May 9, 2014
Where is Home?
Is it your birth country? Is it somewhere you can return to or something you make?
We had a remarkable forum on Sunday, April 27th. Jeanette Vizguerra, an undocumented immigrant facing deportation, gave a moving and thoughtful presentation. Among other points, she stressed that while Mexico is her country, it is no longer her home. Except for one brief interlude, she has not been back for 17 years; many of the people she knew are gone; many changes have taken place during her absence; when she looked briefly for work, she encountered age discrimination (she is 41 but many firms are explicit that they don’t hire anyone over 35); health care costs are very high given the low wages that are paid (so she would worry about care for her children if and when they needed medical care); she only has one sister there and an 80-year-old father and would not want to put the stress of her moving back with her children on her father’s shoulders; in short, “It didn’t feel like home. This [Colorado] is my home. I can get a job here; my family is here, maybe not by blood, but by choice. I have people who can look after my kids when I need it, who support me in tough times.”
What challenges might her three US citizen children face if she went back to Mexico and took her children with her? They would have no medical insurance; it would be difficult to enroll them in school because of the incredible Mexican bureaucracy and the difficulty of obtaining school records from the US which meet Mexico's requirements; while one girl is bilingual, her son has forgotten a lot of his Spanish; the Colorado culture her children have grown up in is very different from Mexico’s; her older daughter will lose her gifted and talented scholarships; and all her children would basically have to begin anew.
Numerous families find themselves in circumstances similar to those of Jeannette Vizguerra and her family. According to the Pew Research Center, nationwide there are at least 9 million people living in families with mixed-immigration status—families comprised of at least one undocumented adult and at least one United States citizen child (pewhispanic.org). Furthermore, there are 400,000 undocumented children with U.S. born siblings. In the absence of a comprehensive immigration reform policy that allows for a reasonable pathway to legal residency and citizenship, many of these individuals face the threat of deportation, while others are unable to adjust immigration status due to the punitive nature of current laws. Consider the following scenarios representative of other Metro families with ties to Mexico. (Names and some minor details describing these families have been changed to maintain anonymity.)
Alejandro is an undocumented immigrant who has lived in this country for nearly 20 years. He came with a wife and young child in search of work at a time when opportunities were plentiful. Another child was born to them here; however, the couple later separated. Alejandro eventually married a U.S. citizen, Alana, with whom he had a third child. Through consultation with lawyers the couple learned that under current law, Alejandro is subject to a ten-year ban and is thus ineligible for an adjustment of immigration status. The couple faced the option of waiting out the ten years by moving to Alejandro’s native Mexico or sending him back alone and consider moving the rest of the family to a border town. Alana and Alejandro’s two younger children have never lived in Mexico; the oldest child, now of college age, has no memory of living there and is not a fluent speaker of Spanish. Furthermore, Alana would need to live in Mexico for at least two years before establishing the residency needed to work there. This couple concluded that ten years was a very long time to plan to be separated, especially while the children are still young and in school.
Laura, another United States citizen, was a single mother of small children when she met Julian over ten years ago. They married and had children together. They also learned that current laws would not permit adjustment of Julian’s immigration status, and that in fact, Julian was subject to a permanent ban--technically he would never be eligible for adjustment of immigration status under current laws although he could wait ten years outside of the country and apply. Nevertheless, Laura submitted applications initiating the process to adjust his status, hoping that laws would eventually change and reasoning that if that did happen, their petition would at least be in line for consideration. In the meantime, Julian was charged with a non-violent crime related to his immigration status, and he faced deportation proceedings. A family move to Mexico was not an option. As Julian and Laura battled to keep Julian in the country, Laura’s elderly parents required increasing assistance and support, and Laura’s adolescent children had begun to make college plans. Neither Laura’s older children nor their children together had ever known any home other than the United States and none was particularly fluent in Spanish.
Jose and Melina brought their family here about twenty years ago, on now-expired visas. Their five children were chiefly educated here and graduated from Colorado high schools. The children have families of their own and have remained close to their parents. One daughter obtained citizenship through marriage and was able to petition on behalf of her parents to establish their legal residency. Thanks to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) law, the younger among Jose and Melina’s children can be considered for temporary residency and other related benefits that enable college and legal work opportunities. The elder children, however, do not qualify for DACA and petitions to adjust immigration status through their sister are low legal priority and unlikely to be approved any time in the near future.
Most of these families have some enduring connection to Mexico and would appreciate opportunities to spend time there; however, like Vizguerra, they do not consider it their true home. For these families and many others in similar circumstances, a move to Mexico would be either extremely impractical or possibly even detrimental. Lack of economic opportunity and poverty is one of the most compelling reasons that mixed-status families hesitate to return to Mexico. In fact, a 2012 study jointly conducted by Mexico’s National Council of Social Development (CONEVAL) and UNICEF, found that nearly 54% of its residents 17 years of age and younger live in some level of poverty. Other reasons cited include separation from other family members, concerns about acculturation of U.S. born children, and loss of current educational opportunity. In 2013, the Unitarian Universalist Association issued a statement of conscience on the matter of immigration as a moral issue. “A belief in “the inherent worth and dignity of every person” is core to Unitarian Universalism: every person, no exceptions. As religious people, our Principles call us to acknowledge the immigrant experience and to affirm and promote the flourishing of the human family.”(uua.org)
These experiences document why home is here in the US, why policy needs to support families staying together and why returning to Mexico is an unrealistic alternative.