Personal Stories – Why We Choose This Work
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.
I have been surrounded by undocumented individuals my entire life because my entire family is undocumented.
I am documented but I was raised like I wasn’t. I never really thought about my parents being “undocumented.” My parents are both migrant farm workers and we moved around a lot. We lived on the farms that we worked on. As a result, I’ve lived in numerous places around California due to the nature of my parents’ work, but everywhere we went, workers on the farms were always terrified. Numerous childhood memories are masked by hushed whispers of possible deportation, and it scared me everyday. Even to this day it terrifies me. It is a fear engraved so deep into my identity that even thinking about it brings me to tears.
For so long, I felt powerless when my community would ask me for help because I felt just as terrified as they did. I hit a point where I grew tired of being scared for my family and community, and that’s when I found myself with Immigration Task Force. I realized that I could pass resources and information to them through the things that I learned working with the amazing individuals in this organization. Through working with them, I’ve come to realize that the drive and desperation to support and advocate for my community outweighs any fear.
As a child of an immigrant parent who made a desperate decision to leave everything behind in search of a better life, I know firsthand that being different is not bad or immoral. Being different means you have an opportunity to experience things in a different light – not better or worse – just different. I was personally triggered with Trump’s vitriolic attacks on minorities. It took me back to my early childhood when I was bullied for being a minority and speaking with an accent. Then later as an adult with the subliminal and, at times, overt racism I encountered.
I always wondered how Hitler was able to commit atrocities and the people of Germany allowed it. How could they not know? There is no way all Germans were racists and full of hate. Then Trump came into power in the U.S. I got an inkling of how it was that the Germans were conditioned to accept new norms of discrimination. It didn’t occur overnight. The dehumanization of minorities facilitated the passing of inhumane policies against those who looked “different”. It happened gradually, building one immoral policy on top of another, until it was too late.
I looked in dismay at what was happening around me with Trump’s followers and was alarmed. I came to realize that I need to speak up, not only for myself, but for others. I needed to let this energy, anger and sadness out in the open. I needed to be more than a Facebook warrior just venting into the virtual world.
Volunteering in ITF allows me to put energy into action. Seeing and connecting with other volunteers replenishes my faith in humanity. I am far from the heroic activists we know from history. I simply want to hold my head up high when my grandkids ask me about this chapter in US history; I want to be able to say: “I did my part and spoke up.”
Coming to a country to work isn't a crime. Our ancestors have done this for centuries. Migrating is a way of life – some do it for the pleasure, while others do it for the necessity.
It's not easy to live so far away from your family and not be able to hug them, or be there to share the joys of life.
I lived apart from my parents in the first 3 years of my life. I know how it feels not to have a parent near and to depend on strangers or older siblings to care for you.
Today, I work with children who are separated from their parents and I re-live the pain every time a child cries when a parent drops them off at school and doesn't know if they will see them again after school.
I grew up watching fieldworkers being chased by ICE. I experienced the adrenaline rush through my body at the small age of 7 years old. I learned quickly to spot the green stripped vans and yell MIGRA!!!.....
I learned at the small age of 8, I had a right to question the Migra, and to protest not to take these hard working people, whose only crime was to leave their families behind, in order to work in this foreign country.
My parents taught me that we were fortunate to be here, living in the USA, and have what we have because someone extended their hand to help us, and we should do the same for others.
I honor my parents, by giving back to my community as an activist.
I was born and raised in Mexico. I immigrated to this great country forced by the lack of job opportunities in my homeland. I made this decision after several months unemployed and no prospect for one anytime soon. My mother had been sick for several years without access to medical care at all. We did not have the means to pay for doctor visits or medicine; we barely had enough to eat.
Believe when I tell you that I did not want to leave my family and friends, but I had to in order to survive and help my mother. I am thankful for all the opportunities that I have had since I come to this country in the mid 80’s. I met my partner here and we have three children.
As an immigrant, I feel personally and morally responsible to be part of the struggle for immigrant rights in this country. I have worked with many people from other countries that came to this country with the same dreams and aspirations as I did. We are looking for a better life, take care of our families and pursue the American dream.
There are many immigrants right now that are scared to be detained and deported to their countries of birth; their worst fear is to leave their families behind and not seen them for several years if ever. They are our brothers, sisters, neighbors, friends, employees.
Our contribution should not go unnoticed – no, not every one of us is a lawyer, a doctor, or a business person. Most of us are hard-working men and women who are the backbone of the hospitality industry in the Monterey Peninsula and contribute enormously to the economy of this country. My brothers and sisters are dedicated to their jobs, their families and looking for better futures. And we are not criminals.
I am in this struggle because I know there are immigrant brothers and sisters who are working hard sending money back home to help their families so they can survive in countries where life can be harsh without jobs. We all deserve a better life no matter where you came from, what language you speak, who you love, or what faith you have. We need comprehensive Immigration Reform with a path to citizenship for all immigrants. This is what I fight for.
I come from an immigrant household. I feel lucky to have grown up around immigrants in my everyday life. As a result, I have heard many stories about people who leave their home countries to make a home here. One of these stories came from my mother.
She told me that she was in the city waiting for a bus when she noticed a young woman nearby. The young woman looked drained and was walking with a limp. My mother approached the young woman, who appeared to be about 19-20 years old, and asked her if she was alright and offered assistance. The young woman told my mom that she had just been dropped off at that bench by ICE.
She was from a country in Central America and was scared to be sent back. She had been detained for three weeks at a detention center at the border which was where she had injured her leg. An ankle monitor on the leg added to the pain.
When they detained her, ICE had her call her aunt (her only relative in the states) so she could ask her to pay a $10,000 bail fee in order for ICE to release her to her aunts’ home on a temporary basis until a court date was set. Her aunt had to scramble to come up with the money. When ICE released the young woman, they dropped her off at the bus stop with only one ticket to get her to the city her aunt lived in – but with no money, telephone (to call her aunt), food, or aid of any kind. They just left her there with one ticket.
My mother helped her with food and a phone call to her aunt. She said felt so bad for this young lady because it reminded her of when she was young, and she was deported to Mexico.
Mom remembered being scared and sick on one occasion when she got deported and, on another occasion, she remembered ICE coming to the fields where she was working. She remembered running in fear and climbing a tree, hoping they wouldn’t see her in the chaos and with all the screaming going on by farmworkers and the ICE agents who were yelling intimidating insults and chasing after panicked people.
When she was climbing the tree, she saw a man on a branch really high up. Once she stopped climbing and waited on a lower branch for ICE to leave, she remembered feeling drops of water landing on her, only to realize that the full-grown man above her had been so scared that he had urinated all over himself and some of his urine landed on her. All because they both were looking for a better life.
These inhumane acts happened 40 years ago, but it appears that we as a country have not progressed because we are seeing ICE treat people unfairly and even mistreat people. Working with the task force has enabled me to assist and educate immigrant families on their rights as undocumented residents and help them understand that their current undocumented status is no reason to be treated inhumanely. Thanks to my involvement, I am hoping to make a difference to someone in dire need, just like my mother did for the woman waiting at the bus stop.
Many families have been driven away because of the political climate. Some felt so intimidated and helpless, they picked up and left, without taking their belongings.
I got involved with Rapid Response to help educate my community, my coworkers, and families I serve. It's less of a fear, when you have a plan.
Maybe the plan wasn't what they hoped for, but nevertheless when families are provided with information, they feel like they are back in control of their destiny.
I've learned that fear limits your vision, your ability to see the Rainbow.
You might not even be aware of it, but almost all of us living on the Central Coast know someone who may not have documentation. We share neighborhoods and play sports together. Our kids go to the same schools.
Here are some stories of people we know and love. They have fictional names to protect their identities. These are our loved ones – the ones who motivate us to do this work. *Because of the sensitivity of some of these stories, photos used are for illustration purposes only. They are not related to the person or persons in the story.*
"We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.”
– Martin Luther King Jr.