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Two brothers arrived in the U.S. at the ages of 20 and 15—Luis and Jesus. I call them “mi hijos,” my sons. The youngest, Jesus, witnessed the killing of three of his friends in the local park. The killers were not caught. The family hid him for a week. But then, fear convinced them all that Jesus would never be safe living at the family home.
The brothers left their home and headed to California. They were caught by border patrol soon after they crossed. Released, they crossed again. The fear of going back was too great. Jesus was barely able to speak for a year following the killings and required therapy to get past the trauma.
They are in their 30s now. They have lived almost half their lives in Monterey County. Each is talented, kind, and motivated. They’ve become skilled craftsmen who keep good records and pay taxes.
Jesus has an incredible eye for photography, loves reggae, and rediscovered his voice. He has the best laugh ever. Luis is a runner with a philosophic soul and a contractor’s license. He is the first of the two who I began to call “m’hijo.” These are my friends, my sons, and part of my family. The work I do is for them because I never want to imagine a life without them.
I work in an elementary school. When the ‘travel ban’ was initiated, two things happened in one week. A first grader was exhibiting behaviors that were new – a kind of hyperactive acting out. I asked his teacher what she thought might be causing it. She replied that his mother was at home, in tears, wondering if she would be “sent back”, to her country of origin.
Another kindergarten boy, Bolin, had been in China with his family for three months. They returned and his classmates were ecstatic to see him again. I spoke with his father. The family planned on staying in the U.S. for at least the next two years. Days later, they were gone. Back to China. The explanation –”visa problems.”
I wondered how I could best make a difference for these families and our children. I chose the Immigration Task Force Monterey County.
My story begins in the early 20th century in a small town in what’s now Belarus. The two oldest sisters in this family had already left for America. My maternal grandmother, Mindl, is the young woman standing on the left with the dreamy eyes; her sister Henya is the young woman on the right with the stubborn jaw. Renamed Minnie by the steamship company, Mindl made it to the U.S. before the First World War (WWI), but her sister stayed behind to take care of their parents.
By 1922, after WWI and a typhoid epidemic, Henya was alone in a ravaged country. My grandmother, by then married and the mother of three, convinced my grandfather that they needed to rescue her. They sent Henya a steamship ticket on the Red Star Line out of Antwerp and a train ticket from Warsaw to Antwerp. My grandfather wrote a letter, or most likely got someone with better English to write it for him, telling the authorities that he had a job for her.
Henya had become a stateless person, a citizen of a nation that no longer existed, the ancient empire of Russia. I know this because that’s what it says inside the passport that she somehow convinced the Polish authorities to give her, along with a stamp from the American Consulate in Warsaw authorizing entry. Some kind person in the consulate wrote my grandfather’s name and the American town where they lived, in English, in the passport.
By the time Henya arrived in Antwerp, she was very ill. She was blocked from boarding the ship because U.S. customs and immigration service policy would not admit anyone who had a contagious disease. She was utterly alone, stranded, and broke in a crummy waterfront lodging house in a country where she didn’t speak a word of the language—she spoke Yiddish, Russian, and Polish, but those were no help in a land where citizens spoke Dutch, French and German.
Someone at the American Consulate sent a telegram on her behalf to my grandfather in Manistique, MI. How do I know? Because I have the telegram my grandparents sent her in reply. We guess that they wired Henya money. We guess that she must have seen the “best doctor” to recover. We know she was brave. This tiny, fierce old woman whom I knew as Auntie Helen saved that telegram her entire life because it literally saved her life.
When Henya died, the telegram came to me as the family archivist. It now hangs in a frame on the wall of my dining room in Pacific Grove. It is my family heirloom, my immigrant heritage. It is in honor of my grandparents and their generation, who were braver than I will ever have to be, that I am part of the Immigration Task Force of Monterey County. This is why I resist.
Mariana is a U.S. citizen born in California 11 years ago to undocumented parents from Mexico. Until the last presidential election, she was an outgoing American pre-teen with pink high-tops, after-school projects, and good grades (especially in math).
She used to giggle a lot. But now, when her father drops her off for school, her eyes frequently fill with tears. Each time he drives away, she worries he’ll be swept up in the chaos of deportation and she won’t see him again.
Now that the ICE has begun detentions and raids in the county, the family sticks close together at home. Her family life included furtive trips out to school and to work, and to get groceries. Now, there are no after-school projects, no trips to the boys’ and girls’ club, or even to the library. A U.S. citizen who has never lived anywhere except Seaside, Mariana’s whole life has shrunk to the size of her family’s apartment.
There she exists, trying to cope with her parents’ fears and her own. It will not take deportation to harm this 11-year-old’s spirit, because the damage has already begun. Mariana is a young friend of mine. This is why I resist.
I honestly can’t remember all of their names. For 35 years, I taught English as a second language to immigrants. Many of them are undocumented. Most came for economic reasons, some were political refugees, and some were fleeing violence and oppression.
They were nothing like the dark menace politicians have invented. They were the hardest working people I have ever met. They were devoted to family. They were resilient and never complained. They had hope for themselves and their children. They had the strength of character, for there is nothing easy about being an immigrant. I liked and admired and respected them.
But now, they have been branded as criminals—because technically; they broke the law. But so did the growers or restaurant owners who knowingly hired undocumented workers. So did anyone who knowingly hired a house cleaner without papers. We all knew, didn’t we? Yet we are never called criminals. It seems it’s all right to hire an undocumented worker, but it is a deportable offense to be one.
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"The contributions of African Americans, Native Americans, and the immigrants throughout our nation’s history are undeniable, but the tendency to overlook their gallant efforts is pervasive and persistent.”
– Tammy Duckworth