Op-Ed: On the Freedom to Thrive

POLICYBy 2021-11-03T11:54:46-04:00May 24th, 2021|

Ten-year-old Wilton and his mother Meylin fled their home in Nicaragua seeking freedom and safety in the United States after enduring years of domestic abuse. When they finally arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border, where Meylin hoped to reunite with relatives and start a new life away from danger, immigration officials turned them away. The mother and son were then kidnapped in Mexico by criminals who demanded $10,000 for their release.

Millions of people around the world have now seen the gut-wrenching video of Wilton tearfully begging border agents for help after his kidnappers abandoned him alone on the U.S. side of the border. While the boy was in U.S. custody, Meylin remained captive in an unknown location.

This Mother’s Day, I spent a lot of time thinking about moms who, like Meylin, go to extraordinary lengths to pursue a better life for their children, often sacrificing themselves and their dreams. On Mother’s Day, I honor my own late mother Maria Teresa, who did much the same: leaving everything behind in Colombia for a minimum-wage factory job in Rhode Island in the hopes of providing her 10 children with a better life and the freedom to thrive. As a result of my parents’ sacrifices, my siblings are educators, health professionals, a small business owner, a corporate manager, a physical therapist and a biochemist.

Putting aside the geopolitical forces shaping current crises in Latin America, Meylin is simply a mother fleeing an abusive partner. How tragic that she ended up confronting not only additional violence at the hands of strangers, but also an abusive immigration system that punished her and her 10-year-old son for seeking a new life as well as politicians who would rather politicize their plight than work toward solutions.

Politicians have long targeted immigrants with vitriol to appeal to some of our country’s worst demons. The goal is to otherize, dehumanize and deny immigrants the dignity they deserve. Many immigrants are parents seeking the freedom to thrive. That includes the freedom to make decisions about their own lives and futures, to work toward their dreams, to live with joy and dignity, and to love without fear.

The United States’ current system treats immigrants—essential members of our communities who make invaluable contributions to American society—as somehow “lesser” and bars many immigrant families from accessing the same health and benefits as other Americans, even though their taxes help pay for them. Immigrant mothers frequently bear the brunt of this dysfunctional system. As a result, they are forced to take unsafe jobs with unscrupulous and abusive employers and live with the fear that at any moment U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials or other armed law enforcement officers will separate them from their children and community.

Thriving is impossible when it is coupled with fear. The United States must fundamentally change its immigration system and dismantle the barriers that prevent immigrants from being able to fulfill their full potential and live their lives to the fullest. That requires a people-centered, values driven approach that addresses root causes, including gender-based and other forms of violence, climate disasters, and economic inequality, among other drivers of migration. And it requires recognition of the essential role immigrants play in our society across all areas of public policy.

Thankfully, there is some movement at the federal level to address the failings of the outdated U.S. immigration system without perpetuating the harmful expansion of punitive and restrictive measures, as we have seen play out over the years. We at the National Immigration Law Center (NILC) have been advocating for decades to make this a reality. Several pieces of legislation, including the Dream and Promise Act and the Citizenship for Essential Workers Act, making their way through Congress right now would begin to transform immigration policies to suit 21st century realities.

Each of these bills would provide a pathway to citizenship for a portion of the 11 million undocumented immigrants who call the United States home. This includes immigrant youth who grew up in the United States and long-term residents with Temporary Protected Status whose birth countries were ravaged by violence or natural disasters. These immigrants have built their lives here. Many have kept our economy running while putting their own lives at risk during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lawmakers have talked about a permanent solution for these populations for decades, without the actions to match. Rather than continue to operate on an outdated system from 1986, they must now take every opportunity to enact these long overdue bills as we continue to work toward a pathway to citizenship for all and greater cooperation with leaders across our hemisphere.

People who believe in a compassionate immigration system need to speak up and speak out now. It’s time. Urge your congressional representatives to support immigration reforms, right now. Those of us who are immigrants or descendants of immigrants should share our own stories with lawmakers as we urge them to support these measures.

As we reflect on Mother’s Day this month, let’s honor all mothers who courageously overcame impossible circumstances to give their children a chance at a better life by joining the chorus of voices calling on Congress to take bold action on behalf of immigrants. Do it in honor of mothers. Do it for your mother. Do it for Meylin. Most of all, do it for Wilton and all the children arriving today who, if given a chance, will help fulfill their mothers’ dreams by making their sacrifices worth it.

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Marielena Hincapié is the executive director of the National Immigration Law Center (NILC) and Immigrant Justice Fund (IJF). She is also an attorney and an immigrant from Colombia