The “Yes, We Can: Immigrant’s Journeys in Cincinnati” panel discussion on Nov. 1 matched faces to the news stories and political agendas. Sister of Charity Tracy Kemme was one of the hosts and she introduced herself as someone who has long been working with immigrants and fighting for their rights. “I will never forget the face of a tiny little girl,” she said, “living in the shelter in El Paso because she had watched her parents killed by gun violence.”
Kemme also brought up a point that many seem to acknowledge but few seem to comprehend—the fact that we are all descendants of immigrants, except for Native Americans. Of course, we are all typically used to sharing stories of European ancestry and fail to see the similarities. We forget that German, Irish, Italian, Polish immigrants and more actually faced many of the same hardships and hateful, dismissive attitudes that Hispanic immigrants face today (to clarify, Hispanic refers to Spanish-speaking/descending from a Spanish-speaking country; Latino refers specifically to those from Latin America, and both are North American terms).
Nayeli Girón studied psychology at Winthrop University, and now studies nursing. She describes her beginnings as a typical poor family in Mexico. Her father wanted better for his family and walked the desert for three days and two nights, eventually reaching Ohio. Later, he told his wife he needed his family with him, and when Girón was but eight years old they crossed. Sometimes border patrol makes it a point to let a family make the hazardous journey, knowing the consequences, and there is a part of the desert strewn with the bodies of young children who could not handle the heat and starvation, and/or disease. Our beacons of law then simply collect the remaining belongings. Unfortunately on their journey to her father they were stopped by border patrol and had to spend a night in a holding cell. Her father saved money and paid for them to come to the country with fake IDs.
Girón and her mother spoke no English and were left to navigate, but she was able to enroll in school. Not only did she learn English, but also Russian. Not being a legal citizen with a Social Security number, she was rejected for a driver’s license and could not apply for most colleges. Finally, Northern Kentucky University was kind enough to have her. Still, her lack of a piece of paper that labels her a citizen excluded her from scholarships and fair tuition, and so she worked under the table and her father worked two jobs to help her pay. Girón was able to get a bachelor’s degree in psychology, a car, and a home. Having been here for over 14 years and establishing more of a life through hard work than many of our own citizens, she still has to live in fear every day of having all of the fruits of her labor stripped from her because of the absence of that piece of paper.
Mary Jo Montenegro-Miller is a social worker who has worked for Cincinnati Public Schools for almost 30 years. She is someone else who has made the choice to face the children who suffer from our law and remember who they are: children. She’s a more involved example of aiding immigrants, being a part of the English as a Second Language (ESL) program in schools. This program includes over 3,200 participants in a population that is still growing, and CPS offers 83 languages. Still, she helps them to remember that their native language is a part of who they are. She knows an alarming number of children forced to flee violence from the place they called home.
José Cabrera is from a small town in Oaxaca, Mexico—one of its poorest cities—where he lived in an aluminum shack with a dirt floor and no running water or electricity. His parents had to bring him to the U.S. at the young age of four, with fake IDs. He joined school, and was soon tested to confirm that he had learning disabilities. He was told in high school by a counselor that he did not have what it takes to graduate. He became frustrated and felt defeated and he began to hang around gangs. But he graduated and was accepted to Xavier University.
Cabrera is now part of a group that aids and encourages others just like him to do what he did, to give them the help and information in crafting a future that they cannot easily access and that we easily take for granted. Regarding the terms “illegal alien” vs. “undocumented immigrant,” he notes a difference: “We are human beings, not aliens, and no human being is ‘illegal’.”