You Are Family
By Clare Acosa Matos
“No sé como llegaste, pero llegaste – estás aqui, ya eres familia!” “I don’t know how you got here, but you got here – and because you’re here, you’re family!”
These were the words offered to my husband on Christmas Eve, just twelve days after he immigrated to the United States. They came from an acquaintance (who has become a good friend!) – a peer who immigrated himself at the age of three with his family, also from the Dominican Republic. His words were accompanied by a warm embrace for us both, dancing to loud salsa and bachata music until the early hours of the morning, a few traigos of Dominican rum, deliciously authentic Caribbean cuisine, and one of the most genuine expressions of Christmas I have experienced in a long time. Truthfully, it was the message that, I believe, we seek to live in the Christmas season: celebrating Christ’s presence in our human world with an authentic love for one another as family.
If only we could welcome all people who immigrate to the United States with this sentiment.
Almost a decade ago, when I graduated from college and set off to spend two years volunteering in Ecuador with a small, Catholic missionary program, I could have never even begun to imagine the role that immigration would play in my life, both personally and professionally. I had every intention of going, learning, being changed, gaining some Spanish skills, and afterwards probably settling right back in to a “normal” suburbanite life on the east coast. Funny how we think we have any clue what God has in store for us.
After spending two years getting my life flipped upside down by some of the most beautiful people to inhabit the earth (I am only slightly biased!), and being transformed by living in community with other faith-filled justice seekers I knew my call was to continue working within the Latina community. They taught me more about the meaning of the vision of the Acts of the Apostles than I could have ever discovered otherwise. I wanted to build bridges between our hemispheres, between language and cultural differences, between these “first” and “third” worlds. It sounds a lot easier than it is – and I don’t think it sounds easy at all!
“Diosindencias” is a term that a volunteer in Honduras once coined: a mixture of Dios (God) and coincidencia (coincidence); I think she was on to something. Through a series of “Diosindencias” in the next few years of my life, I would finally land in San Antonio, Texas, working in social justice ministry at St. Mary’s University. Within the first two months of being a full time campus minister, I had a number of students at my door: all Latino students, most first generation, many undocumented. Somehow, the DREAMers had found their way to me – and they wanted my help. Simultaneously, I was going through the immigration process with my fiancé – through a year-long process, waiting to see if the government would indeed believe we were a “true” couple, and grant him access to immigrate to the US so we could get married. My love-hate relationship with the US Citizenship and Immigration Services was certainly being fostered and fueled.
DREAMers are young people who immigrate to the States at a very young age (some so young that they have no recollection of their travels), brought here by their parents to forge an attempt at a better life. Some cross the border with documentation that later expires (overstaying a visa), some cross without authorization at all. Their children have lived the majority of their lives in the US – some so much so that they struggle with their native language – and they were and are in every sense “American,”. In June of 2012 President Obama issued an executive order called the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). This order allows young persons who are undocumented, between the age of 16-30 and who have met certain requirements, to apply for permission to legally be in the US without fear of deportation, and to gain permission to work and a drivers license (depending on your state). This is not the DREAM Act, this is NOT a path to citizenship, and it is only a temporary band-aid – but it is something, and a step in the right direction.
Our DREAMers at St. Mary’s – about 40 students in total – needed legal aid as well as financial support for the DACA application fee. For these students, many of whom have jobs under the table to support their families in addition to taking 18 credit hours and being some of our most involved student leaders, the application fee is often the piece that prevents them from submitting their application. DREAMers are under immense financial and emotional pressure- fearing for their own safety, and that of their parents and siblings. Living day with a constant fear of being deported, or they might learn that there has been a raid at the factory where their father works (for well below minimum wage), and that he is being held in a jail facility and will be deported to a country in which none of them have stepped foot in for almost two decades. These are very real concerns for many of our students.
While walking with our DREAMers through their incredible journeys, I was also trying to figure out how to prove to the US government that my relationship with my fiancé was indeed a genuine one. How do you prove – limited only to papers and pictures and 15 minutes through a glass, bank-teller window -a love rooted in God’s grace? it is a gut-wrenching, stressful, terrifying process of knowing that your future is in the hands of one single person who has the ability to either say “Yes, I believe you – I will grant you permission to be together, get married, and continue to strive to live a life of faith and love in holy union;” or “Nope, not today. Thanks for playing, try again later if you dare! (But not without waivers and appeals and a lot more money!)” I have come to the conclusion that if all potential spouses had to go through the visa process in addition to Pre-Cana, there would be a significant reduction in the divorce rate. Trying to prove to a complete stranger that which God has placed in your heart is anything but easy.
Not too long ago, as I sat with one of my students and remarked in awe and humility how very lucky and blessed I am to walk with her in this process, I also (only somewhat jokingly) asked: “Why me? Why on earth would you – at a Hispanic serving institution in south Texas, where nearly three-quarters of the population has Latino roots – why would you reach out to some random white girl from New York?” She chuckled and said, “No sé; nunca he conocido una gringa como tú. Pues, tú me comprendes, Clara.” (“I don’t know; I’ve never met someone from the US like you. You understand me, Clare.”) My heart swelled with love in that moment (and my eyes with some tears!), and gratitude for the abundance of Diosindencias in my life overwhelmed me. My only answer possible response to her was, “Y como no? Ya llegaste… ya eres familia.” (“How could I not? You got here… you’re family.”)