Antonio Alarcón is a high school student and a member of Make the Road New York, an immigrant advocacy group. This essay was translated by Natalia Aristizabal-Betancur from the Spanish.
ONE of my happiest childhood memories is of my parents at my First Communion. But that’s because most of my memories from that time are of their being absent. They weren’t there for my elementary school graduation, or for parent-teacher conferences.
From the time I was just a baby in Mexico, I lived with my grandparents while my parents traveled to other Mexican states to find work. I was 6 in 2000 when they left for the United States. And it took five years before they had steady jobs and were able to send for me. We’ve been together in this country ever since, working to build a life. Now I am 17 and a senior in high school in New York City. But my parents have left again, this time to return to Mexico.
Last week, when asked in a debate what America should do about the 11 million undocumented immigrants living here, Mitt Romney said he favored “self-deportation.” He presented the strategy as a kinder alternative to just arresting people. Instead, he said, immigrants will “decide they can do better by going home because they can’t find work here.”
But really this goes along with a larger movement in states like Arizona and Alabama to pass very tough laws against immigrants in an attempt to make their lives so unbearable that they have no choice but to leave. People have called for denying work, education and even medical treatment to immigrants without documentation; many immigrants have grown afraid of even going to the store or to church.
The United States is supposed to be a great country that welcomes all kinds of people. Does Mr. Romney really think that this should be America’s solution for immigration reform?
You could say that my parents have self-deported, and that it was partly a result of their working conditions. It’s not that they couldn’t find work, but that they couldn’t find decent work. My dad collected scrap metal from all over the city, gathering copper and steel from construction sites, garbage dumps and old houses. He earned $90 a day, but there was only enough work for him to do it once or twice a week. My mom worked at a laundromat six days a week, from 6 a.m. until 6 p.m., for $70 a day.
But the main reason they had to leave was personal. I have a brother, 16, a year younger than me, still living in Mexico. He was too little to cross the border with me when I came to the United States, and as the government has cracked down on immigration in the years since, the crossing has become more expensive and much more dangerous. And there was no hope of his getting a green card, as none of us have one either. So he stayed with my grandparents, but last year my grandmother died and two weeks ago my grandfather also died. My parents were confronted with a dilemma: Leave one child alone in New York City, or leave the other alone in Mexico. They decided they had to go back to Mexico.
Now once again I am missing my parents. I know it was very difficult for them to leave me here, worrying about how I will survive because I’m studying instead of earning money working. I’m living with my uncles, but it is hard for my mother to know that I’m coming home to a table with no dinner on it, where there had been dinner before. And it’s hard for me not having my parents to talk to, not being able to ask for advice that as a teenager you need. Now that they are in Mexico, I wonder who will be at my graduation, my volleyball games or my birthday? With whom will I share my joy or my sad moments?
I know a girl named Guadalupe, whose parents have also decided to return to Mexico, because they can’t find work here and rent in New York City is very expensive. She is very smart and wants to be the first in her family to attend college, and she wants to study psychology. But even though she has lived here for years and finished high school with a 90 percent average, she, like me, does not have immigration papers, and so does not qualify for financial aid and can’t get a scholarship.
People like Guadalupe and me are staying in this country because we have faith that America will live up to its promise as a fair and just country. We hope that there will be comprehensive immigration reform, with a path to citizenship for people who have spent years living and working here. When reform happens, our families may be able to come back, and if not, at least we will be able to visit them without the risk of never being able to return to our lives here. We hope that the Dream Act — which would let undocumented immigrants who came here as children go to college and become citizens and which has stalled in Congress — will pass so that we can get an education and show that even though we are immigrants we can succeed in this country.
If, instead, the political climate gets more and more anti-immigrant, eventually some immigrants will give up hope for America and return to their home countries, like my parents did. But I don’t think this is something that our presidential candidates should encourage or be proud of.
Immigrants have made this country great. We are not looking for a free ride, but instead we are willing to work as hard as we can to show that we deserve to be here and to be treated like first-class citizens. Deportation, and “self-deportation,” will result only in dividing families and driving them into the shadows. In America, teenagers shouldn’t have to go through what I’m going through.
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