As a Former Immigrant Fleeing Conflict, I Understand the Desire For a Better Life

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Courtesy / Carlos De Leon

Carlos De Leon (front, center) and his family with his godfather, Father Kenneth Davis, in 1993.

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.

Courtesy / Carlos De Leon

Carlos De Leon’s identification card upon immigrating to the United States.

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.

Courtesy / Carlos De Leon

Carlos De Leon and his parents celebrate after he earned his master’s degree from the University of the Incarnate Word in May 2016.

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.

13 thoughts on “As a Former Immigrant Fleeing Conflict, I Understand the Desire For a Better Life

  1. “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.”

    So what do you suggest?

    • I think reform needs to occur regarding resources and structural changes within the three federal agencies that primarily deal with immigration. USCIS is in many ways self-sustained with application processing fees; it carries much of the burden of our current system compared to Border Patrol and ICE. More people are likely to deal with USCIS regardless if they came here legally than the other two agencies. Our current immigration system is segmented into five channels for adjustment of status (acquiring Legal Permanent Residence): Refugee, Family-Based, Employment-Based, Diversity Lottery, and Political Asylum. Both CBP and ICE have primary enforcement responsibilities, but the backlog in the system is not in apprehension or detention. If detention were the problem, we wouldn’t be seeing the major companies involved in the private prison industry whose businesses are based mainly in immigrant detention have a combined annual revenue of more than $4 billion a year since 2014. The backlog is the processing of individual cases through the complex system that in many ways is overly filled with quotas, legal hurdles, and inefficiencies. Even if we use a 100 percent merit-based system (as being proposed) for awarding adjustment of status, the system is so overly inefficient that it would still not be able to process the number of applications that come in. Unfortunately, the immigration court system is now also experiencing a backlog of cases because the problem has become much more extensive. I believe visa categories should be simplified and consolidated so cases are more manageable to process for vetting qualifications to adjust status. Streamlining some of the processing procedures for immigration benefits is also necessary. When you have countries around the world like the Philippines who have wait times of up to 30 years for individual cases to be reviewed, it is indicative of larger challenges and problems. The current immigration system has not been entirely overhauled since 1986. Therefore current law has not kept up with changing demographics and demand in application submissions. The only changes that have been implemented are enforcement related. I think temporary visa categories that are longterm should be offered and expanded, but mechanisms also put in place that protects family integrity if the individual should wish to migrate to the US entirely in the future for full benefits to become a Permanent Resident and eventually US Citizen. There is a lot more to a response to your question, but these are macro observations and overly simplified solutions because of how large and complex this entire issue is. The immigration problem is just as complex as the system itself and the agencies and the immigration courts need to address significant inefficiencies. Hardline immigration policies are not the solution just as open borders cannot be an acceptable solution either. I know most likely there will be a difference of opinion. Primarily as to where compassion comes in, especially in cases such the migrant children, their families and how they came here. Some are arguing they shouldn’t have due process, even though the Supreme Court in 2001 ruled that all people regardless of status have this right. I hope that maybe I helped sparked an interest to look further into the issue from a different perspective, its underlying causes, and some of its challenges. I enjoyed reading about the two success stories you shared below. I am glad you shared them because regardless of how they came, it shows that immigrants can have a positive impact on their community and should be treated with dignity.

    • I believe it was evident that my family came to the US legally. My family and I had indefinite validity visas. After a lengthy process and thousands of dollars later I am a proud US Citizen. Regardless of how I came, I feel for these children and their families. I feel compelled to share my story to advocate for them and hopefully spark an interest in others to look at the immigration problem from a different perspective.

  2. Thank you for sharing your story! My husband, also from Guatemala, has a background similar to your parents. He came up alone, and fortunately, eventually received political asylum here. He is the most wonderful man I have ever met. He works hard and has been nothing but a blessing to this country. May God continue to bless you and your family, and may He save the families on the Border who fled persecution at home only to find persecution here.

    • Carolyn, your prayer makes me ill. Those seeking to come here were not being persecuted at home and are not persecuted here. Get a life.

    • Carolyn, I am humbled by your kind words and wishes. We all have our coming to America story, and I feel very fortunate you shared the story of your husband with me in the comments. May God Bless you and your family also. We need more stories like the one of your husband shared with others. My prayers are also with the children and their families. It is unfortunate that this crisis is happening in our great country, but we as a people have always done the right thing. I hope you and your husband encourage others to advocate for these children. On this issue and other issues, I hope you and your family comes out and comes out and votes.

  3. I only disagree with one of your statements. It is NOT hard to understand and empathize with the people fleeing extreme violence in their native countries. I’m so, so, so grateful that I have never had to know that pain, fear and loss. As a parent, as a human, I can try to put myself in their shoes and trust them when they, like you, say that they didn’t want to leave, but were forced to make the decision they thought would give them the most safety. I might not understand it perfectly but I can see where I might make the same choice in a similar situation. It’s been so hard to see the lack of empathy in many of my fellow Americans. We can be patriots and be proud of our country but also share our humanity with the world.

    • I agree with you 100% in what you have stated. Unfortunately, some of the rhetoric being used is very troublesome as some state that these children deserve to be in those cages and separated from their families. Being a common argument, especially in social media, that is where that statement was derived to help make the counter-argument I was attempting to make. I appreciate your feedback and the message you shared. Thank you.

  4. Moving stories of immigrant success in the US abound. Two examples in San Antonio will suffice:
    The Cambodian who escaped the Killing Fields after communists beat his family to death with hammers, made it to the US, and was appointed an ambassador to the US by GW Bush.
    The Vietnamese couple that escaped Vietnam as “boat people” and now run a nail/facial salon on Broadway. They work seven days a week, live in Monte Vista, and their two boys are at the Academy.
    We can all take pride in their accomplishments. They came here legally.

  5. Moving stories of immigrant success in the US abound. Two examples in San Antonio will suffice:
    The Cambodian who escaped the Killing Fields after communists beat his family to death with hammers, made it to the US, and was appointed an ambassador to the US by GW Bush.

    The Vietnamese couple that escaped Vietnam as “boat people” and now run a nail/facial salon on Broadway. They work seven days a week, live in Monte Vista, and their two boys are at the Academy.

    We can all take pride in their accomplishments. They waited in line and came here legally.

    I don’t know what “share our humanity with the world” means.

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