Cascade Observations: Facing ‘the undeniable hurdles’ in our cultural understanding

Two days after the presidential election, a local high school teacher asked her students, mostly of Mexican descent, to make two lists: one list should focus on the students’ hopes, and the other on their fears. After making their lists, they gathered in a large circle and shared, one by one. Their hopes are typical of most high school seniors: they hope they finish their college applications on time, they hope to get in to the college of their choice, they hope they can afford to go to college. At the top of their fears list, almost unanimously, is the poignant answer, “I fear my family will be split apart.” One might surmise that divorce is on their minds. Rather, they are responding to the too real fear, espoused by our country’s incoming administration, that deportation is imminent for their loved ones, and perhaps for themselves.

Donald Trump wants us to visualize these “illegal aliens” as despicable criminals: rapists, murderers, and drug peddlers. But on this day, in this classroom, all I see are bright-faced students, many sporting ties and other professional attire, who are some of the scholars, star athletes, talented musicians, eloquent writers and award-winning artists at Hood River Valley High School. As an AVID volunteer, I help these students edit their writing assignments and college application essays. Their stories are incredible — filled with struggles and triumphs, filled with dreams.

When I first began teaching in Oregon, I learned about deportation through rather abstract discussions with colleagues. These talks reminded me of childhood conversations my family had about the starving children in Africa. We felt empathetic, but distant to this crisis. We didn’t know these children. But the day one of my student’s fathers was yanked from his family and deported, it became a tangible and menacing reality. With their father gone, the student’s mother lost her job and her home, didn’t drive, and had four young children, all of whom were American citizens. A group of teachers came to the family’s aid and collaborated, finding them transportation and a home. We offered comfort where we could, but our efforts were futile in washing away their sorrows.

Julissa Arce’s parents brought her to San Antonio, Texas, from Taxco, Mexico, as a child. She worked hard at her studies and helped her family in their funnel cake stand. She went on to great success at the University of Texas, and then on to Wall Street. Her recent memoir, “My Underground American Dream” (published by Hachette Book Group, 2016), chronicles her life as an undocumented immigrant who went from frying sweet treats at county fairs to earning over $300,000 a year working for Goldman Sachs in New York City, all while living a lie, posing as a legal immigrant and using false identification.

Though successful in her corporate life, Arce lived in fear of being discovered and deported. In order to stay in the United States and move forward in her career, she had to be separated from her beloved family for years. She couldn’t risk crossing the border. When her father died, she could only share her grief with her mother and siblings via telephone. Eventually, with the help of friends and corporate connections, Arce received an official green card and social security number. Ultimately, she studied for, and passed, her U.S. citizenship test.

Arce’s success story is inspiring, but in today’s political climate, more likely to be read as a fairytale rather than an autobiography. The Latino high school students I work with as a volunteer have undeniable talents and aspirations to do great things; they also have undeniable hurdles to jump. As Arce writes in her book, “Americans today often view immigration as a political issue and forget that immigration is, in fact, about human beings who have dreams, ambitions, and aspirations. Immigrants do not come to the United States to take anything away from Americans. We come to America to give our sweat, blood, and tears to pursue our dreams. We don’t risk our very lives and leave behind loved ones to come to a strange land in order to get on welfare, as many people think. With no papers, we don’t even qualify! For too long we have tried to win the debate about immigration through politics, but it’s been decades since we’ve seen meaningful reform to immigration policies. Before we can win the debate in political circles, we must win it culturally. We must look deep into the soul of America and realize that America is a country of all of us. We need to look at the human costs of our inaction.”

For a comprehensive and informative summary of immigration issues, please see Nan Noteboom’s “Another Voice” column in the Dec. 7 issue of the Hood River News.

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