The Story of an American Citizen: Just a Dash of Empathy

Cover Image: Times of San Diego

The United States was built on immigration. From Alexander Hamilton to Albert Einstein, it is hard to imagine that this country would be the same without the millions of immigrants who came here over the course of our history. This claim holds true for Ana, who is also an American immigrant. She has changed my life, and I would not be the same person without her presence. Her story taught me that with hard work and hope, you can succeed in a country that isn’t always supportive of you. Ana was born and raised in El Salvador in the 1980s before she moved to the U.S. at the age of eight. In this article, I will discuss what it is like to be undocumented in the United States, through the perspective of Ana, and argue the importance of empathy and education in overcoming xenophobia when discussing the treatment of undocumented immigrants and immigration reform.

Every immigrant has a story, and each story deserves to be told. This is the story of Ana’s journey to United States as an undocumented immigrant. Ana grew up in a small town in El Salvador far outside the city. At the age of two, Ana’s father left for the United States in search for better opportunities to provide for his family. He was not a criminal, rapist, murderer, or a member of a gang. While the current administration would like U.S. citizens to think that immigrants like Ana’s father are these things to promote xenophobic sentiment, he was not any of these things. He was a father, a husband, a hard worker, and a good man. At the age of five, Ana’s mother left El Salvador to reunite with her husband and left Ana in the care of her godmother.

By 1980, tension existed between the rich and poor in El Salvador. As the Center for Justice and Accountability states, “in September 1980, the five major leftist revolutionary organizations merged to form the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). The FMLN fielded a guerilla army to oppose government and right-wing paramilitary forces.” This contributed to the El Salvador Civil War that continued throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s. After the election of Ronald Reagan, the United States decided to provide the Salvadoran government with military aid and advisors, despite their atrocities. When the war reached Ana, she was forced to hide under her bed as shots rang through her town and seek refuge from the danger she faced every day. Her mom returned to take her to the United States and within the span of a couple days, they gathered their documents and left. Together they rode buses and trains, flew in planes, and walked to reach the U.S./Mexican border. During this time, they were chased by thieves, pursued by the police, and forced to hide in safe houses. If caught, they could have been abused, detained, and sent back. After about three weeks, they crossed the border and reached the United States. They made their way to California, and from there to Queens, New York to begin their new life.

For years her family lived in fear of leaving the house because at any moment they could have been arrested and then deported. In 1986, the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) gave her parents the opportunity to gain residence. Ana became a resident in 1992, about five years after her parents, and in 2015, she became an American citizen. Amnesty worked for her parents. They were good people and they never abused the system. Ana’s dad had only one day off per week and one week off per year. Because of the benefits of IRCA, Ana wishes there was a similar solution for current immigrants.

This is where the necessity of empathy and education is demonstrated. It is important that Americans understand that if Ana and her family had a way of coming to the United States “legally,” they would have. However, the reality is that if Ana and her family decided to stay in El Salvador, they could have lost their lives like the 75,000 Salvadorans who died in the Civil War in the 1980s. “Immigrants want to be here,” she says. They want to work. They want to live. They want an opportunity for a better life. She wants that for them too, because the majority aren’t rapists or criminals. They are good people looking for a better life.

Ana hopes that by sharing her story, people will be able to understand the “push” factors that lead people to migrate and empathize with current undocumented immigrants. She believes that some Americans can ignore the realities and struggles of being an undocumented immigrant because they don’t know any better. They don’t know that these people have tried everything. They don’t know what it’s like in the countries from which the people are fleeing. They don’t understand the gangs that roam the streets, the violence that women face, the horrors that children see and endure. If they understood all of this, if they put themselves into the shoes of the immigrants attempting to come into the United States, wouldn’t they take the same risk? Wouldn’t they trek for miles through hostile territory in hopes that they can provide a better life for their families? It’s simple; this is a situation in which empathy for people can override xenophobic sentiment. Some American citizens refuse to put themselves in the immigrants’ shoes, they refuse to understand what these people have endured, they refuse to acknowledge the fact that this country was built on immigrants. Instead, they choose to harbor irrational fears against people (immigrants) they have never met before. Some people believe that by letting in immigrants that have “different” cultures, they will cause the demise of the country. Perhaps with education, they can understand that immigrants don’t hurt the country, they help build it and make it stronger. In order to address the treatment of immigrants, Americans must overcome their xenophobic sentiment, which can be achieved through empathy and education about the current situations.

We are Americans and we have the privilege of living in a country that is a beacon of hope. The separation of children from their parents under the current administration is not only Un-American, it is inhumane. We are better than that. It’s time to move past the stereotypes, racism, and xenophobia that surrounds immigration. The United States of America needs to start living up to its name and accepting the “tired and the poor and the huddled masses,” which comes from the Statue of Liberty. Without immigrants, this would be a very different country. One I would not wish to live in. So… it’s time we change. It’s time for a better future. A future in which families are not separated at the border, the government recognizes and accepts all refugees and asylees, and we develop comprehensive immigration reform.