When’d You Start Caring About Immigrants?

Immigration should matter, even when it’s not a flashy political issue

Ruben: I spent the summer in a small museum archive in El Salvador reading page after page about Salvadoran refugees fleeing U.S.-funded death squads, the persecution of union workers and teachers, and the conditions that led thousands of Salvadorans to flee for the United States in the 1980s. Writing a thesis on Salvadoran immigration, I knew the histories in those archives were critical. But I didn’t spend long, stomach-churning hours reading horror stories exclusively because it was an intellectual pursuit. Both my parents are immigrants from El Salvador and my motivation came from an intimate place.

Zoe: Broken. That’s how I’d describe the U.S. immigration system. A brokenness that labeled my friends as trespassers on land that wasn’t even rightfully American. A system that blamed immigrants for fleeing problems that were completely “Made in the USA.” Problems born from a legacy of U.S. intervention that supported coups, trained military dictators, and always made sure sovereignty was out of the reach of black and brown hands. I wanted the world to recognize that immigrants had existed before Donald Trump got elected — they had always existed.

R: I’d witnessed how immigration shaped my parents’ lives. Mami would have to buy expensive international call cards to speak, for just a few minutes, with her mother. When a relative died in El Salvador, my parents made last minute travel plans. When it came time to decide on a thesis topic, I chose to explore the relationship between immigration and cultural exclusion, an academically rigorous topic but also a phenomenon I’d seen all around me my whole life.

Z: When I told people my thesis was about immigrants from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, they’d look at me and say, “Wow, that’s really timely.” As if immigration hadn’t existed before 2017 and wouldn’t exist after 2020. The President called it a crisis and progressives had found their new cause. I mean, how could it not be? The man in office was just so horrible, right? He was the first president to vilify immigrants from the Oval Office and blame them for all the wrong in the world, right?

R: Immigration is an increasingly hot topic of conversation and of academic study. But migration is as old as mankind and people’s critiques of immigration control have been consistent. Though many turned a blind eye to it, activists constantly criticized then-President Barack Obama for deporting more people than any president before him. The academics I cite have been studying Salvadoran immigration for decades — showing the pernicious, harmful effects of our immigration system. Well-meaning, self-identified progressives decry the Trump’s treatment of children in detention centers, and I can’t help but wonder if they noticed the photographs of kids in cages, laying on mats, covered in shiny emergency blankets back in 2014.

Z: There are memories I can’t forget. Memories of begging Harvard institutions to fund events for undocumented students on campus in the pre-Trump world. Memories of rejection, when they told me that we just weren’t “inclusive” enough. They’d act like my friends had to sell their stories, just to get support the university should’ve been providing. As if their identities were so easy to reveal when Obama, the “Deporter-in-Chief,” was in office. In the same breath, those Harvard students and the institutions they represented claimed progressive politics and rejected giving us the only help we could have hoped for. It wasn’t fair.

R: If the current buzz has finally motivated folks to genuinely start talking about immigration, that’s great. But they’ll have to acknowledge that immigration is complex. Approaching it, whether in academic spaces or day-to-day conversations, requires hours of sustained reflection. Those of us whose lives have been shaped by immigration have — out of necessity — spent hours reflecting on our present and imagining alternatives to our current immigration system. Individuals with the luxury of ignoring the effect of U.S. immigration policies run the risk of treating immigration as an abstract issue, putting themselves at such a distance that they forget the very real implications of their stances. It’s simple to claim to care about immigration or develop an ideological stance on the topic when it’s nothing but a timely, flashy thought-experience. A real, long-standing commitment to the cause is much, much harder.

Z: I grew up with my grandparents passing down pieces of a México I had visited three times. Their world painted in a Spanish, that many Americans, simply wouldn’t understand. Americans who’d wonder, “How could those people still not speak English, even after forty years?” When I see the range of videos illustrating rampant xenophobia in this country, I think of my grandparents, my mother. They all sacrificed so much for me to be born here, to have a “better life.” For me, forgetting their story of migration, forgetting its significance, is akin to erasing my family tree.

Yet, I worry. I worry about the day when progressives protected by their citizenship, will close their eyes and look back at Trump as one small blip in an otherwise perfect world. Having woken up from the political nightmare, they’ll sigh in relief. Then, they’ll move onto the next “hot” issue, learning all the lingo, and readying to be the heroes in a new story. They’ll leave 10.7 million lives in limbo and remember that time when they used to be really into immigration in college, when they used to care.

Ruben E. Reyes Jr. ’19, a former Crimson Editorial Chair, is a History & Literature concentrator in Leverett House. Zoe D. Ortiz ’19, a former Crimson Associate Editorial Editor, is a Social Studies concentrator in Mather House.