The IRC in NY’s Leaders in Training (LIT) program combines college and career preparedness with community leadership and civic engagement to prepare outstanding high school juniors and seniors for the world beyond the IRC’s youth program in New York City. In a recent civic engagement project, the LITs worked together to research and write an oped reflecting on their experiences as refugees and immigrants, and more importantly, advocate for their futures here in America. The IRC in NY is so proud of their achievement and encourage you to share the LITs’ own words with the young people in your daily life, too. If you would like to learn more and support the LITs in NY, please click here. If you would like to assist with career visits or opportunities for LITs, please contact Rosalie Arndt at Rosalie.Arndt [at] rescue.org
We are immigrants, refugees, and dreamers. America is our home.
It is 2015 and a 17-year-old boy leaves his family in El Salvador. He travels alone by foot and by bus from his home in Santa Ana to Guatemala and then to Mexico. He is just one of thousands travelling to America in pursuit of the Sueño Americano - the American Dream. Along the way there were days he traveled the whole day and the whole night, scared and without food. However, he was driven by a desire to see his father in America and to escape the deadly gangs in his country. He waited at an abandoned house in Mexico for the person who was going to help him cross the river to Texas. Finally, one morning, around 10 o'clock, the man came. When they arrived at the river, the man thought he heard immigration officers approaching. “Run!” he yelled. The boy sprinted as fast as he could.
Many times, the boy thought that he was lost and that he would never see his family again. But he was picked up by United States immigration officers and eventually taken to a home for young immigrants, where he waited to be reunited with his family. There, he learned how to play the guitar, carpentry, History, and English. After 15 days, the social workers told him that he would be reunited with his dad in New York. The big city was surreal for the boy – it was so different from Santa Ana. It was bustling; there were so many cars, so many people, and the buildings made him feel small and insignificant. However, being with his dad, he knew he was home.
When he first started school, he was worried because he did not speak much English. He knew that most people would have difficulty understanding him. But when he started, he remembered what his grandmother told him: “Speak English no matter what. If someone corrects you, let them, then you will know how to pronounce the word correctly.”
It has been 3 years since the boy arrived in the United States. Recently, the boy received news that he and his family had been granted asylum. He started jumping up and down like a little boy because it was all he could think about since his arrival; he had been fighting for it, dreaming about it, and praying for it. Now, he could finally take a massive step to his ultimate goal of living the Sueño Americano.
This boy is a member in our community – the International Rescue Committee’s Leaders in Training (LIT) program. We are a group of juniors and seniors in New York high school who come from over 10 different countries – from Guinea, El Salvador, and Gambia to Benin, Honduras, and Dominican Republic. We are passionate about immigration and believe that recent misconceptions about people like us need to be corrected. We are not criminals but have left everything we know – our families, our homes, and our lives – in our countries because we had no choice. We, like so many before us and like many people after us, fled because of safety concerns, poverty, war, and a lack of opportunity at home.
Recently, we have seen reports of children as young as 2 years old being separated from their parents. In the news, there were recordings of children crying out for their parents in detention centers. We believe that the immigration practices and policies of the American government are seriously harming people who dream of coming to this country and people who are just seeking a better life. America has forgotten that these are people and they are not a threat. Seeking asylum and feeling safe are rights given to everybody by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These policies do not represent the America we have come to call home.
There are many reasons why people like us have left their countries. First, because of the lack of basic necessities. In Venezuela, for example, people go for days without medical products and clean water. These conditions have made the economic crisis in the country even worse. In Africa, young girls are walking almost 4 miles a day to get water for cooking, bathing, and, of course, drinking. But this water is not clean and makes the people sick. Because of the distance and the unclean water, children often cannot go to school.
Safety is also a factor. Many of the countries that we come from are very dangerous and have had wars for decades. Our homes are no longer safe and we had no choice but to leave. One of the members of LIT is from Venezuela and describes the situation in her own words:
“As a Venezuelan walking on the streets was similar to face death itself, I had rules to survive the danger: I could only wear a dirty, overused, and loose - almost transparent - blouse. Chipped nails, no earrings, nose rings, no backpack, no phone, no enthusiasm are the streets’ code. It was my strategy not to be violated, mugged or murdered. When the night arrived, you would not hear a single soul on the streets, not a single whistle or breath because citizens are afraid that would be the last night of their lives. I’ve been mugged four times in my lifetime, and I left Venezuela because I was not living but surviving.”
We think that nobody should have to endure these circumstances. These situations also exist in other countries. An LIT from Gambia describes her experience as simply “counting down to the day of your death.” Fear, according to an LIT from Honduras, in these circumstances, “is not just a word or a feeling anymore but where it takes a human shape.” Our stories are not unique to us – they describe the normal daily lives of many people in our countries. We are the lucky ones who have been able to escape, but there are so many more like us who want to live in peace.
Another reason to leave home is due to a lack of opportunity. Individuals and families want to escape poverty and find better jobs. Because of many factors like corruption and years of mismanagement by the government, it can be difficult to find good paying jobs. According to Global Citizen,“perhaps poverty is the most commonly assumed reason for immigration.” This means that the reason that people have to leave their home country is because they are poor and they need jobs. America has, for so long, provided people like us so many opportunities, from education to good-paying jobs.
These reasons do not have to be mutually exclusive; the lack of opportunities in someone’s country can also mean a lack of safety. The reason why people migrate from Honduras to United States, for example, is because “there’s not a lot of opportunities to study and for the people who don’t get the opportunity to achieve their goals, their only solution is criminal activity,” an LIT from Honduras explains. “I came to U.S. because I was living only with my mom and sister. Three women living alone in Honduras was very dangerous. We wanted to be with my dad; I grew up for thirteen years without him. Since I came to U.S in 2015, Honduras has gotten worse and worse. In 2017, it was named the 9th most dangerous country in the world."
The immigration policies that America has in place significantly affect our communities. In addition to families being separated at the border at detention facilities, many immigration policies are directly preventing families living together in the U.S. Recent proposals to cut the diversity green card lottery, use a point-based immigration system, and end “chain immigration” would separate families for a very long time and, possibly, forever. Family reunification has been very important to Americans for decades, but these policies would change everything.
Second, policies regarding employment mean undocumented immigrants face problems finding jobs in U.S. Employers will not hire undocumented people just because they do not have a social security number or a document that allows them to work in this country. For this reason, these people have to wander around with no hope of finding a well-paid job. Because of these obstacles, undocumented people are susceptible to exploitation from potential employers, as they make them work very long hours for very little pay.
Third, immigration policies have had a huge impact on our future by affecting our education. The law says that a state cannot deny student a free public education because of immigration status. In New York, there are still a large number of immigrants in this state who too old to attend traditional public schools. Without the guidance of schools and dedicated teachers, these people will find it difficult to learn English and balance family obligations of getting a job and earning money. They might then have difficulty findings jobs and integrating into American culture, even if these people arrived legally in this country. People might say that immigrants and refugees just take advantage of the American system, reaping benefits. However, this is another misconception that must be dispelled. According to research conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research, refugees, through the taxes they pay over time, provide a net positive contribution to the economy.
Education in schools should focus more on the hard choices people who have fled their homes have to face. It should not only look at why people have left in the past but also try to create empathy among students. Doing so will hopefully allow future politicians to approach policy making in a humane way, remembering that these people have already lost so much, including often, members of their family. We believe this solution will also help to change incorrect conceptions and reporting on people like us.
We are immigrants, asylum seekers, and refugees. As children, we, like so many Americans’ ancestors, dreamed of living somewhere we could go to school and work in a safe environment, where we did not have to worry if we would make it home from school, and where we did not have to worry about or only imagine seeing our parents. We, like so many other children in this country, dream of being lawyers, teachers, dentists, doctors, and fashion designers. We are dreamers and America is our home.