“When I asked the single mother [who fled sexual violence and death threats from a gang in Honduras] if there was something I could send them for Christmas, I expected her to send me requests for toys and treats. But her list startled me, and brought home just how desperate their lives are from day to day: She asked for peanut butter, dried fruit, soap and shoes.”
As we all gather in our households, ever more isolated from one another, the invisibility of the immigrant families my students and I represent weighs on me.
We all read in the headlines about the toll that the pandemic has taken on immigrants and communities of color, but it is even harder than usual to confront what this actually means as we live sequestered in our homes.
I offer here three glimpses into what immigrant families are living through right now, in neighborhoods and households all around us.
Life for Asylum-Seekers Trapped in Tijuana
My clients in Tijuana are marking their second Christmas in the church-run shelter where they live. They fled sexual violence and death threats from a gang in Honduras, arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border and asking for asylum in the summer of 2019.
Trump’s relentless attacks on the asylum system worked to keep them trapped in Mexico for over a year and a half, waiting for an immigration hearing that gets rescheduled every three months or so. In the meantime, the kindergartner in the family finally received his first classes in the shelter just a few months ago. His older brother, a high school student who also bore the brunt of the family’s trauma, has not attended a day of school for nearly two years.
When I asked the single mother if there was something I could send them for Christmas, I expected her to send me requests for toys and treats. But her list startled me, and brought home just how desperate their lives are from day to day. She asked for peanut butter, dried fruit, soap and shoes.
The Human Toll of Massive Dysfunction in the Immigration Court System and Agencies
My clients in Los Angeles also face long waits for their ever-elusive asylum hearings, as the overwhelmed immigration courts continually reschedule final hearing dates. Instead of a broad order postponing hearings until after the pandemic, however, these rescheduling notices are utterly unpredictable, creating a relentless psychological toll on our clients.
In one of our cases, a mother and teenage son who fled El Salvador have had to gear up for a final hearing only to have it twice get postponed at the last minute. Most recently, the judge suddenly unilaterally advanced our final hearing date to the week after Christmas due to shifts in her calendar.
We scrambled to file a request begging for time so that we could adequately prepare, and held our breath and crossed our fingers until the judge agreed to postpone the hearing for a few more months. Meanwhile, the single mother, who is the primary breadwinner in her household, has been wrongly denied work authorization three times by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the dysfunctional agency in charge of immigration applications. As a result, she has to choose between working for cash in the underground economy—where most of the available jobs go to essential workers in grocery stores and cleaning—or facing the prospect of her own children going hungry.
Immigrant Students Struggle to Stay in School Amidst Unstable Housing, Inadequate Technology
The immigrant youth I represent struggle with challenges of a magnitude that make me ashamed to complain about my own children’s compromised education.
Recently, one of our families in unstable housing managed to get temporary housing in a safe location, but the oldest of four children had a computer that abruptly stopped working. For nearly a week, he was unable to attend school. His mother was frightened to take the bus across the city to the school to swap the computer for a new one. She would have to take all four children with her (she has no child care) and fears they will get the virus.
Inspiring Resilience of Immigrant Families
These scenes are not meant to engender pity. In my recent exchanges with the mothers in each of these families, they have been upbeat, determined, and, surprisingly often, grateful for the many forms of assistance they have received. Their resilience is inspiring, as is the heroic mobilization by schools, local social service agencies, and faith-based groups to provide food and occasionally other forms of relief to families, both in urban schools in Los Angeles and border towns in Mexico.
But despite these inspiring efforts by advocates, the precarious circumstances must take a toll on families. I offer these scenes to capture facts on the ground, which are so hard to see in our virtual existence these days. They are one small reminder that in the coming weeks and months, we must strive to confront the lived realities of the many immigrant families living in our midst, cut off from even the meager safety net that currently exists for most low-income citizens.
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