I have a friend — I'll call her Sonya. She and her family are undocumented immigrants. By the way, I bristle when human beings are called "illegals." It's like saying a person's very existence is wrong, or an affront to humanity. We don't even call murderers "illegals." When did it become acceptable to dehumanize 12 million people by assigning them this tag? But I digress.
Sonya has been here for 12 years. She and her husband came here from Bolivia. They brought one little boy with them. Then they had a daughter three years after they arrived. Their oldest has struggled in this country. He never graduated from high school. The kids there were cruel to the "Mexicans." He was recruited by gangs, and was arrested a couple of times. He has stayed out of trouble for a while now but Sonya worries for him; If he can't get work she fears he will drift back to his gang friends because he has nowhere else to go. He doesn't know a soul in Bolivia and is terrified at the prospect of deportation.
My friend and her husband are musicians. They have won contests and have performed in a modest way since I've known them. They are intelligent and have the kinds of skills that would bring them a good living wage if they could only get green cards. As it is, Sonya's husband does maintenance work, but recently was let go by the place he'd worked for 10 years. His employers were afraid of being fined. Then he found a temporary job and worked for two weeks. Now the people who hired him won't pay him, says Sonya, because he has no "social." They knew that.
My friend cleans houses, when she can get the work. She used to have a driver's privilege card but she didn't renew it. She's "escared" that if she renews it, ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) will show up on her doorstep. She's "escared" most of the time. She doesn't dare get a library card, or leave Utah County. Two years ago, Sonya was very ill and ended up in the hospital. Her greatest fear was not that she would die, but that ICE would come to her hospital room and deport her entire family because by registering at the hospital she was now in the system.
Sonya has worked in wealthy homes. She has heard her employers say to their neighbors that all the illegals should be sent back. She hears while she's cleaning their toilets, and they know quite well she is one of the people they are talking about. She says, "The government tells us we can't work on the one hand, but with the other hand they give us a tax number so we can pay taxes."
Sonya is a hard worker and a giver — she volunteers at a free health clinic, translating for people who speak no English. She says the undocumented people don't come in until they're very, very sick, because they worry that if anyone sees the forms that are being filled out on them, they'll be deported. One of the nurses there hates Latinos and won't ever look Sonya in the eye.
I tell Sonya that things will get better. That immigration reform is coming and that she should have hope. She's heard that before and she is very doubtful. We sat on my couch last week and wept together. Right now her family's situation is more dire than it has ever been. She knows people hate her and her family and want them to just "go back." Without going into details, they can't go back.
I know very well that we can't find a place in the U.S. for all of the people who would like to come here. I know that there are stories even sadder than Sonya's, all over the world. But Sonya and her family are "strangers within our gates" and it is time for us to find a legal place for them in our society. Strengthen the borders? You bet. Fix our broken immigration system? Absolutely. And it's time to put a human face on 12 million people who, for the most part, want the same things that your ancestors and mine wanted when they arrived here.
Thank you to federal legislators who are ready to do more than bluster, who acknowledge that Washington has suffered from immigration policy paralysis for long enough, who are engaging in bipartisan work with other people of good faith and who are ready to fix this. I only wish that the federal delegation from Utah were among them.
Diane B. Christensen is a Republican Party Precinct chairwoman, a citizen activist and is on the Provo Planning Commission.
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