What Will Happen to US? Halfway between September and March, DACA recipients wonder what their future holds

“If DACA ends, life as I know it will end, too. I won’t be able to drive anymore because I’ll lose my license. And I won’t be able to work, or go to school . . . . I don’t know what I’ll do!”

This statement exemplifies the feelings of DREAMers everywhere, who anxiously await the final fate of their current temporary status.  DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, is a program that has afforded nearly 800,000 young immigrants the opportunity to come out of the shadows of the undocumented world.  But it is scheduled to end in March 2018.  Brought to the US as children by their parents, they had no choice in being here and most think of themselves as Americans.  Many are college students and aspiring young professionals.

PROFILES OF DACA RECIPIENTS

Christian,* age 19, is a full-time second-year community college student who is studying Computer Science. He lives at home with his parents and three younger sisters (who are US citizens) and works five days a week to pay for his school expenses. He’s thinking ahead and plans to transfer to a four-year university once he earns his Associate Degree.

We first met Christian when he was 7 and in the second grade. He participated in our after-school program, Study Buddies, and he became a volunteer during middle and high school, tutoring elementary-aged students from immigrant families. Christian is a natural tutor and role model for the kids, with his calm, quiet manner and ability to explain homework assignments to them in either Spanish or English.

For Christian, losing DACA means losing his work permit and thus his job, which means he will no longer be able to afford to pay for college. Like most DACA students, he has no student loans and must pay school costs out-of-pocket or on a semester payment plan. He will also lose his drivers’ license, which will impact his ability to get to and from class or work –and his ability to help his parents with transportation. Christian and his dad commute to work in the same restaurant approximately 45 miles away from their home.

Without DACA, this young man who has lived in the US since age three will revert to status as an undocumented immigrant, working at unskilled labor jobs for cash, and his education will come to an end without the ability to pay for tuition, books, and materials.

José* is 21 and a student. He lives at home and works a 40-hour per week night job in a call center, which allows him to take classes during the day at the university. He’s lived in the US since second grade.

DACA had a huge impact in Jose’s life. As a middle-schooler, his family moved to a new home and he became aware that he was an undocumented immigrant. He was bullied and called “the Mexican kid” at his new, mostly-white school — even though he repeatedly explained that he was not from Mexico. He most likely had ADHD but no services were provided, and he struggled in school, even though he was very bright. Outgoing and friendly, José made friends quickly at Passport Missions camp and loved helping others, but he was also known for his impulsiveness and jokes.

José gave up hope. “What difference does it make if I do well in school?” he said. “I’ll still be an illegal immigrant – just look at my parents!” His dad, a university professor in his home country, worked in the kitchen of restaurants in the US, and his mom, an accountant, was stocking shelves in a small retail store. But then, José’s sister earned an academic scholarship to a four-year private college, and he saw that her hard work really had paid off. Soon afterward, DACA came along, which meant that college would be a possibility for him, too.

José suddenly had hope, hope for the life his parents had sacrificed so much for him to have. But it was dependent on him to do his part, to learn responsibility. He quit skipping school, began to focus on his classes, and sought help for areas where he was struggling. He became a good student, and he found new friends. When he was approved for DACA, he was able to get his drivers’ license and obtain a part-time job to save money for a car and for college.

More than the loss of his good job, car and drivers’ license, or ability to study, the loss of DACA for José means he loses hope. José saw what he could do with his life if he just put forth an effort, but without DACA, he’ll go back to what he once dreaded being, just another “illegal immigrant.”

When Yerendi,* received school supplies from LUCHA Ministries in the third grade, she grabbed the bag and danced around the room before sitting down to sort and organize her backpack for the first day of school. “I love school,” she said. “Summer is so boring, and I can’t wait to get back! One day, maybe I’ll be a teacher. Or maybe a doctor. Or maybe . . . something else!”

It’s no surprise that Yerendi, now age 22, took charge of her DACA application once she was old enough to apply. She soon had a job, a car, and was looking forward to college. She was able to pay for her own clothes and help her parents out with expenses – plus becoming the family’s “taxi” as she took her younger siblings to activities and her parents to appointments. Her dad, a self-employed mechanic with a third-grade education, bought and refurbished a car for her.

Yerendi began working for a physician’s office part-time, primarily getting the job because she had served as a volunteer interpreter for one of the physician’s Spanish-speaking patients. The job turned into full-time position, and she had to make a decision about school. She opted to work full-time and study part-time. In the meantime, the practice became part of a university system, and now she qualifies for significant tuition assistance as an employee of the university. Plus, she determined she liked the medical field and has a heart for interpretation.

For Yerendi, the United States is truly her home. While she was born in Central America, she’s lived here since she was 6 months old, and her brother is in the US Marine Corps. “My parents will eventually be OK. My siblings are US citizens and can petition for my parents. It’s me – I’m the only one left out.” What will the loss of DACA mean to Yerendi? “I honestly don’t know,” she said. “For now, I’ll keep on working and studying. I have time to figure out what my next steps will be.”

Carlos graduated from high school last spring and recently turned 18. He’s been in the US since he was 2 years old. Carlos was born with spina bifida, a birth defect affecting the spine. Carlos has a severe form of spina bifida and has no use of his body below his waist. He will spend his life in a wheelchair.

When his parents learned that there was nothing that could be done for Carlos through the hospitals in his country, they made the decision to come to the US. They simply couldn’t accept the grim prognosis that he would soon die. Almost as bad were the heartbreaking thoughts of the bleak existence that he would face as a person with disabilities in his home country if he survived. Carlos’ dad came to the US to find a job and a place to live, and Carlos and his mom followed later.

In the US, they found help for Carlos in the form of charity care, free clinics, and a program through the National Children’s Hospital in Washington, DC. He received needed surgeries and medical care, and was soon able to use a wheelchair and go to school. Carlos’ mom has dedicated her life to caring for him and serving as his advocate, while his dad has ensured that there was somehow enough money to keep a roof over their heads, food on the table, and a somewhat reliable vehicle large enough to accommodate Carlos’ wheelchair. They’ve paid many of the costs associated with Carlos’ care out of pocket, with no form of health insurance.

After recovery from spinal surgery, Carlos can move forward with his life. With DACA, he can work or continue his studies, normal everyday things that would be much more difficult for him as a person with disabilities in Mexico.

 

The Devastation of Deportation A Mom Leaves the US fearing Separation from her Children

Mirna  was 5 years old and Emilio was 7.  Mirna was a kindergarten student, Emilio was in first grade when I met these children. Their parents are from Honduras.  As an ESOL teacher, I became involved with this family because both kids were struggling in school. They were missing many school days, and both had repeated kindergarten.

Last summer, their father was deported to Honduras. Zoila, their mom, began trying to find a job but it proved to be almost an impossible task. She didn’t have a driver’s license, so job hunting was especially difficult, and no one would offer her a job without a work permit. As time passed, she became depressed to the point where she could barely function.  Getting out of bed required great effort, and there were many days when the children missed the school bus.  And when they came home in the afternoons, they would often find their mom sitting in the same spot where they had left her hours before, unable to fix a meal or do the laundry.

For over a year, the community has surrounded this family and tried to help, but without legal status, there are few options available, particularly for single moms.  The children’s school was very supportive as faculty, staff, and administrators realized the family’s difficult circumstances.  With extra attention and support at school, Mirna was making some progress but Emilio continued to struggle.  LUCHA helped the family with counseling and with food from the food bank, and their church has pitched in as well.  But it wasn’t enough.

Zoila made the difficult decision to return to Honduras.

Once the presidential election was over, fear and stress over the future plight of immigrants in the US made their situation worse, and Zoila began to think of returning to Honduras.  She feared separation from her children, thinking it will be just a matter of time before she is caught and deported to Honduras, like the children’s father.  And as American citizens, her children will be left alone in the United States, with no source of financial support and without their parents or other family members.

Zoila, Emilio, and Mirna left the country on March 14, despite the fact that Zoila is very fearful for her future and for that of the children.  She fears the  violence in her home country and understands the lack of job opportunities there.  While the children speak Spanish, Emilio is terrified.  He’s seen many of the challenges that his mom has faced since his dad was deported, and while he tried to be “the man of the house,” it wasn’t enough.  He’s also old enough to have heard things about living in Central America.  If he was already struggling in school in the US, studying in Spanish in Honduras is going to be even more difficult.  Not to mention the cultural issues he will face as an “American” kid.

However, there are few choices available to Zoila.  She wonders if she has failed her children by not being able to provide the future for them that she dreamed of — high school, college, good jobs and a stable future.  She hopes that once she is surrounded by her extended family, she will have the emotional support necessary to begin to heal her wounds and address her issues of depression and low self esteem.  She knows she will face poverty, but there will be peace in her heart knowing that nobody will separate from her children.

*This article was written by an ESOL teacher.

Actions Have Consequences The Decision to Leave a Child Behind

“How do you feel when your parents migrate to the US . . . and leave you behind?”  This wasn’t an easy question for students to answer in El Salvador.

We were visiting an inner-city high school, Instituto Isaac Newton, located in the heart of San Salvador.  The seven of us, all Baptists, were seeking to better understand this country and how churches and individuals in the US can come alongside and help with the challenges faced by families there.  And to learn more about immigrants in our own country in the process.

The challenges of the neighborhood were apparent just outside the entrance of the school, where we saw young men being cuffed and interrogated by the police.  We walked through busy streets lined with vendors and learned that many were parents of students at the school.  It was a section of the city rarely seen by tourists.

Many students asked to meet with us, to tell their stories and ask questions about the United States.  Approximately 25% of the students said they had a parent living in the United States, and more than 75% had a close friend or family member in the US.  Only a few had not been directly touched by emigration.  Public education is free through secondary (9th grade).  Isaac Newton and other similar schools seek to provide a high quality private school education for upper-level students at minimal cost (less than $40/month).  These students are studying for careers in healthcare, tourism, business, etc., largely thanks to assistance from parents and other relatives in the US who send money back.

Ana*, a petite girl standing in the back of the packed classroom, raised her hand and bravely answered our question.  “It’s hard, really hard” when you don’t have both parents with you.  “My dad is in the US, and I miss him so much.  But I know he’s away because he loves us and we need the money he makes there.”   There’s no work for him here, Ana said, and she wouldn’t be in school if her dad wasn’t sending money back home to support the family.  She said she was very appreciative of the sacrifice he had chosen to make for her and for her family.  And then Ana broke down and sobbed uncontrollably as another student hugged her.  Other students swiped at teary eyes.

While the kids often feel hurt, abandoned, or lonely when their parent or parents leave them behind, they say that they have other family around to help, and they know that the absent parent has made a hard decision that is for the good of the family.  Immigrant parents say that one of the hardest issues for them is the decision to leave a child behind.

However, Latin Americans often view children as part of a rich family tradition where the members are strongly connected and where aunts, uncles, grandparents and even older siblings all share in the raising of a child.  The decision is often a family decision, made in the best interest of the child as well as the extended family.  “How could I bring my son with me, to a place where I had no job, no place to live?” said Maria,* a mom from Honduras.  “I think it would have been too hard.  He was better off with my mom until I could get established.”  After a few years, she sent for her son, Jorge,* who was 10, to join her.  Maria rents a room and works part-time at McDonalds to support her family.  Jorge is able to petition for asylum.

But even the best intentions can cause pain for the immigrant parent.  Martin* talks about his teenage son with regret for what he’s lost.  “My son stayed in Mexico, on the ranch with my parents, and he goes to school and rides horses and helps my dad with the cattle.  He talks about girls.  He’s a great kid — almost a man,” said Martin.  He can count on one hand the number of times he’s seen his daughter.  Martin’s wife eventually divorced him and remarried.  While he thought of bringing his children to the US, he decided they were better off in Mexico.  They’re healthy, happy, and safe; they do well in school; and his son will one day manage the family ranch.  And the kids are a big help with his aging parents.  “It seems to have worked out well for everyone but me,” says Martin, who is an undocumented roofer.  “I just work and send money so they can all live well.”

The decision to bring children later on to join parents doesn’t always work out well, either.  Cecilia* was almost 16 when she joined her mom, stepdad, and four younger siblings in the US.  Coming from a rural part of El Salvador where she had lived with her grandparents, she missed the freedom of the country.  “Here, I can’t go outside — there’s no place to go, and I don’t feel safe.”  She doesn’t speak English, and doesn’t relate well to her siblings.  “I don’t even like them; they’re so spoiled and self-centered,” she says.  While Cecilia worked the land and helped grow beans and corn and vegetables until coming to the US, that concept is totally foreign to her US-born siblings.  They seem to her to be unappreciative of her parents’ hard work to provide a good home for them.  “I think they make fun of me.  I hate it here, I just want to go back home.  I didn’t know it would be like this,” she said.  Cecilia’s mom agrees that perhaps it was a mistake to bring Cecilia to the US.  “But I wanted to make things right, to have us live as a family.  I always felt guilty for leaving her behind.”

The decision to emigrate is a highly individual decision based on a number of factors, including violence, safety and security, poverty, economic and educational opportunities, and the desire to provide the best for one’s children.  It is never made lightly, and it isn’t without sacrifice, for both parents and children.  It changes the family dynamics forever.  The children, like Ana, grow up quickly and adopt a mature attitude regarding their parents’ reasons for emigrating.  On an intellectual and practical level, she knows her dad made a good decision for his family.  But her tears are evidence of the pain and heartache involved.

*names changed

Where Do Immigrants Come From? And Why Do They Come? Understanding the Context for Immigration

Marcos* was a Salvadoran immigrant in his late 20s whose story caused me to dig deeper in order to understand his home country.  Since then, I’ve studied the history of El Salvador and last year, I visited there.  I’ve made Salvadoran friends both in the US and in El Salvador.  It’s fairly easy for non-immigrant Americans to look at immigrants who struggle in our country and wonder — often aloud — why they are here.  But perhaps if more people had the opportunity to visit their countries of origin, they would understand a little better.

I met Marcos in the homeless shelter following his 2-week stay in the local hospital.  He was traveling from Texas to New York and became seriously ill.  His “friends” called 911 and dropped him at a rest stop along I-95.  He was totally alone, with nowhere to go, and he didn’t know anyone in Virginia.

Marcos was 14 when he came to the US, fleeing increasing threats to his family if he didn’t join a local gang.  “They threw rocks on our tin roof every night, and no one could sleep.  And they threatened my family.  The gang leader said they would rape and kill my mother, and kidnap my sister if I didn’t join. So I left to keep them safe.”

He was alone in a large city, surviving on the streets, and was soon involved in drugs.  And now, 15 years later, Marcos has AIDs. I asked him if he would have emigrated had known how life in the US would turn out.  “Yeah, I would have still come.  I’d rather live with AIDs than face what I was facing in El Salvador.”

masacre-listApproximately 1 of every 5 Salvadorans lives in the United States, making Salvadorans the 6th largest immigrant group in the US.  A large number came as a result of the civil war, which ended in 1992; others came as a result of natural disasters that affected the country; and relatives have joined immigrants through family reunification.  Today, much of the influx is due to violence and the growing control of Salvadoran communities by gangs, like Marcos experienced.

In my last visit to El Salvador, I couldn’t help but think of Marcos.  I experienced first-hand the reality of life in impoverished neighborhoods where gangs rule.  I saw the fear of engaging in simple routines like travel to a neighboring community, where one can inadvertently cross from one gang’s territory into another’s.  I was surprised when friends chose to meet me for dinner at a restaurant rather than in their home, because “my neighborhood wouldn’t be safe for you.”  I secretly wondered if my presence would have put them more at risk for extortion if gang members knew they had an “American” friend.

a-momOne of the things that Marcos most wanted to do was to contact his mom in El Salvador.  He hadn’t spoken to her in years because he was ashamed of his life.  We called “to let her know I’m OK,” — even though Marcos knew he wasn’t OK.  “I know she loves me and prays for me.”  And Marcos wanted me to go with him to church.  As we worshipped, prayed, and talked about God’s grace and unconditional love, Marcos made peace with his life.  Soon, he was well enough to move on to his waiting job in New York.

Most immigrants I know have sacrificed much to come to the US: language, culture, family, social status, dignity.  When they talk with their families back home, few ever reveal the truth about how lonely or hard their lives are in the US.  And yet they still choose to be here, because for many, the worst life imaginable in the US is still better than what they faced in their home countries.

The Power of Presence Placing the focus more on the "how" than the "what"

As the year draws to a close, program directors and agencies reflect back over what they’ve accomplished – how many families fed, how many volunteer hours served, how many persons enrolled in classes.

But I’m not going to do that.

One of the things that distinguishes LUCHA Ministries is not what we do, but how we do it.  Every leader associated with LUCHA strives to share Christ’s love with those among whom we serve.  So, I want to share with you what we consider our most important “accomplishments” this past year.

We held the hand of a newly-arrived Guatemalan mom as she gave birth to a still-born baby.  We prayed together, and we shed tears as she held him andclaudia-gravesite-small said goodbye.  We were the lone mourners at a graveside service for baby Angel, and knelt in the dirt with Carolina and her 6-year-old daughter to fill the tiny grave.

We sat in the hospital waiting room with Carolina’s long-time friend, Fernando, who stayed with her during the birth and offered his name for baby Angel’s birth certificate when there was no father.

We picked up an angry teen from school who claimed to be sick.  Mina, a US citizen, has spent most of her 14 years with her grandmother and hates everything about her life in the US.  She just wants to return to Mexico, where she can do as she pleases.  Mina tries to make her mom’s life miserable, thinking she’ll send her away.  We provide parenting classes, counseling, and support to her mom and step-dad as they struggle with Mina’s anger, resentment, and destructive behavior.

We marched with Lucy, age 7, and Alan, age 13, in a demonstration in fronwendys-familyt of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) building in Washington, DC.  Their mom, a citizen of Spain, has been detained since July and may receive her final deportation order before the end of the year, as she has run out of options for staying in the US.  Their dad, from Bolivia, struggles to hold the family together.

We’ve spent hours on the phone and in the offices of various healthcare providers, hospitals, and collection agencies on behalf of an uninsured patient with diabetes and renal failure.  Andrés is on dialysis and unable to work, and his teenage daughters are trying to manage his care.

We sat for hours in the ER with a quiet, shy 14-year-old from Guatemala.  His depression had progressed to the point of being suicidal, and he was admitted for in-patient treatment.  Daniel became a special volunteer for LUCHA over the summer, helping with the food pantry, working with younger kids at the pool, and leading recreation and soccer during Kids’ Camp.

We celebrated events with young adults who grew up in LUCHA’s youth groupgerardo-small, and we remembered the challenges they had growing up.  Rosie, from Mexico, now has a new baby, a new job, and became a US citizen this year.  Gerardo enlisted in the Marine Corps, and his Guatemalan family threw a party to celebrate his completion of boot camp.  Antonella, from Nicaragua, graduated with honors from college and is marrying her high school sweetheart.

We’ve been in all the hard places this year – hospitals, cemeteries, court, jail, detention, police interrogations – to remind people that God is there, too.  Wasn’t that God’s point in sending Jesus to live among us, to walk with us in the joys and struggles of life?  To understand and develop a relationship with us?

No one should have to face life’s challenges alone, and it makes a difference when we take the time to be present rather than just provide services.

Statistically speaking, these are 8 client families representing 33 individuals receiving services in 3 program areas. That’s the “what” of our ministry.  The “how” is the relationships and trust we build, the value we place on each person as a child of God, and the mutual respect we share.  It’s relating to our clients in ways that demonstrate God’s love and care for each one of them.

Immigrant Fears Information is Key in Addressing Immigrant Fears

Recalibrating, thinking about shutting down refugee offices.

Consoling children and comforting parents fearful to leave home.

Reminding DREAMers of the risk of applying for DACA.

Grieving for people of color.

Struggling to address questions and fears among immigrant friends.

And Praying Together.

Immigration advocates and agencies – including LUCHA Ministries in Fredericksburg, Virginia – found themselves reacting in just these ways following the US presidential election of November 8.  As a part of World Relief’s Immigrant Legal Services Network, LUCHA Ministries has a goal to provide the most accurate information possible while reminding our immigrant friends of God’s constant love and presence.

Beyond expressing shock and dismay, advocates and organizers renewed their commitment to inform and educate the immigrant community on how best to respond to the election and its aftermath.

Some of the best advice advocacy groups can offer immigrants is the following:

  • Remind immigrants that, for now, nothing has changed.  All existing immigration benefits remain in place.
  • Immigration law is defined by Congress, and the majority of current US laws can only be changed by Congress.
  • Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, is still in effect.  DACA provides eligible, undocumented young people who arrived before age 16 an opportunity to remain in the US and apply for work authorization.  Those with DACA renewal should renew it within the timeframe required, before January 2017’s inauguration if possible.  Those who have never requested DACA should consult a reputable legal provider for advice before filing a DACA application.
  • Consult a reputable legal provider to be screened for other benefits besides DACA. This can be done at the same time as the DACA consultation.
  • Refugees should apply for a green card at one year of being admitted to the United States. Seek a reputable legal provider for advice and guidance.
  • The government’s priorities regarding who is to be removed from the US have not changed.  Those who do not fall in one of these priorities are less likely (but not impossible) to be deported (current removal priorities)
  • Beware of notarios and other unscrupulous people.  Only seek legal help from reputable legal providers.

It is also important that immigrants are prepared in the unfortunate event they or a family member are detained or face deportation.  You can encourage immigrants to do the following:

Make a plan now, before such an event occurs.  Educate all family members, and especially children, on where important papers are kept; important phone numbers to be memorized; which adult is in charge of children in case one or both parents are detained; and the name of an immigration lawyer to call.

Review the “Know your Rights” factsheet, and know how to respond.  According to the National Immigration Law Center, everyone has certain basic rights under the Constitution.  Here are some recommendations:

  • Exercise your right to remain silent.  You have the right to refuse to speak to immigration officers.
  • Carry a “Know-Your-Rights” card and any valid immigration documents you have.  Show them if an immigration officer stops you (click here to link to resources in English and Spanish from the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild)
  • Do not open your door unless an ICE agent shows you a warrant signed by a judge.
  • You have the right to speak to a lawyer.
  • Before you sign anything, talk to a lawyer.

Within immigrant communities, much of the news and information that they receive is in their native language.  This includes both formal sources, such as news through television, radio, or online websites, as well as informal community networks, such as people sharing information with friends and neighbors.  We can do much to calm fears and dispel rumors by remaining educated and informed, and pointing our immigrant friends to credible, trustworthy information.  And by praying.

Immigration Legal Services Program A Leap of Faith -- and Now a Reality

“Taking on an initiative this size to offer [immigration] legal services to our community is really a leap of faith for us, and we’re really excited about the opportunity to serve our community this way.”

So comments Sue Smith, executive director of LUCHA Ministries in Fredericksburg, Virginia.  Since its founding 12 years ago, LUCHA Ministries has been committed to serving the first-generation Latino immigrant community through social, spiritual and community development programs.  Taking on the task of helping all legally-qualified immigrants, both Latino and non-Latino alike, to legalize their status is a new yet daunting task.

“It is a complex process,” remarks Dr. Mukesh Srivastava, associate professor in the College of Business at the University of Mary Washington, and a native of India.  “Many times immigrants are afraid that they will take wrong steps.  And hopefully,” he continues, “there will be groups such as LUCHA who will provide you assistance in best positioning your [immigration] case.”

The U.S. Department of Justice, through the Board of Immigration Appeals, allows faith-based and other non-profit agencies such as LUCHA the ability to offer low-cost immigration legal services, explains Greg Smith, director of LUCHA Ministries’ Immigration Legal Services program.  And though the training Smith received to become the program’s accredited representative is not equivalent to that of an attorney, the agency’s desire is to help legally-qualified immigrants seeking an immigration legal benefit move through the process as smoothly and as stress-free as possible.

Offering immigration legal services to the area’s low-income immigrant community presents numerous challenges, not the least of which is supporting the program’s high financial costs.  But we believe this is an essential step in our calling as Christians to welcome the stranger among us (Matthew 25:35-36).  It is important for LUCHA Ministries’ many friends and supporters to take on this challenge with us and give generously so that legally-qualified immigrants in the greater Fredericksburg area may receive the assistance they need.

“When we help immigrants with their legal status,” she explains, “we help not only the individual but also the family.  We make an impact on the children, an impact that will last for generations to come.”

Smith goes on to add, “Because you have a heart for immigrants too, we invite you to partner with us.  We invite you to give generously to help make this program a reality in our community.”

“We need your prayers, we need your resources, we need your donations to be able to do this ministry, to take this leap of faith.  We thank you in advance for your prayers and for your support.  May God bless.”

Being Brown in the USA Race, Ethnicity, and the Struggle for Identity

“When I looked in the mirror, I hated what I saw there, I hated who I was.  I saw brown, and I hated being brown.”

While “brown” isn’t a race, people are often stereotyped based on their appearance and skin color, including the spectrum of “brownness.”  And for many Latino youth, this can lead to serious issues with identity, particularly when they don’t fit the stereotype.

For Alan*, the journey to self-acceptance has been hard, lonely, and hurtful.  Many look at him and see another young Spanish-speaking Mexican immigrant, struggling to make ends meet through jobs that require hard physical labor and little education.  But this perception is far from reality.

Alan was born in the US to middle-class Hispanic parents; his family’s immigrant story includes Mexican-born migrant workers in California, European Jews fleeing persecution, and ancestors from Spain.  Alan didn’t grow up speaking Spanish.  “I’m learning,” he jokes.  “Even though I look Latino, I’m different, I don’t feel like one of them, because of my language and culture.”

I often encounter youth like Alan who get lost in their search for identity and belonging.  They resent being labeled “Mexican” when they are, in fact, Salvadoran, Nicaraguan, or Colombian.  An immigrant family of four from Nicaragua moved from a small apartment in a school district with a relatively large Latino population to a more rural school district, where they purchased a house in a better, safer neighborhood.

Their son, Andres*, was one of the only Latinos in his new middle school.  He was called “the Mexican kid” by his peers, and no amount of explaining about his heritage made any difference.  He soon came to hate school.  He was ashamed of his family’s language, culture, and ways of doing things, and he soon began hanging out with the “wrong kind of kids.”  His parents no longer knew his friends, he was experimenting with drugs and alcohol, and obsessed with gang culture.  The family finally made the difficult decision to move back to a neighborhood with more Latino immigrants and racial diversity, a school where their son felt less isolated as a Latino immigrant.

Like Andres, many immigrant youth experiment with alcohol or drugs or negative behavior simply to fit in with a particular group, usually “American” peers.  Marisol*, a 9th grader, was finishing her first year at a new, predominantly white school, and two girls asked her to watch the bathroom door while they were in a stall using drugs.  Her reason?  “I wanted them to like me, I wanted to have friends.  No one had asked me to do anything all year, and I thought they would be my friends.”  When the girls were caught by a teacher, the girls insisted it was the “Mexican” girl who had put them up to the incident.  It was Marisol who ended up suspended and who spent a year in Alternative School, primarily because she was ashamed to tell her parents what had happened.

Some youth “choose” not to be smart at school, because they only see “white” kids in advanced classes.  When asked about their grades in 8th grade, Javier and José stated that they would “be smart next year, when it counts.  It’s not cool to be smart.”  Javier, a US citizen whose parents are Guatemalan, is now a Marine.  “I was pretty stupid back then,” he says.  “Thank goodness I had adult mentors and people who cared about me who helped me get over that!”  And José is a college student, holding down two part-time jobs to pay his way through school.

Others deal with the pain of social isolation and identity by self-mutilation or attempts at suicide.  A recently-arrived teen from Guatemala, Daniel,* was identified as being at a high risk for suicide and was hospitalized.  He had just begun experimenting with self-mutilation, and his mom was terrified.  “I just don’t understand,” she said.  “We give him everything he needs.”  His parents couldn’t identify with Daniel’s feelings of being “stupid” in school as he struggled with English, with his sense of loss at no longer living in a rural village with grandparents who had been like parents the past 8 years, or with his struggle to accept his place as the oldest sibling in his US family.  “My mom left me,” says Daniel in Spanish.  “And now she brings me here, to be with my ‘family,’ and everything is supposed to be OK.  It doesn’t work like that.  I need some time.”

These types of situations baffle immigrant parents, who wonder why their children can’t embrace the opportunities they’ve worked so hard to provide.  While the stories of Andres, Marisol, Javier and José, and Daniel are all different, they have all struggled with issues of race, ethnicity, and culture.  They’re all second generation immigrants, caught between two worlds.  Through counseling and pastoral care, I help families understand this struggle for identity, the competing cultural values in their children’s lives, and the challenges of raising children in another culture.  And I help the teens know that it’s OK to be

Today, Alan no longer hates his brownness.  He’s a college student with plans for seminary and eventually earning a Ph.D., with a focus on Latino/Hispanic theology.  Thanks to caring individuals who recognized his struggle for cultural identity, he has moved beyond perception and embraced his Latino heritage as a positive force in his life.

“I’m still defined by being brown, but that’s OK.  Jesus is brown, too.”

By Sue Smith, D.Min., MSW, LSW

*Names have been changed

Nourishment for the Fredericksburg Community LUCHA's Hunger Relief Ministry

By Caitlyn Furr

I have the privilege of interning with LUCHA ministries this summer through the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s (CBF) Student.Go program. After completing CBF’s orientation, I began interning with LUCHA at the beginning of June. I am a graduate student at Emory, seeking a Master’s of Divinity and a Master’s of Public Health. This internship at LUCHA provides me the opportunity to learn about ministry, community development and holistic health all at once. I can’t believe how much I have learned and experienced already!

On Mondays, I participate in LUCHA’s food ministry, which is operated by dedicated volunteers in the community. They arrive at the food bank in Fredericksburg on Monday mornings and spend at least an hour carefully selecting food items to purchase. Once they have selected and paid for the food by pound, they load about 5 shopping carts full of food into their own cars. They drive to Sylvania Heights Baptist Church, which has graciously allowed LUCHA to use its facilities, to sort the food. The volunteers create boxes of food, which include fresh produce, meat, packaged foods, hygiene products, and much more, for families in the community. The volunteers are well-acquainted with the families who will receive the food, so they personalize the boxes to ensure needs are met. For example, if a family has an infant, the volunteers will ensure that family’s box contains diapers. Finally, the volunteers hand deliver boxes to the families in the community. The entire process takes about 4 hours, but many of the same volunteers help every week. I am incredibly impressed with the compassion displayed by LUCHA’s volunteers, and the thoughtfulness they put in to each box they deliver. The program is effective in providing for needs in the community while also encouraging relationship building.

I’ve had the opportunity over the past few weeks to meet various members of the Fredericksburg community who are served by LUCHA. It is clear that they trust and respect LUCHA and its programming. The needs within the community are many, but the community members feel connected to LUCHA and it gives them hope. LUCHA is a place where Latinos in Fredericksburg can turn when they need help, and it works to provide for their needs without judgment. LUCHA is a wonderful example of the love of Christ within the Fredericksburg community. I am grateful to be a part of it this summer, and continue to learn from this ministry.

Each year, the Cinco Panes (Five Loaves) food pantry serves approximately 1,200 persons in need.  Through the years, the ministry has evolved from a more traditional style pantry that provides boxes of groceries  to needy families to a more participatory model where the clients themselves have become the volunteers.  This new model has created a sense of community among many Latino immigrants who otherwise wouldn’t know each other.  The volunteers are Roman Catholic, Pentecostal, and Baptist; Puerto Rican, Mexican, Salvadoran, and Guatemalan; young and not-so-young.  The ministry helps non/limited-English-speaking immigrants gain a greater sense of self worth as they work together for the greater good of the Latino community.  And it gives parents and youth the opportunity to work together.  During the past year, over 70 persons have served as volunteer.

Beyond the Band-Aid Legal Aid Ministry that Makes a Difference

Band-Aid:

ˈbandād/ noun  NORTH AMERICAN trademark

  1. an adhesive bandage with a gauze pad in the center, used to cover minor wounds.
  2. a makeshift or temporary solution: “A band-aid solution to a much deeper problem”

 

We all know what a Band-Aid is, and we all know what a Band-Aid does.  A Band-Aid covers a wound…and really not much else.  It may make the scratch feel better, but the soft, thin gauze won’t protect it from a bump, bruise, or bully; nor would it protect the wound from a bacterial infection from within.  Without the help of Neosporin, a Band-Aid would only absorb the bleeding; it would not treat, cure, or prevent the wound from bleeding—nor was it meant to.

This very same principle applies to Band-Aid solutions.  Aptly-named, these solutions are just that:  insufficient covers to the real wounds that lie beneath.  Problems covered up by Band-Aid solutions aren’t protected from bruises (obstacles) or bullies (opposition) or even “bacterial infections from within” (inefficiencies).  Without using other resources to help treat or cure the problem, temporary solutions remain just that.  Band-Aid solutions only cover up the real issue; although they may make the problem appear fixed by absorbing its initial symptoms, they do not protect or prevent the wound in the first place—nor were they meant to.

Immigration Clinic

So where does that leave us when the wounds we deal with impact people’s daily lives?  What do we do when Band-Aid solutions just aren’t working anymore?

We go beyond the Band-Aid.

LUCHA wants to offer more than Band-Aid solutions to the variety of issues surrounding immigration, not least legal affairs.  That’s why LUCHA is in the process of becoming recognized by the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA).  [For more information on that, read our previous blog post.]  At a recent weekend conference hosted by the Baptist General Association of Virginia, LUCHA founders Greg and Sue Smith explained why providing legal aid is more than a Band-Aid approach to ministry.  “We were really moved by this [concept]” stated Sue Smith, “Legal aid is a practical, tangible, immediate way to show the love of Jesus Christ to our immigrant neighbors.”

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Greg Smith representing LUCHA Ministries at the BGAV Mission Matters Conference on April 30, 2016

To the 12 attendees at LUCHA’s breakout session at the BGAV’s Mission Matters Conference, it was evident that the Smiths are really passionate about getting this information out to as many people as possible.  If you are interested in legal aid ministry, or just basic immigration law and practice, LUCHA will be hosting a 40-hour Basic Immigration Law and Procedure Training seminar in partnership with World Relief Immigration Legal Services on October 10-14th this year at Manassas Baptist Church in Manassas, VA.  For more information, feel free to contact us or follow this link to register.