It’s a familiar story in the U.S. to hear about immigrants from Central and South America emigrating illegally and legally in the hopes of having a better future.
Many of these migrants flee poverty and violence, or are simply in search of better job opportunities. The United States represents the land of promise, a golden opportunity to improve livelihoods, standards of living and over-all fortunes. Many of these migrants have left families behind – families that depend on the remittances loved ones send home every month. This idea is not new, and has been much-debated over the last two decades.
However, recently there has been a shift in this phenomenon.
Central American children from countries like Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Honduras have begun immigrating to the United States alone, and in large numbers. They make this dangerous journey by themselves and in small groups, with the hope of standing firmly on soil that is free from the extreme violence and poverty they must navigate in their home countries. Many of these children come with nothing but the hope for a better life, and if they’re lucky, a few American dollars saved up for the journey.
Mario López, now a resident of Colorado, shares this story: He crossed illegally as a child about 20 years ago at the port of entry in Hidalgo, Texas. He remembers being terrified of the border patrol, but thinking the risk was worth it. Lopez was in search of his mother, who had crossed years earlier. He found her in Texas, where he spent his formative years. Looking back on the experience, he said, “When I was a kid, I didn’t think it (crossing the border) was worth it, but now I think it was. My kids have a better life than I did.” When asked what’s the hardest part about moving illegally, he explained that not being able to see family left behind was the worst part of living in the U.S. Once older, he recalls that he showed his commitment to them through remittance sent home every month, explaining, ”I wanted them [my family] to be proud of me.”
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
When I brought up the topic of education, Lopez had some strong opinions. He stopped attending school at 15 because he struggled with language barriers and lack of interest. He spoke fondly of his English as a Second Language class, but the language barrier made it extremely difficult to adjust to American schools, and American life. He explained that he thinks there is more freedom in Mexico than there is in the U.S., and that it was something he sincerely missed. For him, ongoing fear of the Border Patrol encroached on this freedom, even after he was a legal citizen. He stressed that he is proud of his heritage, but he didn’t become proud until he moved to the States. When I failed to understand his meaning, he simply said that it is hard to be proud in poverty.
There are many aspects of the immigration debate on both sides that are valid and important to discuss. However, I think when it comes down to the child refugees who flee violence and poverty, our only option is to accept them wholeheartedly. I think, the words inscribed on Lady Liberty say it best: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”