More than 35 years later, I have become aware of my destiny by the responsibility I feel. I hear the sounds of children sobbing while seeing them being ripped from the arms of their parents. I hear the cries of fathers and mothers and see the faces of people suffering. They look like me and like my family. The news of what’s happening at the border is everywhere on television.
When we immigrated from El Salvador decades before, could anyone have called it a choice? When you have a chance for life, you take it. When you can save your children, you do not hesitate.
Hearing or reading the news about immigrants coming to the United States is a kind of torture for a person who knows the violence of Central America.
Those fleeing the violence travel days and weeks, sometimes on foot, to get to the U.S. border, seeking asylum, only to be torn from their families. Their suffering reverberates through me.
I see them in detention centers surrounded by others, locked up simply for coming to the United States, sometimes not just hoping for a better life but for life itself. El Salvador is one of the world’s deadliest countries. Guatemala, Honduras and Belize are in the top five most dangerous places and they are neighbors of each other. The long-term destabilization of these countries has led to wide-scale violence. Staying is not an option for many. Without a country willing to consider asylum, what happens to these people?
It is not in my nature to be complacent and silent. Complacency is not accepted where I came from, the land of Farabundo Martí and other Salvadoran martyrs who did not stay silent. It is not in my genes. I cannot turn away from the terms being used for those seeking asylum from coun- tries like El Salvador and Guatemala and Honduras. Is “infestation” a word for human beings who are fleeing violence for a safe home?
Today, I am a legal citizen of the United States. My father had been right to take us away from El Salvador. Seventy-five-thousand people died in the war, which stretched from 1980 to 1992. An unknown number of people disappeared. It’s considered one of the bloodiest civil wars in history, with extreme violence toward civilians by military death squads and recruit- ment of child soldiers. El Salvador was backed by the United States under President Ronald Reagan who sent guns and money to the government and its military. Eighty-five percent of all killings were committed by the U.S.-backed Salvadoran military. The people who escaped El Salvador and continue escaping it today are fleeing due to those policies.
Yet the current narrative is that the people attempting to immigrate to the United States are criminals and will take jobs from workers in this country. This story fosters contempt and fear. It promotes racism, not only toward the new people coming but also to those of us who have lived, worked, raised families, paid taxes and built businesses here. I’ve survived a bloody civil war, and a dangerous escape to a new country, and still managed to thrive. Fear is not a part of my lexicon. It doesn’t drive me. Yet in this new environment as millions of Americans are whipped into a frenzy of xenophobia and the dehumanizing of people from my home country, I am forced to ask myself, what do I do?
I can pretend it’s not happening and remain in my comfortable home, manage my business and enjoy my fishing trips to our family’s cabin in the woods. I don’t know how long I can do this, but because I’m a wealthy man I can protect myself physically. But can I hide from the moral dilemma? At some point does all this come to my doorstep? It’s unknown to me right now. For the first time in my life, I have to ask if the United States government can be trusted, even with its own citizens?
I could leave the country. I have the money, the language skills and the ability to live anywhere on the planet. I could establish myself, rebuild my business elsewhere and leave my home, for a second time, to start again. But I wonder, does the running ever end?
Or I can stay and fight through education, through telling my story, through suggesting other ways to manage immigration that do not have to be cruel. There is always another way. Can I tell the story of immigration, my own story, and be heard?
I hope so. It’s what I’m doing. Right now.
This is my way. I am staying and fighting for the country of my children. I’m sharing my experience in hopes that you can understand the heroes’ journeys of immigrants who come to the United States not for better jobs but to save their lives. I’m hoping that in knowing me, you will see the others, and know them too. Our stories in many ways are the same.
I once heard someone say that if you don’t tell your story, someone else will do it for you. In recent years I’ve heard my story and that of others told in inaccurate and dehumanizing ways. I’ve also heard that if you don’t exist in literature, you don’t exist. I believe both statements to be true.
That said, sharing my story as an immigrant was not an easy decision to make. I live a very comfortable life, have a good business and have financial security. Why get involved with these issues? I wrestled with this dilemma; I even tried running from it. But no matter how hard I fought it or how fast I ran, it kept hunting me down. After much thought, I concluded that not sharing my story, in effect, would be turning my back on my past, on my family, and on all the sacrifices made to bring me to this place and time. Not telling my story would be turning my back on everything this country has given me and all it stands for.
I share my story with the hope of shedding some light on the topic of undocumented immigration from the perspective of an undocumented immigrant. I also tell my story hoping to inspire others with similar stories to speak up and share their life experiences and truths, for I know there are thousands out there with the ability to do so and with more compelling stories than mine. I also tell my story with the hope of inspiring all my fellow Americans—Whites, Hispanics, African Americans, Asian Americans, Muslim Americans, Native Americans and all others—in a call to action to stand up for the basic principles of our democracy. An attack on immigrants is not only an attack on human beings, but also an attack on humanity and democracy.
There can certainly be repercussions from an effort like this, but there is a potential to make a difference by having this conversation. It is an honor to be a participant in our democracy. I believe the best is yet to come.
Excerpt from the book, Illegal.