I feel very fortunate to have known people who were undocumented throughout my life and known them well enough that I witnessed portions of their experiences as I was forming my own perceptions of what it meant to me to be American. I wish all white Americans who see themselves as native-born were so privileged.
I remember the creepiness of the morning when the men who worked in my family’s orchards were gone, raided my mother said. These men were farmers in Mexico, most owned orchards themselves. Once a year, they would come, as some of them had come for decades previous under the Bracero Program. They lived in trailers my family owned, ate in kitchens where I washed the dishes, and they saved most every penny they made to support their families and their homes. Some of the men would tell my brother and me stories about their children and their pets back home while they taught us Spanish phrases and songs. Even though I was young and loved being the center of so much bilingual attention, I still saw the sadness in the eyes of the older men. Now, I wonder how many birthdays, how many songs, how many moments they missed with their own children while they entertained my brother and me.
When they vanished, my mom said we must pray for them, as we did the days before my father would meet the coyotajes each year. I knew why we prayed then for the men who sacrificed of themselves to come to our farm in hopes that they could save their own. We prayed that they would live to see our home, that they would all be unharmed when my father saw their faces somewhere in the darkness. And, so I prayed that they would live through deportation, that they would be unharmed when their families saw their faces, imagining little girls like me hugging the men who kindly but mockingly called me pobrecita as they handed me their dirty dishes. When I asked how long we should pray, my mother said until we saw them again because we might not hear from some men until they returned to us or sent word with someone who did. So, I prayed until they returned with tales of la migra, the detention center in El Paso, and laboring for no wages for the benefit of the federal government before making their way to coyotajes in Mexico once more.
I also remember why the raid happened. There were many people who were undocumented working and living in the valley where I grew up. When the men on our place vanished, I wondered if the whole valley was as suddenly empty and quiet as our trailers were. But, as we went through our day, and my parents gathered information, no one else was missing. A woman in the valley had reported the men who worked in our orchards. She ran the tiny grocery nearest our place, charging high prices for that convenience and, for the undocumented, the decreased risk of travel. She was an immigrant from the same country as the men she reported, and as other men she chose not to report. She did not do so because she held animosity towards them or even because she objected necessarily to the difference in how she had come to the United States and how they came. She called the authorities and reported them because she objected to my father, the way he ran our business, which was one of the largest employers in the area, and the influence we, therefore, had in our community.
When the men returned that season and every year afterwards until we lost our farm to bankruptcy, my father would either collect grocery lists for the men or drive them to the nearest town where the grocer, a white man and friend of my grandfather, had agreed that he would not jeopardize their safety by turning them in, arguing that he would make more money from them if they were not deported during the harvest. My family’s response was also practical, but I remember crying in my room after hearing about the woman at the grocery. Even now, as I write, I can see the kind father who taught me the colors, most importantly rosado. I picture him now, as I did then, thirsty in the desert, abandoned, and ultimately dying alone, a causality of the coyotajes, a meal for the animals. And, I am overwhelmed by the pain of knowing that he had to face that potential reality twice that year. Once he faced it to feed his own children and parents. The second time, he faced it because we, my family, were resented, maybe justly. I don’t think he understood how much I meant it when I told him I was sorry the next time we worked on my colors. I wish I could tell him how sorry I still am that anyone dies that way, that anyone faces the fear that they might die like that as they seek refuge and economic stability in a country that prides itself on being “the land of opportunity.”
I also have powerful memories of Reagan’s amnesty in 1986. My parents and grandmother were proud of that legislation. We were Republicans. My grandfather and his father before him had been a leaders in the Republican Party in New Mexico since my great-grandfather had immigrated from Germany in the 1890s to work for the railroad as a surveyor. Despite my grandparents’ pride in their party, my grandfather began my political lessons early, explaining to me as I played near where he talked with other adults, that “we always vote for the man not the party.” He repeated that phrase to me often, though I don’t think I understood what he meant by it until he was gone.
My grandfather was dead by ’86, but my grandmother had tears in her eyes when she explained to me how happy he would be to see his party embrace his people. I don’t think I had fully understood until that moment the significance of my grandfather’s family. I knew that my family in the valley all had funny names like Fritz, and some used aggressive-sounding words that only my grandfather understood. They were German and, up to that point, to me that just meant that there was a chance that I could get some weird food that I really loved when I played at their houses… and they were like my grandfather, stern but fiercely proud of me and my brother. From my grandmother, in 1986, I learned that my grandfather’s mother never learned English, and that he and all of his brothers had enlisted in the military, not only to serve the United States, but also because they were suspected of being disloyal because they were German. It was hard to imagine anyone doubting the devotion of the man I knew to the country he loved. She explained that our party, which my grandfather also loved, had betrayed him as a first-generation American early in his life. He had been born in 1898 and was a young man when Republican presidents, driven by nativism, signed the Immigrant Restriction Acts of 1921 and 1924. My grandfather had remained loyal to his party throughout his lifetime, but he opposed their stances on immigration often and opposed candidates based on their immigration policies as well. My grandmother wanted to be sure that I knew that he would have been proud that a Republican had signed legislation to help people like his father, immigrants, no other point of qualification or description need.
My parents set up a make-shift office in an old Airstream behind my grandmother’s house. There my mother would help anyone who wanted to apply for amnesty to do so. In the evenings after the work of the day was finished, Mom and I would work in the trailer. Mom would pass on the information she had gathered from immigration attorneys, and then if they chose to do so, help the men complete the necessary paperwork. Dad would then take all of the complete paperwork to Albuquerque so that it could be processed. My job in the process was envelope and paperclip distribution. Mostly, I thought a great deal about how strange the process seemed, how complicated. I wondered if everyone who wanted to become a citizen had someone sitting in an Airstream working through the paperwork with them. I wondered how everyone was getting their paperwork to Albuquerque when I knew how much the men avoided the risk detainment on the highways. Did everyone have a white person driving their papers for them? I also wondered how much paperwork my mother had to do when I was born so I could be a citizen. When I asked my grandmother about all of this, she told me to pray that everyone who wanted to be a citizen had people in their lives who would help and to remember to be that person when I grew up. She showed me my mother’s birth certificate and told me to remember how lucky I was to have so little paperwork to complete in order to have the same rights as others would only received with great sacrifice. I was sorry then that my grandfather and his family had suffered. I was sorry the men who surrounded me every fall had to work long days and then work through paperwork into the night. I was sorry that everyone would not have access to citizenship because they would lack the connection to apply. But, mostly I was sorry I had not realized how fortunate I was just to be born.
After we lost the farm, we moved to West Texas and were ourselves economic migrants of another sort. Along our journey, I met a girl who was a great deal like me. She smiled and laughed most all of the time, even when she told heartbreaking stories that really weren’t funny at all. She was thoughtful and quick. I have no doubt that I survived so well as the new poor kid on the block because I was with her. She and I were different in a very important way, however. Though she was born in the United States and was therefore a citizen, her parents were undocumented. By the time, I met her, she had been deported along with her family several times. She told me about neighbors reporting her family after petty arguments, bosses reporting her parents after wage disputes, medical offices reporting them after caring for injuries. And, her parents facing the choice each time of the foster system for their American child or taking her with them, which was also problematic because of her citizenship. She would laugh along when others would yell, “look out, la migra,” mocking her for her deportations, but it was one of her laughs designed to hide the heartbreaking truth. Her parents were still undocumented. She was still at risk, though the risks were becoming more complicated as she aged. It is of my kind friend I have most thought in the last few days as the current administration chose to put at risk those who had been protected under DACA.
As I have gone through life, each time immigration has surfaced as a political issue, these memories irrevocably shaped I react and how I vote. Even before I received emails from “Dreamers” who were afraid to come to class yesterday because of the latest DACA announcement, I was picturing actual people I knew, I admired, and I appreciated. I remember their pain, their concern, and their hope, and I feel that memory now as much as I did then. I am grateful to each of them for helping me to understand the value and the complexity of citizenship in my country, something I have no doubt that I would have taken for granted and possibly ignored without them. But, I have also been shocked by how few white Americans have similar experiences, and I cannot help but think that we, as a country, would be better served if more of us who are white and native-born would just talk to those around us and hear the stories of those who have experienced paths different from our own. As for me, I wish I had remembered sooner to be what my grandmother ask of me, to be one of those people who help.