expects us to take care of the world and its inhabitants, not find reasons to exclude.

Sometimes I think we as Christians put up walls to God for people of other religions. I recently read something that mirrors my thinking. In The Good News According to Jesus: A New Kind of Christianity for a New Kind of Christian, Chuck Queen writes “I believe in Christian particularism, but not exclusion.” My simple interpretation of his explanation is this: Christians come to God through Jesus Christ. People of other faiths come to God through other paths. Because God is so big, and God’s kingdom is all-encompassing, I cannot put boundaries on the scope of God.

My favorite description of the kingdom of God comes from Rachel Held Evans in Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church, “This is what God’s kingdom is like: a bunch of outcasts and oddballs gathered at a table, not because they are rich or worthy or good, but because they are hungry, because they said yes. And there’s always room for more.” When I think about this quote, I always add that they’re not at the table because they’re Christian, they’re there because they said yes to God.

In her 2012 interview with U.S. Catholic, Dr. Amy-Jill Levine makes a similar point from the Jewish perspective: “If God is the God of the world, then God can’t simply be the God of the Jews. God has to be the God of the non-Jews as well.” Just as Christians cannot claim sole ownership of God; neither can Jews. God is great enough for Christians, Jews, and other religions.

Then let’s start thinking about how we can tear down exclusionary walls, whether visible or invisible. Start with one wall, then another and another and another until every human who is created in the image of God (and that’s ALL humans) has a place at the table of God.

I started with a picture of a wall. I end with a picture of a table where all are equally welcome. May it be so in God’s world. Amen.

Just Now Seeing the Worst

There seems to be a lot of talk these days about reopening things and getting on with our lives. About the damage that is done to our economy. About “herd immunity.” About wearing facemasks or not.

I recently read an article that stated that overall, our response to the coronavirus in the US has been typically “American” – focused very much on our individual rights and not wanting anyone to tell us what to do.

I get it, I really do. But from where I stand, from my daily ministry context as Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Field Personnel working with Spanish-speaking immigrants and refugees, I’m seeing a very different side of things.

Several weeks ago, a single mom of three called to tell me that her sister, who lives with her, had tested positive for COVID-19. The entire household (two adults and five children) was quarantined. Another lady asked for help as well that week. She contracted COVID-19 at work and lived in a home with several other families. She asked for food and toiletries so that she could quarantine in her room and try to keep others safe.

That week, we put in place a protocol to help Spanish-speaking Latino COVID-19 patients that includes regular check-ins with them by phone or text and leaving food or boxes of supplies on their doorsteps. We include facemasks, acetaminophen, soap, toothbrushes, and toothpaste.

Since those first two reports of illness among people we know, we’ve heard of many more persons in the Latino community who have tested positive for the virus. They’re all immigrants from El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Colombia, and Mexico.  They include:

A paternal grandmother who took over the care of her grandson when the toddler’s mom and other grandparents tested positive. The baby also has COVID-19.

A recently-arrived single mom seeking asylum shows symptoms of COVID-19 but hasn’t been tested. Her landlord insists that she needs to move, but she can’t find a job to pay rent and has no friends willing to take her in.

An older gentleman with kidney failure has been in the US for many years. He rides the bus for dialysis treatments several times each week and was recently hospitalized with COVID-19.

A couple who were discretely trying to earn enough money to pay the rent and avoid homelessness by doing odd jobs in the community. Both became ill and tested positive for COVID-19 and are now quarantined, along with their 76-year-old mother and two young sons.

An asylum seeker under electronic monitoring. He’s a single dad who rents a room and has recently moved to a new house and worries that he may have infected others before he became ill.

And more and more of our immigration legal services clients are unable to complete crucial steps in their immigration process. Some are ill themselves, but other parts of the system have also been affected by COVID-19. They may be unable to complete the required physical exam, or have difficulty scheduling appointments to sign necessary documents in a timely manner.

According to the Virginia Department of Health, data on ethnicity is included for approximately 65% of the COVID-19 cases reported by our region. Of the 690 positive cases in the Rappahannock Health District where data on ethnicity is included, 50% are persons of Latino or Hispanic heritage; Latinos represent 33% of the total 1,059 positive cases. For a geographic area with a Latino population of just under 11%, this is a rather astounding number. And particularly when you consider that this population is often uninsured or underinsured.

These are some of the most vulnerable persons in our community. Early on in the pandemic, as people were losing jobs and struggling to adjust to at-home schooling and the loss of childcare, many of the folks among whom we work were still doing OK. Hours were cut, but many reported that they were still employed. Older children cared for the younger ones, or parents with reduced work schedules were able to cover the bases.

Our Latino friends were working in restaurant kitchens, where clean-up or prep work still had to be done for carry-out orders. They were still working on construction or remodeling sites and engaging in day-labor type jobs, or doing landscaping and other outdoor work. They weren’t in jobs where they could work from home or engage in social distancing.

But now, the effects of the coronavirus have hit the immigrant population full force, and while there is an overall clamor to open things back up and get back to normal, what we see is the panic within the Spanish-speaking community as they must now isolate themselves and quarantine — and see the earnings from those last few work hours disappear. They’re no longer OK.

They can get by on less, but it’s difficult to get by on nothing.

Ensuring Education, Literacy for Everyone

“Could you please fill this out for me? I don’t have my glasses.”

Early in my work with Spanish-speaking immigrants, I would request a basic form or information in Spanish to allow the person the dignity of filling it out on his or her own.

The person often looked like a deer in the headlights and asked me to fill it out for them.

And then, I finally understood. The person couldn’t read or write but was too embarrassed to say so.

In the U.S, we pretty much take literacy (and education) for granted. Most states have compulsory education laws requiring students to attend school through age 16, and in some cases, until age 18.

Ninety-nine percent of the adult population (age 15 and above) are able to read and write.

Mexico has compulsory education through 12th grade (age 18) and a literacy rate of nearly 95 percent.

In Guatemala, however, compulsory education is only through sixth grade (age 14), and literacy rates there are the lowest in Central America at approximately 75 percent.

And while education is compulsory, there is little enforcement in either country.

Education may be “free,” but there are challenges, many of which are economic. Students must still buy books, supplies, uniforms, shoes and so on.

And if they don’t live in the immediate community near the school, they need transportation.

Many rural schools in Latin America are made up of multigrade classrooms; there is no school beyond sixth grade except in larger towns.

And for many children, their parents don’t see the need for education; they’re needed to work at home. And besides, education isn’t going to lead to a better job in their communities.

Jaime grew up in rural Mexico. He estimates he may have attended as much as two years of elementary school.

He remembers walking a long way and then quit going. “My dad didn’t see the point,” he explained. “We lived in the country, and he needed us to work.”

Jaime migrated to the U.S, and about 10 years ago, when his fourth son was born, he expressed a desire to learn to read “so one day I can read a book with him – in English.”

He worked hard with a tutor and then worked with his children to learn the basics, beginning with the alphabet and forming basic words in both English and Spanish.

Jaime then began to study for the U.S. naturalization test. He mastered basic writing skills, like writing his name and address and creating simple sentences in English.

He and his wife both passed the test, and he’s now a U.S citizen. (You can see what’s on the test here).

Particularly at risk are those who are female, poor, indigenous and live on the margins of mainstream society.

For indigenous children in Latin America, the schools teach in Spanish, not in their native language, and most teachers are not reflective of their culture.

Some children lose interest in school, while others have few opportunities available to them once they finish primary school.

Claudia, a single mom from Guatemala, grew up in the western highlands of Guatemala and finished sixth grade. But there was no secondary education option available.

Some students moved to a larger town to study, but that was expensive and required leaving home to live with a friend, a relative or in a boarding house.

“Girls didn’t do that in my village,” she said. “They got married, usually by the time they were 14.”

Claudia convinced her parents to allow her to migrate to Mexico for work and later she came to the U.S.

“I wanted more out of my life, and opportunities for better education became more important when my daughter was born.”

Claudia works hard with her daughter, Gris, to help maintain her indigenous language — Acateco, a Mayan language — as well as Spanish.

Gris began first grade in the U.S. and is trilingual. She loves reading and has introduced her mom to the library. They know where to locate books in Spanish and often read together.

Julita was the first of my clients to ever express the need for “glasses” nearly 15 years ago. She was 35, spoke no English and her Spanish was stilted, as it wasn’t her first language.

She didn’t know her birthdate and couldn’t spell her name or give you her address.

She and other indigenous family members left southern Mexico in the late ’90s when their water supply was poisoned in an effort to run them off their land.

While Julita is illiterate, she recognizes the value of education for her children, ages 14 and 16.

In spite of not being able to help with homework or engage well with their teachers, Julita and her husband have sought out enrichment programs and encouraged extracurricular activities for the kids, and today, they’re healthy, well-rounded teens.

Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone has the right to education.”

For some, that comes later rather than sooner. For others, educational goals are realized alongside their children.

And for still others, they strive to see their children have every opportunity for the best education possible.

Note: This article originally appeared on March 28, 2019 in EthicsDaily.com as part of a series for Public Schools Week.

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.

PROFILES OF DACA RECIPIENTS

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.

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.

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.

Being Brown in the USA Race, Ethnicity, and the Struggle for Identity

“When I looked in the mirror, I hated what I saw there, I hated who I was.  I saw brown, and I hated being brown.”

While “brown” isn’t a race, people are often stereotyped based on their appearance and skin color, including the spectrum of “brownness.”  And for many Latino youth, this can lead to serious issues with identity, particularly when they don’t fit the stereotype.

For Alan*, the journey to self-acceptance has been hard, lonely, and hurtful.  Many look at him and see another young Spanish-speaking Mexican immigrant, struggling to make ends meet through jobs that require hard physical labor and little education.  But this perception is far from reality.

Alan was born in the US to middle-class Hispanic parents; his family’s immigrant story includes Mexican-born migrant workers in California, European Jews fleeing persecution, and ancestors from Spain.  Alan didn’t grow up speaking Spanish.  “I’m learning,” he jokes.  “Even though I look Latino, I’m different, I don’t feel like one of them, because of my language and culture.”

I often encounter youth like Alan who get lost in their search for identity and belonging.  They resent being labeled “Mexican” when they are, in fact, Salvadoran, Nicaraguan, or Colombian.  An immigrant family of four from Nicaragua moved from a small apartment in a school district with a relatively large Latino population to a more rural school district, where they purchased a house in a better, safer neighborhood.

Their son, Andres*, was one of the only Latinos in his new middle school.  He was called “the Mexican kid” by his peers, and no amount of explaining about his heritage made any difference.  He soon came to hate school.  He was ashamed of his family’s language, culture, and ways of doing things, and he soon began hanging out with the “wrong kind of kids.”  His parents no longer knew his friends, he was experimenting with drugs and alcohol, and obsessed with gang culture.  The family finally made the difficult decision to move back to a neighborhood with more Latino immigrants and racial diversity, a school where their son felt less isolated as a Latino immigrant.

Like Andres, many immigrant youth experiment with alcohol or drugs or negative behavior simply to fit in with a particular group, usually “American” peers.  Marisol*, a 9th grader, was finishing her first year at a new, predominantly white school, and two girls asked her to watch the bathroom door while they were in a stall using drugs.  Her reason?  “I wanted them to like me, I wanted to have friends.  No one had asked me to do anything all year, and I thought they would be my friends.”  When the girls were caught by a teacher, the girls insisted it was the “Mexican” girl who had put them up to the incident.  It was Marisol who ended up suspended and who spent a year in Alternative School, primarily because she was ashamed to tell her parents what had happened.

Some youth “choose” not to be smart at school, because they only see “white” kids in advanced classes.  When asked about their grades in 8th grade, Javier and José stated that they would “be smart next year, when it counts.  It’s not cool to be smart.”  Javier, a US citizen whose parents are Guatemalan, is now a Marine.  “I was pretty stupid back then,” he says.  “Thank goodness I had adult mentors and people who cared about me who helped me get over that!”  And José is a college student, holding down two part-time jobs to pay his way through school.

Others deal with the pain of social isolation and identity by self-mutilation or attempts at suicide.  A recently-arrived teen from Guatemala, Daniel,* was identified as being at a high risk for suicide and was hospitalized.  He had just begun experimenting with self-mutilation, and his mom was terrified.  “I just don’t understand,” she said.  “We give him everything he needs.”  His parents couldn’t identify with Daniel’s feelings of being “stupid” in school as he struggled with English, with his sense of loss at no longer living in a rural village with grandparents who had been like parents the past 8 years, or with his struggle to accept his place as the oldest sibling in his US family.  “My mom left me,” says Daniel in Spanish.  “And now she brings me here, to be with my ‘family,’ and everything is supposed to be OK.  It doesn’t work like that.  I need some time.”

These types of situations baffle immigrant parents, who wonder why their children can’t embrace the opportunities they’ve worked so hard to provide.  While the stories of Andres, Marisol, Javier and José, and Daniel are all different, they have all struggled with issues of race, ethnicity, and culture.  They’re all second generation immigrants, caught between two worlds.  Through counseling and pastoral care, I help families understand this struggle for identity, the competing cultural values in their children’s lives, and the challenges of raising children in another culture.  And I help the teens know that it’s OK to be

Today, Alan no longer hates his brownness.  He’s a college student with plans for seminary and eventually earning a Ph.D., with a focus on Latino/Hispanic theology.  Thanks to caring individuals who recognized his struggle for cultural identity, he has moved beyond perception and embraced his Latino heritage as a positive force in his life.

“I’m still defined by being brown, but that’s OK.  Jesus is brown, too.”

By Sue Smith, D.Min., MSW, LSW

*Names have been changed