A personal face on the illegal immigration issue


I must share my day-to-day experiences with illegal Guatemalan immigrants whose children I teach. The majority of the parents ARE illegal immigrants who came here in hopes of a better life for their children. They may work – when they find work – at poultry processing plants, egg farms, and as landscapers, carpenters and maids. Mostly, they are very hard-working, humble people who had very few education opportunities in their own country. They want a better life for themselves – to be able to have a job and make a living. They are still living in poverty, but it is not the hopeless poverty that they knew in their native countries.

When one has a teacher conference with a Guatemalan parent, they do not ask “How is my child doing in school?” first. They ask “How is my child BEHAVING in school?” I go over the report card item by item translating into Spanish; many parents are illiterate in their native language. One has to pay for schooling beyond the third grade in Guatemala, and most came from families that could not afford it. My first year as a teacher, one of my students called out each letter in the mothers name E-L-V-I-R-A- while her mother slowly wrote – when it was time for mom to sign her daughters report card. She had just learned to sign her name the year before, but still needed help with the order of the letters. Another mother, Veronica, confessed that she only had very minimal schooling; she vowed that whatever I required of her son, Javier, in order for him to be successful, she would make sure he accomplished.

The majority of my students were born in the US, and they are legal citizens by virtue of their birthplace. Even if the kids were not born here, they are entitled to a free, public education by law. Immigration status does not affect the right of the kids to go to school; poverty affects them more so, because they must prove with certain documents (a utility bill, a drivers license) that they live at a certain address within a school district. Because they are so poor, many families live in one household. Only one person gets their name on the bill – the rest pay cash to that person. Rental agreements are few and far between – proof of residency is difficult.

“They drain our system!” you say. ” They have no right to be here” you say.” They are abusing our Medicare, our WIC programs, our Social Security system!” you say. You are right. The help that these families need can and should come from local community outreach programs. There are many churches that help tremendously with food donations, clothing giveaways and the like. There is a clinic in our area that caters to homeless and poverty-stricken clients who need regular medical care. I do not accept that in the great country of ours, we do not have the resources available OUTSIDE our government system.

If you knew some of the children I teach everyday and their families, you would feel differently about illegal immigration. Your ideas about right and wrong may not waiver, but you would find gray areas within your heart to look for solutions. Look back within your own roots and unless you are Native American, your ancestors were once in the same predicament, struggling to survive. I see the smiling, eager faces of young children trying to learn a new language. Many of their parents are taking English as a Second Language classes at night after working a full day. These classes are offered through churches and community college resources. With some grassroots organization and empathetic volunteers, so much more could be done without tapping federal and local monies.

Dont hate the illegal immigrant. Hate poverty and drugs. Hate military regimes. The next time you are out and about, look around. That group of workers landscaping in a nice neighborhood, that woman pushing the cleaning cart in the hotel and that family trying to make its money stretch at Goodwill or the Dollar Store are all faces of illegal immigrants. They are trying to get by, just like you and I. Consider that they are real people with families and hopes and dreams too.