I can’t discuss immigration without getting upset. There are times that the topic makes me want to cry and/or flip a table over. When people refer to “illegal immigrants,” they are referring to my family, so it’s much more than a political issue for me. And I’m not ashamed to appear “too emotional.” My parents left their hometown to escape poverty. Growing up in desolate rural Mexico, they were only able to obtain a sixth grade education, and when they got married, there were very few jobs available. My paternal grandmother told me that my family was so poor that sometimes they would eat nothing but beans for weeks at a time.
Out of desperation, my parents crossed the border in the trunk of a Cadillac in 1978.
My parents first arrived to Los Angeles where an aunt and uncle already lived. My father worked as a bus boy at the Brown Derby in Hollywood. My older brother was born soon after they arrived. Life in LA proved to be too hard so they quickly moved to Chicago where my mother’s brothers lived. In Chicago, my parents worked as laborers. My dad worked at a Cheesecake Factory for many years and then later at an industrial filter factory where he is now a supervisor. My mother worked at paper packaging factory. It is repetitive, brutal, and dehumanizing work.
I remember the glue burns my dad used to get on his arms from accidents with the machines and my mom’s hands covered with deep paper cuts. In the summer, there was no air conditioning. My mom said that once a rat ran up a woman’s pant leg. Occasionally, “la migra” would raid these factories, rounding up all the undocumented, tearing apart families, and ruining lives. Luckily, my parents were never caught. I wonder what would have happened to us if they had been.
For many years, I hardly saw my mother because she had to work the evening shift. She left to work as soon as we got home from school and then didn’t come home until midnight. My parents were perpetually tired, something I didn’t really understand at the time. Despite their exhaustion and low wages, they were still able to raise us well. We didn’t have much, but I remember I always had plenty of books. We also never lacked food. There was always a big pot of beans on the stove. My parents, along with many illegal immigrants, were lucky enough to be granted amnesty during the Reagan administration, something that is impossible to imagine happening now. In the 90s they became citizens.
Now, I would say that they’re as American as they are Mexican.
My parents are the most hardworking people I know. Contrary to what many believe, immigrants aren’t leeches. Even at our poorest, my family was never on any sort of public aid, and even if they had been, no one should begrudge them for that. They never came here to take what wasn’t theirs. They pay taxes. They provide cheap labor and perform jobs that no one else wants. They contribute to society. They raised highly productive and intelligent children. They taught us to work hard, harder than other people, because people like us don’t succeed unless we prove ourselves tenfold.
If I could reason with those who hate immigrants, I would tell them these things. I would explain that most people don’t want to leave their homeland and leave their families. I don’t think my father has ever come to terms with leaving Mexico. Any person in dire circumstances would leave to survive. Unfortunately, these people don’t operate with reason, logic, or compassion.
When Obama was elected, I was filled with hope. I imagined our country transforming. Now, I’m disillusioned with the administration for many reasons, but my biggest disappointment has been its immigration reform. Promises have been blatantly broken. According to Reuters, “The Obama administration had deported about 1.06 million as of September 12, against 1.57 million in Bush’s two full presidential terms.” Obama obviously didn’t fulfill his promise to have a comprehensive reform bill in Congress in his first year. And though he did support the DREAM Act last year, the bill failed in the Senate at the end of the Democrat-run 111th Congress.
Of course I can’t help but take immigration issues personally. When people hate illegal immigrants, they hate many wonderful, resilient, and inspiring people I know. They hate where I come from. I wonder how so many Americans can be devoid of such basic empathy and I fear what that means for our future here.
[Photo By Celso Flores]