As I have watched the news about the separation of families at the border, I can't help but think that this is a story that could have been my own.
My parents both came to the United States as teenagers. My mom left El Salvador when she was 15 for the same reason most immigrants come to the United States—the American dream.
At 14, my father fled Cuba, where his family had faced devastating brutality. His father had been assassinated several years earlier. In a final act of cruelty, a soldier stopped my dad as he was boarding an airplane to come to the United States and took his own father’s wristwatch, one of the only things my grandfather had left behind.
My parents raised me and my sister in a small town in Louisiana, where they’ve lived for almost 40 years. My father has worked tirelessly for his whole adult life as a crop duster, leaving for work every day at 4:30 a.m. and coming home long after sunset. He has left for months at a time for work in Mississippi, Iowa, and other places to provide for his family. It hasn't been easy—physically or financially. At times, he worked other jobs, including driving a Schwan’s truck just to make ends meet.
My mom has volunteered for just about every carnival, bazaar, fair, raffle, and other events over the past four decades to help schools, churches, and other important pillars of the town. She served on the Parent Teacher Organization, the school board, business development commissions, and countless other efforts to help our small town. There isn't a person that knows her that doesn't have a story of a kind interaction with her.
My parents are profoundly grateful for the life that this country gave them. And they've tried to pay it forward. Even in the leanest times for my own family, my parents have supported so many people going through their own struggles, helping people find jobs, giving them a rent-free place to sleep, cooking them meals when their refrigerators were bare.
As remarkable as my parents are to me, I know they are not unique. Most immigrants are exactly like them, embodying the best of America and benefitting us all with their hard work and spirit. It can be easy to buy into the caricature of immigrants we see portrayed on TV: criminals, villains, and threats to our society.
In reality, there is not much that separates my loving, hard-working parents from those who are arriving at the border today. We must not be duped into believing that this is a national security issue or that MS-13 is going to take over the country. In a different decade, I could have been one of the children in these camps. While my parents were able to come to this country through legal processes, there is no guarantee that would be the case today.
I have been able to achieve the life I have because of the support of my parents and the communities around me. Today, I work at America’s Promise Alliance, where we believe that no matter a young person’s race or ethnicity, address or income, gender or sexual orientation, immigration status, abilities or disabilities, or religion, every child deserves the opportunity to fulfill their American Dream and every adult has a responsibility to make it happen. I was lucky to have had that. These kids won’t be.
The abuse that these children are being subjected to, explained to the American people as a policy incentive, will have significant traumatic effects for a lifetime. We are systematically destroying the foundations for success for generations of children and young people who are simply, desperately seeking a better life.
When I look at photos of families at the border, I can’t help but see my father, a stolen wristwatch, and the immense power of time. No doubt many Americans are currently saying to themselves, “This is not who we are.” But we must prove it—and take the opportunity to look at these families and see ourselves.
The 5 Promises represent conditions children need to achieve adult success. The collective work of the Alliance involves keeping these promises to America’s youth. This article relates to the promises highlighted below:
Dennis Vega is the chief operating officer at America’s Promise Alliance. Vega is a dedicated public servant, with over a decade of experience in international and domestic affairs and significant expertise in organizational and strategic planning, policy development, and resource mobilization and allocation.