Every time I try to switch lanes, they pull me back over…
Fully prepared to move on to another African-American inspirer (who will return), recent events have once again turned me in a different direction. And so, this week, I’m using the space to recognize someone I’m fortunate to know and whose story has moved to the front of my awareness.
“Illegals.” The word makes me cringe, with its unique ability to dehumanize. As I write, Immigration Control Enforcement (ICE) seems to have renewed its focus on scooping up people across the country with nets that appear to be very wide and very deep.
I know an undocumented person – or they were when I met them, though I had no clue. All I knew was that their family was from South America and they had been here since the children were young. They weren’t the least bit foreign; the only accent I could hear was a New Jersey one. Their mother and only-present parent scrimped and sacrificed to give her kids the best opportunities. In so many ways, theirs was as quintessential an “American story” as could be told.
The reveal, which stunned me, came only recently. It’s been many years and they have now been citizens for more than half their life, but not when they first arrived.
Their mother had to take precautions, protect both the actual children and their identities. And while she, like all parents, concerned herself with the regular worries of raising a family, she must have never lost the fear about what could happen. All so that her kids would have more choices and grow into productive, happy adults. And as they got older, they took on more of that burden – living a life that could be shattered with little notice.
My friend was in college when the family was able to take the steps to gain proper citizenship. After graduating with honors and getting a great job, they went on to create a new American family, with children who hold nothing of the burden their parent did.
My guess is that they may have a greater sense of patriotism, a better appreciation for the American “way of life,” than most. More, perhaps, than many who demand by-the-book “law & order” and “crackdowns” on any actions beyond it, whether or not there is an actual threat. More than those who declare certain groups outsiders and seek to cast them as “others” while often ginning up fear and resentment.
I am inspired by the fortitude of my friend and their family to build productive lives, despite the uncertainty. To go extra miles to succeed and do this country proud when they gained citizenship. Their pursuit of, and commitment to, a better life fills me with awe. They did far more than I to earn their American wings.
The story plays into a larger lesson I’ve been re-learning over and over again recently, about how so much in this life is dependent on factors completely out of our control. To be born white, straight, and into the ”mainstream” religion of the United States, to parents who could afford me, was a stroke of cosmic fortune that meant I would never personally face the hurdles many others do, among them people I call friends.
I will never have to appreciate the ability to marry who I choose, nor wonder whether the service I receive is less than someone else with a different skin color or accent. I won’t have to hope that my family isn’t swept up into a raid or new immigration mandate, or worry that someone in a position of authority might treat me differently because of my name or where I am from.
In addition to those who travel the harder paths, persevere, and thrive, I take inspiration from those who fight alongside them. From civil rights attorneys and compassionate lawmakers to neighborhoods and schools that welcome refugees, I am inspired by people who remind us that human history is filled with those who put their own comfort on the line in service to those in greater need. Their sacrifices have been enourmous, their courage without limit.