"Jesus replied... 'Love thy neighbor as thyself. All the Law and Prophets hang on this.'" -Matthew 22:39
This immigration/asylum/refugee issue is hitting a little too close to home, and I wasn’t able to speak out about WHY until now. Some of you may remember me posting in November about a student and her mother facing an unimaginable fear. Now that my class has moved on to the next grade level, I feel comfortable giving a little more detail about that situation.
My student, who I will call E, immigrated here from El Salvador. Her mother and father were business owners there, and were fairly successful. A time came when the gang M-13 began targeting people with money in their town, and they chose E’s family as one of their targets. They demanded that E’s parents allow them to store and traffic drugs in their place of business, and threatened to kill them if they went to the authorities or refused. Other people in their town had already been murdered for refusing to cooperate. After awhile, the gang members began extorting E’s family for money, and again threatened to kill them if they didn’t pay up. E’s family quickly ran out of money, and when that happened, some men showed up one night and murdered E’s father. Her mother scrambled to pay the men what they were requesting, and had some family members help her out until no one had anything left to give. She knew what would happen next, so she took her infant daughter, left her family and her business and most of her belongings and her home and her vehicle and her pet cat behind, and came to the United States seeking asylum. There are five protected grounds of persecution under which one can apply for asylum in our country - you must be able to prove that you are being persecuted and put in danger because of your race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership to a certain social group. Because business owners and people with money were the ones being targeted back in her hometown, she was granted asylum under that last clause.
E’s mother was now safe, but quickly had to find a way to provide a life for her daughter. Back home in Salvador, she was known as a smart and successful woman. Here in America, she was looked at as a poor, single mom who spoke no English and had nothing to offer. She did what many of our immigrants do - found a job working in a kitchen at a popular fast food restaurant, and worked long hours to support her baby girl. Life wasn’t perfect, but they were safe and alive.
E came to me at four years old, when her mom entered her in our local pre-k program. She spoke a little English, but caught on extremely quickly. She is a brilliant child, respectful, helpful, friendly, and just one of those students every teacher loves to have.
E rarely misses school because her mom deeply values education, but one day, E was absent. The next day when she came back, I checked her daily folder, and there was a note written in Spanish, asking the school to excuse her absence because E and her mother had been in immigration court the previous day. Attached to the note was a court docket, labeled Charlotte Immigration Court. Many of the words in the note and docket were foreign to me, so I pulled up a Spanish translator, and quickly realized that E and her mother were facing deportation. Their asylum had been revoked. I felt sick to my stomach and immediately went to our school translator to make sure I was reading it right. She confirmed my fears, and pulled me into a private office as I cried. I asked her what we could do, and the look on her face told me everything I needed to know. She explained that she used to work as an interpreter in the court system, and that she had many immigrant friends she had attended court with, and that almost every single person facing deportation will eventually be deported. She has never seen someone win a case against it.
Anyone who knows me knows I’m hard-headed and stubborn. I just could not accept that. I took a deep breath and said, “If this mom will accept my support, I am getting involved. But I can’t communicate well with her and I have no clue what to do next. This is a moral issue, not a school issue, and I would never expect you to get involved. But if you feel led to do so, I could use the help.” She didn’t hesitate. “I’ll call the mom and find out what I can, and I’ll look up some phone numbers.”
Not only am I stubborn, but I’m also impatient. So I spent the rest of the day sneaking away to call law office after law office, asking who handled immigration law and who had interpreters and who did pro bono work. Everyone sounded sympathetic, and gave me more numbers to call, but no one was able to help.
Meanwhile, our interpreter had spoken with E’s mom and she was desperate to come in and meet with us. Dismissal time came and we snuck E’s mom into our assistant principal’s office. Through sobs, she told us the story I’ve shared above. She let us listen to a voicemail she had saved on her phone, which I didn’t understand at the time, and which the interpreter later explained was the voice of a man in Salvador, threatening her that if she ever returned, he would kill both her and her daughter. She explained that she did have a lawyer handling her case, but she had paid him $4,000 dollars already and had still had her plea for asylum denied. They were now at the point where she could appeal her case or be deported. Appealing would cost her, though, and she was broke. Again, I felt nauseous. She told me she had a follow-up appointment with her lawyer the following week, and I asked her if she would want me to attend that appointment with her. I explained that I know nothing about law, I speak barely any Spanish, and I have no money to help, but I know that having someone in your corner counts for a little something, and I would be honored to sit with her as support. She was grateful for my offer in a way that I didn’t felt I deserved. I would be no help to her but she still wanted me by her side. We embraced, and as we shook and cried and held each other, we both prayed. Neither of us knew exactly what the other was saying, but I’m positive we were praying for the same miracle.
The next week, I left work a little early, and drove to a small law office in Greensboro. The interpreter was a young immigrant woman from Mexico, probably no older than 25. I felt intimidated and stupid as she listened to all the legal lingo the lawyer was saying, stopped him when we was talking too much, and flipped the words around in her head until they made sense to the people sitting on the other side of the table. This woman was born into poverty, traveled here as a child, learned a second language and retained her first well enough to speak both fluently. Fresh out of college and working in a law office, I looked at her and thought she was brilliant and brave and fierce. And I couldn’t help but wonder if my students’ parents feel the same way I did in that moment when we meet and they don’t understand my language. During the meeting with the lawyer, E sat next to me playing on my phone, not understanding that we were discussing her very livelihood. The lawyer was a nice enough man, but I could tell he has met with too many people and seen too many situations just like this one, and he spoke without hope in his voice. He told E’s mom that they could appeal the decision to revoke her asylum, on the same grounds that she IS being targeted because of belonging to a specific group of people. He said the appeal would typically take around two years, and while he didn’t think they could win her case, it would buy her some time. His legal fees would be another $4000. E’s mom said she didn’t know how she could come up with the money, but that she understood she had no other choice, and she’d find a way. When we walked out, I pulled her lawyer aside. “You will fight for her, right? And you will fight hard. I can write to the judge if it helps. I can defend her character and their value in our country. And I have plenty of people who would also be willing to do so. You will fight for her. If she gives you everything she has, you will keep her safe to the best of your ability. This is one of my babies.” He just looked at me and said, “I’m glad she has you for a teacher. A lot of people don’t have anyone.” And he walked away.
I drove straight to a local bar, ordered a strong drink, and asked for a pen and some receipt paper. I began researching asylum and immigration. Let me stop here to say: We have NO IDEA. None. We talk about immigrating to a new country as if it’s as simple as tying your shoes. “Apply for your green card, take a test, come here legally.” I learned that there there are multiple kinds of green cards and visas, multiple ways to “come here legally”. I learned that it costs a LOT of money to move to a new country. It takes brains to read all the rules and regulations and orders of operations. To navigate the websites and distinguish the correct phone numbers to cal. And the justice center lawyers are so flooded with clients that they only do intake one day a week now. And it’s all an incredibly slow process. It takes time, which many immigrants don’t have if they’re coming here running for their lives. This is WHY we have asylum. But in the past year, we’ve tightened our regulations on asylum. We’ve told people they could come here and find safety, and now we’re telling them we changed our minds.
I was researching all of this, and a friend I had called showed up, and I just let him hold me as I sobbed. It was the first time in my life I felt truly defeated and without purpose. I believe in my job, in my ability to help others and change lives, and for the first time, I was being told it was absolutely out of my hands. No amount of begging or writing or money or putting in time and hard work would change the outcome. I questioned my faith and imagined how E’s mother must feel. How absolutely terrified for her and her child’s lives. How absolutely devastated to have the rug pulled out from under her. How absolutely crushing it must feel to work hard her entire life, to do everything right, and to be told that none of it mattered, because she was born on the wrong side of the world.
E’s mother found a new, better paying job. She depended on friends and acquaintances and teachers for childcare so she could work longer hours. Her family sent her what little they had. She still got E to school on time every day, packed her a healthy and home-cooked meal for lunch, and made sure her school work was taken care of. I don’t know how she finds the determination to work and parent with the terror she is facing, but I imagine she’s a woman who has had to learn how to continue on through hardships her entire life.
There is no happy ending to this story. The end of the school year came and E was promoted to kindergarten. I hope to see her again in a few weeks when school starts back. Her mom still works like a dog to provide for E, and also to pay her legal fees, literally buying them time. As long as our country continues to tighten the laws on immigration, E and her mother will most likely be deported when E is in the middle of first grade. If the laws get even stricter, it could be sooner than that. I hold no trust in our justice system and I know this is a possibility.
I have heard many arguments on different sides of this issue. I have just a few points to make.
1. Crossing our border legally is much more easily said than done .
2. (Not that it matters to me, but it seems to be a big concern to many of you who have forgotten how your own ancestors came here) E and her mother came here legally. If you want to speak on the subject of immigration, do some research first and learn the different ways one can immigrate to America. Not every brown person who speaks a different language is "an illegal".
3. Even if someone comes here legally and lives life "by the book", there is no guarantee we'll allow them to stay safely within our borders.
4. Privilege doesn’t mean your life has been easy. But as natural-born Americans, "we are people born on third base convinced we hit a triple - while folks outside the ballpark starve." (Glennon Doyle) To anyone who has an allegiance to this country, to anyone who claims to feel blessed to have been born here, it's time to recognize our privilege and use it to help those born outside the ballpark.
5. E’s case is not unique. This is happening ALL THE TIME. At her first court appearance following the deportation order, E’s mom sat next to another woman who was here for the same reasons and had her asylum revoked as well. When that woman's family was threatened and could not pay the people extorting them, the men came into her home and shot her entire family. Her husband and young daughter were killed, and she was shot in the face and left for dead. The court granted her request for asylum because, right there on her face, she bore the physical scars of the threat she left behind. They denied E’s mother’s request because she only had a voicemail.
5. I am not so naive as to think that we don’t have problems here or that there’s an easy fix to anything. I know we need immigration reform and better laws to protect ourselves as well as those who come here seeking a better life for themselves and their families. But this isn’t the way. We shouldn’t be sending people back into the lion’s den. We shouldn’t be ripping families apart. Most of our immigrant families are coming to us in desperation. As our interpreter told me, you don’t leave everything you’ve ever known behind, you don’t put your family on a inflatable raft to row across the ocean, you don’t march across a barren desert, unless whatever you’re running from is more terrifying than what you might encounter along the journey.
I don’t care who you voted for, how you feel about the national budget, whether or not you enjoy shooting guns, or what religious institution you do or don’t attend. If what’s happening in our country today doesn’t make your stomach turn, if you don’t feel enraged over the fact that we are treating fellow humans like this, if you are comfortable living in a country that lacks basic compassion for our brothers and sisters, then you and I don’t just have separate political opinions. If you're not heartbroken over the atrocities we're committing, our moral compasses point in completely different directions. It comes down to right and wrong and I believe that we, as a nation and as a world, will look back on this period in time and feel ashamed that we let this happen.
And if your heart is aching for these families, but you feel too small to make a difference? "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." (Margaret Mead)
LEARN ABOUT IMMIGRATION (The NC Justice Center is a great place to start). Vote. Email your representatives. March. Volunteer. Speak out. Make your voice heard and your opinion known. Ask your church what they're doing to fight this crisis. Check on your immigrant neighbors and ask if they need any support. Ask your local schools if there's anything you can do to help there. Donate at TOGETHER RISING and read Glennon Doyle's latest blog posts for updates on exactly how your money is helping (so far, funding several aid groups who are providing immigration and deportation lawyers and legal aid, social service coordinators, and reunification staff for detained children and separated families). Show compassion to others, no matter what they look like or where they are from or how they talk. This is how we will Make America Great For The First Time.
"Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen;
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter -
when you see the naked, to clothe him,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say:
Here am I."