I grew up in a small, conservative Arizona town where I heard stories of families who were tired of finding the corpses of illegal immigrants on their ranches from my friends. They were fed up with repeatedly fixing fences cut by smugglers and worrying about drug cartels hiding on their land. I heard stories of illegal immigrants who were convicted and deported, but were back in the United States committing more crimes by the end of the next week. I read in the news that Sheriff Joe Arpaio thought illegal immigrants should be prosecuted rather than given amnesty. He herded them up, gave the men pink underwear, and collected them in tents in Phoenix’s withering heat with only the weather channel for entertainment. At orchestra practice, church, and community events, I heard respected adults complain that immigrants stole jobs from United States citizens. Everyone I knew passionately supported maintaining a strong southern border and firmly punishing anyone who crossed it illegally, so I did, too.
Then, just before Thanksgiving the year I turned 19, I moved to Minnesota, the state with the highest concentration of refugees and immigrants, where families from all over the world invited me into their homes, shared their traditional food, and taught me about the beliefs and symbols they held sacred. I ate kielbasa and sauerkraut with a family from Ukraine, tasted fatteh from Egypt, tried pho from Vietnam and falafel from Greece, gobbled up pupusas from El Salvador, and stuffed myself on tinga and pasole from Mexico. I ceremonially washed myself for evening prayers with a Muslim woman and her daughters, accepted the gifts of a beautifully bound Qur’an and a handmade rosary, joined an Ent seeker in chanting “ooo” softer and softer until our voices faded away, and volunteered at a homeless shelter.
Each person I met had a unique story. Nurse Mia cried after strikers on a bridge were attacked and she watched friend after friend die because the Cambodian hospital she worked at didn’t have enough oxygen for all the patients. Josefina was sent to prison after seeking justice for her father’s mafia-orchestrated murder. She sold her only cow to pay lawyer fees, but it took years before she was able to return to her children, and even longer before she was able to escape the social stigma in her small town in Honduras by coming to the United States. While trying to leave Mexico after a corrupt election, the Candelaria family was attacked by the police and then waylaid by a gang. Wilfredo, a respected professor of history, fled a South American country with his family because his warnings against repeating history were met with death threats. And then there was the young, crippled, and scarred girl from somewhere in Africa whose family didn’t speak any English. Her mother conveyed through a translator that she had been raped, attacked with acid, and then left to die by insurgents. They were asylum seekers, refugees, political exiles, and immigrants whose lives had been hellish at times.
They became my friends and I cried with them and for them.
But it was Jamie’s story that most wrenched my heart.
On a Friday afternoon in early April, she said a prayer, called an old friend, loaded her children into her jeep, and, leaving all her belongings, drove to her friend’s apartment in south Minneapolis. The next day I stood in the echoing hall that smelled like a mix of curry and rice and corn tortillas and chipotle in adobo sauce, waiting to see if someone would open the door to apartment 117. When the door opened, I met Jamie.
As young teenagers, she and her brother lived on the streets because their parents could no longer feed them. Hearing from friends that in the United States they could make more money, they saved until they were able to pay a coyote to bring them across the border. Together they wandered from place to place, eventually arriving in Minnesota where they both found jobs.
There Jamie met a handsome, blue-eyed American who flattered her with his attentions; the brilliant flowers and the warm smiles, the dancing at clubs and the dinners at fancy restaurants convinced her that he loved her. She moved in with him. Her brother returned to Mexico, but she stayed. Then things changed. The handsome, blue-eyed American started leaving bruises on her back, her arms, her face. He took her money, brought drunken fights and drugs into the house, beat her in front of her children, and destroyed her confidence. He allowed other men to ogle her little girl, touch her, and then asked for money or drugs in exchange. When she protested, he reminded her that she was an “illegal” and smiled as he threatened to report her.
A few days after I met her at her friend’s apartment, Jamie and I returned to his house, in a blue pickup driven by one of my friends. Jamie slid down from the truck in front of the house they had shared for six years, clutching the house key in her hand. As we bagged all her belongings, the kids’ toys and backpacks, she searched for the birth certificates and immunization records she had hidden. She walked out to the pickup and climbed into the back seat next to me.
Their clothes were tumbled into bags. She would have to sort them out later. Her daughter’s dolls were buried under her son’s cars, except for one Barbie lying in the back of a dump truck. They would be happy to have their toys again. The kids’ backpacks were in the back of the pickup, stuffed with wrinkled homework. Homework her kids wouldn’t turn in because they would have to go to a new school. And in her hand she held their birth certificates and immunization records. Proof that her kids were born in the United States, certificates of their legitimacy, tickets that would let them get scholarships to college and house loans after they grew up.
As we drove away, her phone rang. She stared at it a moment, then touched the green phone symbol. I heard a man’s voice yelling, threatening her. Crying, Jamie whispered, “Lo siento.” and hung up.
She looked down at her hands, wrinkled though she was young, chapped from work, tired and worn like her spirit. She was glad to be leaving the monster he had become, for both her own and her children’s sakes. They needed a better life than she could give if she stayed with him. But it would be hard to shape a new life, a new normal. A new apartment. A new job, maybe two. For her kids, a new school, new friends.
For months afterwards she would awaken, reliving his abuse, seeing her children’s terrified faces, remembering his angry threats on the phone. Then she would slip from her bed, checking on each of her children sleeping on the couch or on the floor, tucking the blankets tighter around them, relocking the door, reminding herself that he was gone, that they had started over. Eventually the dreams would stop, but for years she would still jump when she heard a voice that reminded her of his.
Jamie’s story has haunted me ever since. I wonder what would happen if she were deported. What would happen to her young children who are United States citizens? Would they go back to their father who abuses both substances and his children? Would they go with Jamie to Mexico, although they don’t speak much Spanish and were born in the United States? Would she be able to provide for them there like she has here? Would they be able to attend college as Jamie hopes for them to do?
And then I ask myself, what about all the others I met in Minnesota? The refugees, the undocumented residents, the asylum seekers. Many came to the United States to survive and give their children a chance to survive. They care about their families, work hard to feed their children, and want their children to gain an education. If they, as I once would have said, went, “back where they belong,” what would happen to them? Is it harsh to wish that they would leave when their families belong here more than there? Is it cruel to wish they would “go back” when going back means living somewhere their children have never been?
In the last few weeks, I have started asking myself additional questions about those who are currently trying to immigrate or seek asylum in the United States. Like many of the friends I made while living in Minnesota, they are trying to escape horrible conditions to save their own and their children’s lives. As a nation founded by immigrants, why are we not welcoming families seeking asylum with open arms instead of prosecuting them for entry? What can I do to welcome immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers? How can I let my government leaders know that I want them to be welcomed? How can I make a difference?
Charlotte Shurtz is a senior at Brigham Young University, where she studies English and Civic Engagement. She enjoys learning to cook foods from different cultures and going on hikes.