As we are shown images of children being taken from their parents at the southern border and we hear their cries, I hear over and over again from people, “I wonder what those poor children must be feeling?” As a child immigrant from Central America, it makes me reflect back on my own entry into this country. Fortunately, I did not have to enter illegally as these children had to because my life was not in danger. I was lucky enough to have a mother who was already living in the States and had obtained her Green Card [Editor’s Note: Permanent Resident Card] and citizenship under then President Ronald Reagan. She was then able to secure immigrant visas for both me and my sister.
We entered the customs area where agents with cold stares looked us up and down. Then as they searched our luggage…”
Accompanied by our great grandmother, we left our village that we had never ventured far from before. We boarded our first jet liner and flew to our port of entry, Los Angeles/LAX airport. As we disembarked from the plane, we might as well have landed on Mars. Confused and a little scared, we followed the stark hallways to where we had been directed. We entered the customs area where agents with cold stares looked us up and down. Then as they searched our luggage, there it was, the great sin my great grandmother had carried all the way from our village…a plum!
As we disembarked from the plane, we might as well have landed on Mars. Confused and a little scared, we followed the stark hallways to where we had been directed.
I completely understand now that this was an illegal act but this fruit might as well have been drugs or a weapon the way they suddenly swarmed on us. My sister and I were pulled to the side and my great grandmother was taken by the arm. We were led to a small room with bare walls and hardly any furniture.
My eighty-year old great grandmother was told to face the wall with her arms outstretched. She was patted down and searched. By this time, my sister and I were terrified as it was clear that we had done something wrong, though we had no idea what it was.
We were on the verge of tears. After she was patted down, we were told that we had illegally transported fruit into the country and would have to be detained. I honestly don’t remember the extent of the questioning we had to sit through. I just remember cold looking faces and being terrified.
My sister and I were pulled to the side and my great grandmother was taken by the arm. My sister and I were terrified as it was clear that we had done something wrong, though we had no idea what it was.
After we failed to show up at the pick-up area, my mother contacted the airport staff and found out that we were being detained for smuggling fruit into the country. They refused to let her see or speak with us. Meanwhile, back in the little room, no one even told us that she was aware of what was happening nor that she was trying to contact us and trying to get us out. So in our minds, we were all alone and either would be put in jail or sent back home.
Time dragged on as each minute seemed like an hour and every hour an eternity. Soon five hours had passed in the little room and no one offered us food, water, or bathroom access. We just sat there and answered any questions when anyone asked us anything. Lucky for us during those five hours, they tore through every piece of clothing and found nothing else. They were satisfied that we were not drug smugglers or criminals and that my eighty-year old great grandmother was just a well-meaning old lady who packed some food without realizing the international law she was breaking. After five hours we were released.
As I see the images of the children being separated from their parents and see their terrified faces, I remember every minute of those five hours. We were not fleeing our country to save our lives as these families had to. We were not separated from our great grandmother and five hours in a stark and tiny room does not compare to weeks in a cage. However, while we were in the moment, we did not know what our fate would be.
I did not know if I would get to see my mother and I can tell you that the fear was deep and real. And fear was not the only emotion felt. There was also confusion, weariness, deep sadness with every passing hour of uncertainty, shame with every cold stare that labeled you a criminal, and guilt for doing this illegal and “bad thing” of which you are accused. Feelings that no child should ever have to feel!! And I am willing to bet that as I reflect on my own scary welcome to America moment, that these children having just been torn from their parents’ arms in a strange and foreign place, with cold stares all around them are feeling the same way but magnified!
Would rules and laws matter in a life or death situation involving your children?
Now some people will say that the situations don’t compare because the parents of these children knowingly broke the law by illegally crossing the border. I would ask those people to imagine a scenario where they had to get their children out of a dangerous situation. Would rules and laws matter in a life or death situation involving your children? Would you weigh the options when you have to decide whether or not to save your children from violence and danger? I dare you to answer Yes!!
When I came to this country, I was taught that one of the principles that Americans hold dear is proudly printed on one of the country’s most beloved and iconic treasures, the Statue of Liberty. Over the years, I have heard and seen it echoed on patriotic television ads, magazines, tee shirts, books, and even out of the mouths of the most devoted self-proclaimed patriots. “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Might I suggest to the Americans who are not outraged by the treatment of these children and their families that if you intend to hold true these words by which you claim to live, then you would be wise to lend your voices and your efforts to the termination of this inhumane treatment of people seeking refuge in your land from violence and poverty. Otherwise, you might consider amending it to something like this…“Send us not your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Send not, these homeless, tempest-tossed to me. For only those whose skin color we do not abhor, will we lift our lamp beside the golden door!”
– Shereen Rahming