REFLECTIONS ON U.S. IMMIGRATION AFTER #DAYWITHOUTIMMIGRANTS

Written by Sheryl Winarick "Bold dreamer. Compassionate realist. Global citizen. US immigration lawyer. TED Resident."

Yesterday while so many friends, colleagues & clients were honoring the real human lives & tangible contributions of our immigrant community members #DayWithoutImmigrants — I was sitting in my new house in Austin with a neighbor who found out I’m an immigration lawyer. She & her husband are from Mexico. They moved to Texas 11 years ago. She came with a visa & never left. He traveled across the desert and crossed the border by foot. They both work hard (she cleans houses, he works construction), pay taxes (using an ITIN issued by the IRS since they can’t get Social Security numbers), send money home to Mexico to support their families & pay rent ($800/month for their 1-bedroom home). They also managed to save enough money to buy a car (not with credit, but with cash they saved), a plot of land & a mobile home (again — cash not credit)… but now they are afraid to invest in America because (a) what happens to their land if they’re deported & (b) what if someone discovers they are undocumented in the process & they get deported.

But… her biggest fear is for her children. They have 2 adorable little girls, 5 & 7 years old, both US citizens by birth. With the recent raids she is terrified that the government will put her in jail & take her kids away. Any mother or father can surely empathize. She said the Mexican people are afraid to leave their homes — even to go grocery shopping — but she has to get food for her kids. She’s afraid she won’t come home, and her daughters will be waiting, and the government will put them in foster care & let someone else adopt them. She is terrified — not for herself but for her children. She said Mexican people are getting legal papers to give custody rights to family members or friends in case the government takes them away from their kids. All of her family is in Mexico, so she wanted to know what she can do to make sure they don’t let some random family adopt her children. Can you imagine?

Can you imagine being afraid that the GOVERNMENT will take your kids away and give them to another family, while they detain you in a jail and possibly deport you to another country?

She was not the one crying. She understands she & her husband took a risk to come to this country. Everything she does is a risk & sacrifice for her children to have a better life, and to help her family back home. No, she was not crying. She is strong & determined. I was crying, though. I apologized while my heart exploded right there on my new couch.

This is the country I love, but… this is wrong, and these policies work AGAINST everyone’s best interest. Our beloved country is knowingly, willfully, intentionally causing so much fear, anxiety, pain & suffering among members of our community — individuals we trust to clean our homes, care for our kids, build our homes and roads and prepare our food — people we love — people who contribute to our culture & economy — our neighbors — the Starbucks barista who knows me by name — church members — colleagues — parents whose kids play with ours.

Why should you care? Because the whole world is watching & the only way for America to continue to be the land of freedom & opportunity, the hub of global innovation, with moral authority to guide other countries through our example — is for us to actually be a land of freedom & opportunity — not only welcoming but providing incentives for foreign innovators (low & high skilled — innovation comes in all shades, shapes & sizes) — and honoring the Golden Rule by Welcoming The Stranger & seeking solutions together.

Why would anyone want to come to the USA if we change the very features that make this country so attractive? This may be an ideological question. Well, I can tell you, if “making America great” means changing the inclusive nature of culture & national identity our Founding Fathers set forth in the Declaration of Independence — and the “American values” that countless men & women have sacrificed their lives to evolve & defend — the world will witness a mass exodus — not only of the immigrants among us, but of intellectuals, artists and forward-thinking innovators. Instead of simply “draining the swamp” the US may experience its first ever major brain drain.

With respect and a genuine desire to understand, I asked her why she & her husband didn’t want to return to Mexico. All of their family is in Mexico and life here is so hard, especially now with the added fear of being torn away from their children. She said, here we can save money to give our children the opportunities that we never had, including education. In Mexico, they could not find work that paid enough to have their own home and send their kids to school. They are here for their children.

Their children are our children. They are US citizens — as much as anyone else’s US citizen kids — and they live in constant fear of their families being torn apart.

This is a complex issue, obviously. Super complex. Solutions?

First, consider what would you do as a parent in her situation? WWYD? Right. Walls & exclusive focus on border enforcement is not the answer — because what happens if you try to come to the US & fail? You end up where you started. At least you tried. WHY do people try? Because they know they can find a job in the US. Who is to blame for that: the hopeful immigrant —or the US employer (maybe you?) who creates the incentive for people to keep coming — or Congress for decades of failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform? Instead of focusing on the most vulnerable (whose actions are often rooted in desperation), shifting resources to aggressively penalize US employers would be much more successful. If jobs aren’t available, people looking for jobs will stop coming, and people already here will leave. US employers will suffer, the US population at large will suffer (as the cost of living increases), and maybe finally Congress will face reality and do their job.

Consider this, also. When we focus on border security without addressing the fact that our laws don’t serve the current demands (i.e. reality) of family or business immigration, we create an incentive for people to stay if they’re able to make it past the border. Most people would prefer to stay living in their country of origin. Previously, migrant workers came from Mexico & Central America for seasonal work — and went “home” to their wife & kids with enough money to get them through the year. Now, our law and policies make it harder for people to cross the border — and fail to address the fact that US jobs are available. If you leave after a few months working in the US, you might not make it back for next year’s work. So you stay. Eventually, you save enough money to bring your family, and the US becomes home.

Again, this issue is incredibly complex — even for someone like me with almost 2 decades of professional experience working with immigrants and US business with foreign workers. This is just one perspective, written in one sitting, as I reflect on yesterday’s conversation with my neighbor.

What can you do? Considering the complexity of this issue, I am always surprised when people who lack personal or professional experience are so opinionated — more intent on defending their “feelings” about immigration than they are interested to learn and cultivate deeper understanding. No matter how you identify on the political spectrum, if you care about this issue and the future of our country and your children — make an effort to talk with people who are directly impacted by our immigration law and policy. Find the courage to reach outside your comfort zone to better inform yourself through personal interaction — not only with migrants & refugees, but with teachers, health care professionals, taxi drivers, anyone & everyone. Not only will you be rewarded by a renewed sense of community, you might be surprised by people’s stories.

And, my guess is, when you better understand the people around you — you’ll experience less fear & more hope, less anxiety & more joy.

This article was originally published by Sheryl on Medium.