Immigration policy should be
generous; it should be fair; it should
be flexible. With such a policy we
can turn to the world, and to our own
past, with clean hands and a clear
~ President John F. Kennedy
My circumstances are different from those of my grandparents and so many Irish before me, immigrants who were obliged to leave home because of famine or poverty or diminished possibilities or broken promises. Nonetheless, I can barely remember a time when I did not harbor a desire to come to America, eager to take what Doris Kearns Goodwin calls that “spectacular risk.” And although I have now spent more than half my life in these United States, there are still unguarded moments of dislocation that bring a crushing loneliness and a guilt for having left my Northern Ireland. I sometimes wonder if perhaps the better thing or the best thing would have been to stay, to stay and strive to see far beyond the black and white images that flickered on our television screen at six o’clock every night. But I couldn’t. I fled as soon as I had the chance and became an immigrant in an America I do not recognize today, turning my back on the vulnerable, tiny country that shaped and scared me – my lovely, tragic Northern Ireland.
Not much older than my American daughter, I spent most of the 1980s planning my escape from Northern Ireland. It was a turbulent and traumatic time. We lived and worked and played and prayed within a national crucible of doubt and suspicion, a half-empty glass. We anticipated the worst; as such, we were rarely disappointed. By the summer of 1984, I had grown weary of the bombings and killings, the hatred and the sense of hopelessness that seemed to seep from every corner of the country. Ardent and young, I seized an opportunity to come to America for one summer, believing then – as I would like to believe today – Tom Wolfe’s assertion that,
America is a fabulous country, the only fabulous country; it is the only place where miracles not only happen, but where they happen all the time.
I spent my first night in America in the YMCA on Times Square and 42nd Street. This was before the area had been spruced up by the city’s mayor and transformed into the glittering intersection we know today. I think Rudy Giuliani likes to take the credit for the changes, but I’m reluctant to give it to him. I recall a hot summer night in 1984. I can still see myself standing in the doorway of a drug store with my bag held open, waiting expectantly for someone to search it for explosives, as was the habit of someone from Northern Ireland. Between the jet lag and the scary characters in the street, I forgot I was on a New York city street rather than entering either end of Belfast’s Royal Avenue before the promise of peace and urban renewal projects transformed it.
For the first time in my life, I was both apart from and a part of a rich tapestry of human diversity and experience. Having spent my entire life in a rainy and relatively homogenized country – on the surface – where almost everyone was pale and under 5’8″, this was sensory overload. Nonetheless, the shock of it would soon give way to an enchantment that stayed with me for many years. And for many years, the feeling was mutual. I’m Irish, the immigrant lots of people want to be on St. Patrick’s Day, “Kiss me, I’m Irish” emblazoned on their T-shirts. Tell me the color of my skin doesn’t matter when people in power are deciding who should be walled out and who should be allowed to stay.
So I overstayed my visa at a time when it didn’t matter as much. An American man fell in love with me and married me, enabling me to stay here as a permanent resident, eligible to work and pay taxes and pursue the American Dream that I thought belonged to everyone.
I got lucky.
Lupita García de Rayos did not share my good fortune. Her parents brought her to America when she was just 14 years old, seeking the kinds of opportunities that would not be available in Guanajuato, Mexico. She remained in Arizona, became an adult here, fell in love, married, and had two children, Jacqueline and Angel. Arizona became her home for over twenty years.
But there was no line in which Lupita could stand, no way for her to acquire the Social Security Number that would enable her to work to support her family. There was no hope. For undocumented immigrants who have been here since childhood – with no path to citizenship – there is little recourse. Either hide or make up a number to fill in the blank space on a job application; do what you must in order to feed and clothe your children. Ultimately, she became a victim of this country’s failed immigration policies and Arizona’s employer sanctions law, resulting in her arrest in 2008, when she was swept up in one of Joe Arpaio’s unconstitutional raids.
Criminalized, Lupita pleaded guilty and spent six months in Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention before being released back to her family. Subsequently, in 2013, an immigration court ordered her deportation, but the federal government did not enforce it. Because she was a non-violent offender, posing no threat to public safety or national security, Lupita was shielded from deportation under the Obama administration.
For the past eight years, she has checked in with immigration officials to complete an annual review of her case. Warned that this year might be different, she went to mass and said a prayer before going to her meeting. She took a spectacular risk, in light of the President of the United States’s executive order which stipulates that undocumented immigrants convicted of any criminal offense — and even those who have not been charged but are believed to have committed “acts that constitute a chargeable criminal offense” — are now a priority for deportation. They arrested her and deported her in front of her family.
Less than twenty-four hours later, she is in Nogales, Mexico, far away from the only home she has known for 21 years. Lupita risked it all.
Tonight, it occurs to me that it is only a month since this country celebrated the legacy of Dr Martin Luther King, a man who put his life on the line in pursuit of an America that would provide “a place at the table for children of every race and room at the inn for every needy child” – a fabulous place where miracles happen every day. Let’s make one happen for this family.
Donate here to support Lupita’s family: https://www.youcaring.com/lupitagarciaderayos-754323
(This piece republished online at Irish Times Abroad)