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.

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.

 

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

Many Ways to Welcome Immigrants Campers at Passport support ministry efforts among immigrants

The camp offering from Passport Camps this summer will go to Cooperative Baptist Fellowship work in the Rio Grande Valley, to Touching Miami with Love in Miami, Florida and to Virginia-based LUCHA Ministries.  “We’re honored to be featured by Passport,” says Sue Smith, Executive Director of LUCHA. “We’re glad to have had a part in shaping this summer’s focus and helping campers learn how to reach out to new immigrants in their schools, churches, and communities.”

What we do at LUCHA is Connected to a Larger Network

After learning about thousands of unaccompanied children traveling north from Central America last June, Passport called on Rick McClatchy, Coordinator of CBF TX to learn more. He introduced Passport to Diann Whisnand, CBF field personnel working in the border town of McAllen, Texas. Whisnand, who works involves literacy training and English as a Second Language, became involved in joint efforts of local ministries responding to the influx of people overwhelming the city. “Cooperative Baptists provided pallets of water,” says Whisnand, “Catholic Charities provided a welcoming space, and the Salvation Army made soup. We all worked together.”

Many of those who came from Central America last year have now made their way to families in New York, Virginia, Florida and California.

Sue and Greg Smith, co-founders of LUCHA, work among the Latino community in Fredericksburg, VA. “Many of the people from Central America are fleeing gang violence and crime.” said Sue Smith. “Unlike others who have immigrated to the United States, many now arrive traumatized by violence and are in need of a different kind of support.” One report estimates that there are ten murders in the city of San Salvador every day. It is not uncommon for children to have witnessed a murder.

In Homestead, Florida Wanda Ashworth Valencia works at Touching Miami with Love, under the direction of Jason and Angel Pittman. “Sometimes Miami is called a first-third world city,” says Jason Pittman, “because of the large discrepancy between the extremely rich and the extremely poor.” The Pittmans work in Overtown, an historic African American neighborhood, while Wanda offers similar community development work in Homestead, which serves a largely Hispanic population.

“What’s with the Dolls?”

Passport 2015 Emphasis 2These handmade dolls are a symbol of welcome for the many immigrant children who come to the United States.  The Welcome Dolls were created by a Women in Ministry group from College Park Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, North Carolina and sent to Diann Wisnand in Texas, where they were distributed to newly-arrived immigrant children.   Each child also received a note of encouragement, reminding them to think of God’s love and care as they hug their dolls.

Many Latino children who arrive in the US are reunited with their parents after many years of being apart.  They’ve been living with grandparents or other relatives while their parents came to the United States to work and establish a home before sending for them.  They don’t speak English, they don’t know their parents personally, and they’re grieving over the people and things they’ve left behind.

“The adjustment is hard on everybody,” says Sue Smith of LUCHA.  “Ministries such as ours focus on helping the whole family understand that it’s not an easy process. It takes time.”  Programs focus on practical aspects of adjustment, such as homework assistance to help children in school, ESL to encourage language proficiency, and adult language and literacy programs to help parents become more engaged in their children’s education.

And then there’s the emotional adjustment.  Parents have dreamed of having their children with them, and children have dreamed of coming to the states to live with Mom and Dad.  But there are challenges.  The kids are essentially entering a “new” family, learning the rules and getting to know each other.  It’s frustrating for parents, and it can be lonely for the new children.

Maria*, who arrived from Guatemala at age 12, says that it was really hard to adjust.  “I didn’t know my parents or my little brothers.  I felt stupid in school because I couldn’t speak English.  People laughed at me.”  But she says it was her church friends and youth leaders who made a difference.  Some helped with homework, others practiced English with her.  “They didn’t laugh at me, and they made me feel welcome.”

Today, Maria is 16 and is one of the young people who attends Passport with her church.  Not only has Passport taught campers about welcoming immigrants, but they’ve modeled it by welcoming many of these children and youth in camp.

*name changed to protect identity