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Portrait Of a Migrant in America

Notes on our in(di)visible family

A few weeks ago, while on my way to a relative’s birthday celebration, I drove past a one-story apartment building in Wilmington, a city bordering the Port of Los Angeles. The building was number 729 on Sanford Avenue, a grey and dusty road dotted with several auto repair shops, junkyards, and a liquor store. It is a noisy street — a route for 18-wheelers, a home to stray dogs, and the territory of the East Side gang.

It happens to be that on this street, in this building, in a one-bedroom unit, my family and I once lived for 10 years. Driving by, which must have taken a matter of seconds, had the peculiar effect of flashing those 10 years before my eyes as if they were an entire lifetime.

And living there certainly felt like a lifetime. Eight of us, sometimes nine, lived in that decrepit one-bedroom dwelling, God knows how. Driving by initially produced in me a deep desire to purchase the property purely to burn it down. But at that moment I caught a glimpse of children running after each other, and a father and mother sitting at their doorstep enjoying a moment’s rest. At that instant, I recalled all the faces I had seen there over all those years. I remembered all my relatives that had resided there and all the mishaps I’d had with my brothers and sisters.

Today, immigrants in the United States are tasked with convincing others of their humanity.

As I drove on, what came to preoccupy me most was the fate that awaits the families now living there. In the United States, where anyone can “make it big,” we each envision bright futures abundant with opportunities and maybe even riches. For many in Wilmington, however, visions of the future are more restrained; the future is at best uncertain, not by choice but because their lives are incessantly at the mercy of others. The fact of the matter is that many in Wilmington are in this country without proper documentation. They are, as some in the United States insist they be called, illegal.

This is not a revelation; Wilmington is a site for routine raids and checkpoints. Beyond Wilmington, the number of undocumented people is a staggering 11 million. They hail from around the globe and live in similar conditions. And by “similar conditions,” I do not mean they all live in buildings ready to collapse at gravity’s beck and call; I’m instead referring to the real tragedy of having to organize every second of their lives to avoid any contact with government, a daunting task given that entire agencies are searching for them. And so the dusty grey avenue, full of junkyards and few signs of life, becomes the safest place to reside.

This, in my nonsensical desire to burn down the building, is what I had failed to grasp: that rickety buildings and decaying streets have always been home to the undocumented. Trailer parks, slums, and barrios all share one curious characteristic: their residents are invisible. When migrants are remembered, it is typically as scapegoats for something gone awry which forces us to become even more invisible. Consequently, the 11 million undocumented must live not in modernity but in a type of antique despotism, aware that the state is always ready to detain and deport them for the crime of seeking a better life.

At every street corner and at all times, we are aware of policemen who might question us without justification. Checkpoints intended to keep us safe instead produce in us a deep, anxious fear, forcing us to become all the more solitary, all the more invisible. Those insisting on our illegal existence liberally dehumanize us with their words. We are told that we are animals, rapists, and murderers.

What seems to elude thinking in this horror story is that migrants are not animals or rapists or murderers. We are human beings. Like everyone else, we have families and we have dreams, we cry and we mourn, we pray and we celebrate. These are the fundamentally human activities we risk being stripped of. The battered woman who undertakes the biblical journey thousands of miles north is told to stop dreaming at our nation’s border; children torn from their parents in detention centers and kept in cages ends the family as we know it; and all the crying, mourning, and praying will not resurrect our loved ones who, driven into deep dark despair, took their lives under ICE supervision.

Today, immigrants in the United States are tasked with convincing others of their humanity. Possessing a human body and limbs is no longer enough — indeed, it has never been sufficient proof for some. The statement “we are human” is strange; never did I imagine defending my life would boil down to the most basic of facts. But perhaps that is part of the anti-immigrant strategy: in constantly reaffirming our humanity, immigrants begin to question it. These persistent assertions take a deep psychological toll on our souls and coupled with the scars from our home country, where we were often the most marginalized, leave us devoid of certainty and lead us to question our life’s worth.

The devastating result is that the undocumented become more and more invisible in this great American house, never arousing the slightest discomfort in others. For the undocumented, and increasingly for all migrants, Big Brother not only pries, it determines if we stay or if we go, if our families eat or starve. Our training in the art of invisibility begins at an early age, as soon as we can utter mama or papa. As we age, we are not only alone in this nation, we are alone in the world, for we may never see our relatives south of the border again. Despite massive demonstrations from east to west condemning draconian social policies, the undocumented must endure when others seek help, watch from afar when others march, and acquiesce when others protest.

Television networks incessantly debase our lives and affirm our destruction of this land, which was clean and pure and innocent before we arrived.

In school, if memory serves me well, children had to be discreet about their legal status lest an educator — yes, an educator — report them. As we matured, we were vigilant in seeking scholarships that asked one too many questions or in planning international trips — a task that was only possible if you knew and understood your political status. For many, it often came as a great surprise, at the time of applying to university or an important job, that they were undocumented — that they had reached the end of the line, that there was no less-travelled road to take. Many students in Wilmington came to grips with a stunting reality: that the country they thought was theirs was nowhere to be found; that they had no home.

As we entered the labor force, we suppressed our goals and ambitions. We did not desire to receive the next promotion or to be noticed by those up above. Instead, we labor unethically long hours in agricultural fields, in constructions jobs, or in landscaping. Others work indoors in restaurants where they wash and cook, in canneries endlessly packing, and in buildings all too reminiscent of sweatshops. In undertaking these jobs, we accept cents on the dollar recognizing that the minimum wage does not exist for us and we never report an injury lest we be fired. And when the boss reaches into their pocket, we accept our payment and bow and say in broken English, si yu tumaro, bos. We walk home in the shadows.

Our role in the American economy is well-entrenched. Where black slaves, under chains and under threat of death, built the American nation — for which reparations are still owed — the undocumented and all migrants today are tasked with maintaining and expanding the tremendous economic structure. We build, maintain, and clean your homes; we grow, harvest, and cook your food; we even raise your kids. In return — despite paying billions in taxes yearly — the undocumented are afforded little rights, no healthcare, and few government benefits. And when the economic machine ceases to function, as capitalism periodically dictates, immigrants become scapegoats — an all too familiar role — and prepare for the backlash. When we finally have a moment’s rest, propped up on old brown leather couches in our living rooms, television networks incessantly debase our lives and affirm our destruction of this land, which was clean and pure and innocent before we arrived.

Some extreme voices go so far as to demand the removal of the 11 million undocumented — an undertaking so daunting even extremists shy away from the task. Instead, ICE must rely on rhetoric and make examples of some of us. It must detain, at any given moment, thousands of undocumented individuals and deport many thousands more yearly. To justify a strong presence along the Mexico-U.S. border, ICE and anti-immigration hawks must periodically frighten Americans with the possibility of an imminent immigrant invasion. To prepare, Border Patrol continues to expand and establish a pseudo-military presence.

And they must, for the enemy comes well-armed. The enemy carries thirst and hunger and exhaustion. Some are armed with the scars of an abusive past, and in their bags they carry letters from loved ones. Many are children and women unable to survive at home. Some individuals arrive in groups of 10 or 15, even though 60 began the journey. But the most dangerous weapons the undocumented carry are dreams. Dreams for a better life. It is our dreams that this nation fears the most.

This is why, I dare to propose, the American dream may be a thing of the past. Ellis Island in the east and Angel Island in the west have been replaced by detention centers along the sandy southwest. For those with the biggest dreams — the refugees — a zero-tolerance policy means detention, family separation, and deportation. But I ask all those in support of this policy: what do you seek to accomplish? By what morals do you live that you find it necessary to separate children and toddlers from their parents? What will be your reasoning when you meet the big man upstairs? These questions require deep reflection, because the answers may reveal more about you than they do about the undocumented.

The most dangerous weapons the undocumented carry are dreams. It is our dreams that this nation fears the most.

In the final analysis, there is no behavioral difference between the undocumented and the rest of Americans. If so inclined to find a difference, it is that the undocumented are some of the strongest individuals on this planet. It is an exceptional individual who decides to leave their entire life behind, travel thousands of treacherous miles, risk entrapment by coyotes, trek the blistering Mexican desert, and accept an invisible life among Americans. For these reasons, Americans must ask themselves why they found it necessary to label us animals, rapists, and murderers. Because we are none of these. We are human.

If the undocumented in Wilmington and throughout the American union are to be invisible for the foreseeable future, what is to be done? The answer — the same answer given during the conquest of our people, during colonial asphyxiation, and under fiendish dictators — must be life. Even from the shadows, migrants must continue to be strong and proud and hopeful. Our real tragedy would be to accept a theology that denies us rights and to accept the dehumanization granted to us at the border. If we are to kill anyone, we will kill them with kindness and love and empathy. We must display the beautiful elements of our backgrounds and construct an even grander society. We must never forget this nation’s immigrant roots, nor that the true inheritors of this land are indigenous.

As for the documented, the permanent residents, and the citizens, they must speak for those without a voice: Point out injustices when they occur, be visible where others cannot, and at all times recognize the contributions of our invisible family. We must forge an identity for the undocumented and at the same time forge a new identity for ourselves. If we do not, the ongoing dehumanization of the undocumented — and of all migrants — risks becoming the dehumanization of all Americans.

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