Sitting in the intersection of economics, politics, theology, and international relations, immigration is a difficult issue to tackle. To keep it simple, I decided to reflect on it as a human issue. In more than ten years of working with the U.S. immigration system, what consistently comes through is that this is a deeply personal experience. Real people must make difficult decisions every day within an unaccommodating system. I can’t help but think, What if it were me? What would I choose? What would I do?
Fresh out of college, I worked at Su Casa Hispanic Center through the Public Allies program. A few weeks into my stint there, I met Graciela. Graciela had just been released from an immigration detention center; she was arrested for attempting to work without documentation. I quickly learned her story – she was from a San Marcos, Guatemala and her family was having more and more trouble making ends meet. The costs of food, clothing, schooling and housing continued to rise and good work scarce. She decided to go North with her brother to earn money to send back to her family. She risked her life to get here – walking miles to get to the Southern border of Mexico, jumping the train to make it through Mexico quickly, traversing through the desert with scorpions, snakes, and dehydration as the least of her worries. She arrived already thousands of dollars in debt since she paid a Coyote to help her cross the border. She planned to stay for two years, work and send money home, then return home to Guatemala. Graciela was 21; so was I.
Meeting Graciela made me think about what I would do if I were in that scenario. What would I do if I watched my community plagued with hunger and poverty? Would I leave to try to support my family? Would I take the risk for a chance? There I was, 21 years old with a college degree from Xavier University and my whole life ahead of me. Graciela, on the other hand, had little education, limited literacy in Spanish, and saw few opportunities ahead of her. She was alone. What was she to do? What would I do? What would you do?
Many of the immigrants that I worked with had children back home. In my naivaté, I would ask if they would rather be in the U.S. or back home. The answer would be the same: “No hay trabajo alla. Tenia que salir.” (There is no work back home. I had to leave.) Time and time again, immigrants told me they missed their home, but could not return; their children needed them to work. Now that I have two children of my own, the depth of the decision to leave all one knows behind hits home. What if I had to choose between watching my children go to bed hungry and sacrificing it all, including not being present for some of the most important years of their childhood?
What options do fathers, brothers, sisters and mother like Graciela have? Some say, “she should just get a work visa.” Or, others say, get in line with the rest.
Easier said than done. I later learned that the U.S. only issues 85,000 H-1B work visas each year. But these are for professional-level jobs, afforded to people with at least a Bachelor’s Degree; and 20,000 of these H-1B visas are reserved for those with advanced degrees (Master’s and above). Employers have to pay for the sponsorship process. No degree? You could come on an H-2B temporary work visa. This is reserved for temporary agricultural work. Again, there is a limit (30,000) and it’s important to note that there have been documented cases of abuse of workers, including poor working environments and substandard housing, through the H-2B visa category.
A few years later, while working with refugees, I also struggled with some of these same questions. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, a refugee is someone who flees their home country if they have suffered (or feared) on account of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or because they are a member of a persecuted ‘social group’. Many of the refugees I encountered at Catholic Charities were in their early twenties, but had been through more in their short lifetimes than most of us will ever experience. There was Miriam. She fled Somalia at 16 and lived for five years in a Kenyan refugee camp. Raped before fleeing Somalia, she had a permanent reminder of the experience: five year old Abdi. Miriam was also my age. She came to the U.S. alone, thankful to be safe, but with no English and no work experience. My job was to help her find a job. The U.S. government provides temporary financial assistance for refugees with the expectation that they will be self-sufficient within 90 days. 90 days. 90 days to learn a new language. 90 days to adapt to a new culture. 90 days to find employment. Forget about dealing with basic adjustment, not to mention PTSD. Many of the refugees were professionals in their home countries – doctors, lawyers, journalists. Faced with a life in a new country that doesn’t recognize their credentials, they often resorted to working in low paying, entry level jobs such as taxi drivers or housekeepers in hotels. What if I had to choose between my personal safety and my livelihood or my own career aspirations and the chance for my children to have opportunities in the future? What would I do?
The common threads that I have witnessed in my work with immigrants, refugees, and now with international students and scholars are resilience and faith. Before making plans, the statement, “Si Dios quiere” and “Insha’Allah” (“If God wills it.”) is often uttered. Immigrants live in the space of an acknowledgement of something bigger than themselves balanced with a profound strength of will to overcome barriers. To leave one’s own country behind, even if temporarily, requires strength and courage. This Lent, I encourage you to reflect upon the resilience of others and to really examine what you would do if faced with such choices.
Lea Minniti is the Director for International Student Services in the Center for International Education at Xavier University. Since participating in Xavier’s Academic Service Learning Semester is Nicaragua in 2001, she has been engaged in international work. When Lea is not at Xavier, she is probably at home reading Dr. Seuss with her almost three year old or trying to keep her eight month old from falling down the stairs.