There was nothing but barren desert ahead. They were told that they were near the border. This was unexpectedly confirmed when border patrol was seen approaching steadfastly towards the group of hopeful souls attempting to enter the land of opportunity. One by one, they hid in bushes along the road, the only cover available in the broad desert land. Naturally, border patrol had seen them run into hiding. One by one, people were pulled from the bushes and taken back to El Salvador. My mother began to pray. She asked God to keep her hidden, to not let them find her, because she had nothing in El Salvador and did not want to return. They pulled the person next to her in the bush, skipped over her and continued taking people one by one. She was not caught, and with a much smaller group of people, she eventually crossed the border into the United States.
Fast forward a few years: As I learned my first words as a child watching educational programs such as Sesame Street, my mother, at the age of 27, sat alongside me and learned rudimentary English. We would repeat the letter of the day, learn new words and sing along and dance together. I learned how to say new words in English as she taught me Spanish. I absorbed new information quickly and was able to start school early as a result.
In El Salvador, my mom always wished she could go to school. From a young age, she was forced to cook for her brothers who worked in the fields all day. She would steal their homework when they were not around, and she would practice writing the alphabet by drawing letters with a stick on dirt. She had no schooling at all until she came to the United States. When I was 5 years old, she took an English language class for a few months at the local community college in the evenings after work to improve her English. She eventually needed to stop in order to devote her evenings to work. Because I was able to learn both languages at the same time, I was able to grow up helping my mother translate documents.
Growing up, my mom would always remind me that my education would be the key to my success and, thereby, the success story of everyone who didn’t have the same opportunities. She also often reminds me that I would not have been born or at least would not have been alive long, had I been born in El Salvador due to the health conditions I was born with and her nonexistent access to medical care. In El Salvador, she could only have dreamed of one day having children and a home, owning her own car and seeing that her children are receiving an education and paving a path for themselves.
After over 20 years of being in the United States, my mother still does not have her citizenship. The arduous, complicated process is one that she has been grappling with her entire life in the United States. She has to renew a work permit every year to be able to maintain her two jobs. It is always one of the most daunting and saved-for annual costs in our home.
Following Trump’s election, my mom has called me more than once regarding potential changes to immigration laws under the current administration. She always asks me, “What is going to happen? Am I going to be safe?” It breaks my heart that I don’t have an answer for her, that I have to say that I don’t know.
On Claiming Williams Day, I attended an information session that featured an immigration lawyer. When asked about the potential dangers that the new administration could bring, he said that he didn’t know. And that’s the scariest part of it — no one knows. To hear an immigration lawyer say that this was the most unpredictable administration he had seen in his lifetime is not entirely soothing. My mother’s immigration lawyer had a similar answer for her. The uncertainty has weighed on us heavily.
Xenophobia is very much a prevalent ailment of the United States that precedes the current presidential administration. I have seen it in the degrading manners in which my mother has been treated in the homes she has cleaned and in many interactions she has had with white Americans. I have seen it in the assumptions that store employees at the mall have made about her ability to afford items she intends to purchase. I have seen it in her immediate fear at the sight of a police officer. I have seen it in the frustration in her eyes upon not being able to express herself fully in English.
I have said this before and I will repeat it endlessly: Without immigrants, this nation would not exist. Immigrants contribute greatly to this country culturally, economically, socially and in many other ways. There is no such thing as an “illegal” human. To describe one as such instantly criminalizes and dehumanizes them. My mother is not a criminal simply for seeking a better life. My mother is not here to steal anything from you. She has every right to pursue her goals and put every ounce of energy she has into working hard so that her children do not have to undergo the barriers that she faced in El Salvador. This holds true for the other 11.4 million immigrants in the United States. I may not have control over policy changes, but believe me when I tell you that fear will not win. I will fight to death for my mother in the way that she has done for me.
Nohely Peraza ’20 is from Menlo Park, Calif. She lives in Sage.