Courtesy / Carlos De Leon
As I sit writing this piece, my eyes swell with tears and, like many of you, I am filled with outrage that the United States is becoming a shadow of its former self. As the images of immigrant children in cages and tent cities flicker across television screens, it is hard to view our beautiful country as the beacon of human rights and freedom in which we as Americans take pride.
The actions of the current administration and its zero-tolerance policy toward immigrant families is unconscionable. As Americans, we should be outraged, and we must take action.
The recent executive order by President Donald Trump doesn’t reunify or undo the thousands of children separated from their families. How can we trust the same administration to successfully carry out the grueling task of reunifying families?
This crisis at the border, the mass detention, and separation of families hit close to home. I am a proud naturalized U.S. citizen, who after 24 grueling years, earned his right to be a citizen of this country. As a Guatemalan, I see myself in many of these children. Many are escaping the violence that has engulfed Central America just as my family did in the 1990s. It’s hard to imagine that more than 20 years ago, if the same draconian policies were being executed, my siblings and I could have been in one of those detention centers, maybe never to see our parents again.
My story and the story of the children in the detention centers are in many ways no different from one another. In 1993, when I was 3 years old, my family immigrated to the U.S. to seek out the peace and security Guatemala couldn’t afford. My father had a successful import/export business with his U.S. operations headquartered in San Antonio, and my mother’s family was heavily involved in Guatemalan national politics. My mother’s uncle rose to prominence as a member of the Guatemalan Congress, and at one point was president of the National Christian Democratic Party.
Unfortunately, Guatemala was involved in a bloody, 36-year civil war. My mother’s family took a hard stance against the military dictatorship and the human rights violations while advocating for reforms to restore democracy and fundamental civil rights for indigenous and rural farm workers. My mother’s uncle was politically assassinated by a death squad in 1980, and as a result, my family was directly affected by the mass terror of that era.
Economically, my parents did not need to migrate out of the country. It was security reasons and their desire to provide the best opportunity for us that drove them to relocate their family.
Many critics blame the parents for the immigrant children crisis, but unless you have lived in an environment where you genuinely fear for the lives of your family, it’s difficult to understand why parents take these extreme measures to cross multiple borders and search for the safety, security, and possibilities of the American Dream.
For my parents, the price they paid for saving our lives was to leave behind everything they worked their entire lives for – social economic status, family, and their home. They sacrificed everything so their children could have the freedom to live their lives to the fullest, similar to the immigration narrative that is the fabric of our American identity.
San Antonio is our home, and we love everything about our great city that embraced and welcomed us. In a few months, the youngest of our four siblings will graduate from the University of Incarnate Word with a B.A. in criminal justice and hopes to become an attorney in the future. My oldest sister recently graduated from the University of Texas at San Antonio with a Master of Public Administration. My second oldest sister and I are graduates of the University of the Incarnate Word with a Master of Science in Accounting and Master of Business Administration, respectively. We continue to give our all in every aspect of our personal and professional lives to prove that we deserve to call ourselves Americans.
I share my story and that of my family to break down the negative stereotypes of immigrants fueling xenophobia in our country. There are children in those detention centers who, like me and my siblings, want to live their lives to the fullest and reach that “Dream” together with their parents as a family. They did not sacrifice to become victimized, violated, and treated as subhuman beings in a political game of pawns. They sacrificed for a better life and to live in peace and without fear.
In many ways, this crisis has been a long time coming. The instability, poverty, violence, and social ills in Central America today are in many ways the legacy of U.S. military intervention to instill banana republics that protected business interests, not people.
President Ronald Reagan in 1982, at the height of the Guatemalan genocide and the scorched earth campaign, called convicted Guatemalan Dictator Efrain Rios Montt, “a man of great personal integrity and commitment” while giving him full military and monetary support despite knowing Rios Montt’s human rights record.
Impunity, corruption, and lack of security in these countries are the root causes of the broader immigration problem. Unfortunately, immigrant children and other innocent people in the region continue to be victims.
When do we as a country put human beings and their life above profits? When do we start seeing our immigrant children and neighbors as human beings? Who are we to determine which people are more worthy than others to seek refuge in the U.S.?
I understand we cannot let everyone who comes to our border into the country without checks and balances, but now more than ever it is painfully obvious that the need for immigration reform is long overdue.
Most importantly, as a beacon of freedom and democracy, we owe it to ourselves as Americans to uphold the human rights of all people and give everyone the human dignity we all deserve.