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Immigrants Come with Skills, Drives, and Passion: Berniz

So much of the conversation about immigration during this election season has not been based on facts or on the biblical value of philoxenia (love of the stranger, see Romans 12:13 or Hebrews 13:2). There has been much talk about immigrants—and not enough listening to immigrants themselves. The Blessing Not Burden campaign is part of changing that. 

Our immigration organizer, Kate Kooyman, met with Berniz recently to hear from her: what would you change about our immigration conversation in the USA? This post is the second of 4 this month—sign up here to make sure you don't miss a post!

1. Tell us about your immigration story.

My family is from Guatemala. My grandma was the first to immigrate to the U.S. It wasn’t because she didn’t have a good life in Guatemala; it was because of the civil war there. The guerrillas shot all the men in the family (my grandfather, his brothers, his father—all while my great-grandmother was watching) and burned the house down; she was left with nothing. She had lost her house, her husband, and her livelihood. The war there changed her life. She couldn’t stay, even though she wanted to. So she immigrated to the U.S. so that she could help her family, who stayed behind in Guatemala, to survive.

My mom was a kid then, and when her mom left, her grandmother (my great-grandmother) became her caregiver. My grandma would send money back to support the family. When my mom became an adult, she decided to move to the States to reunite with her mom. She wanted a better life. She had a baby by then: me. I was one-and-a-half at that time.

I was brought from Guatemala in the trunk of a car. We found a place near where my grandma lived in Los Angeles, and my mom found work painting homes and cleaning out rental properties. Eventually she started waiting tables, and she found that if she worked double shifts, she was able to support my sister and me. Back in Guatemala she was going to school to be a teacher, and had worked as a teacher assistant. She was serious about our education—she would buy me and my sister books in Spanish so we could read at home. We read Bible stories in Spanish all the time. I had a phonics computer program I would work on.

We spoke Spanish at home, and I started to learn English by watching TV, and in kindergarten I started school and became fluent in English. My mom didn’t drive because her undocumented status meant she couldn’t get a driver's license. This meant that we couldn’t see my grandma as much as we wanted to, because she didn’t live that close to us.  

There were a lot of immigrants in the neighborhood I grew up in. Many didn’t have legal status. The street I grew up on was a block away from a CRC church, so the neighborhood was mixed, Dutch and immigrant. You’d see kids with bikes and parents who had time to spend with their kids. I remember having a bike, but I’d ride it by myself. My mom worked a lot—most nights she wouldn’t get home until we were already in bed. She never worked on Sundays, that was a huge rule for her. And she would be really intentional about spending time with us my sister and me then. I think she’d try to make up for how busy she’d had to be during the rest of the week. On Sunday we would go out for donuts or she would buy us something to make up for missing us so much.

In 1986, President Reagan announced an amnesty for people who were undocumented—and that was how we all got our legal status. It changed our lives.

2. What kinds of messages are you hearing right now about immigrants?

“They don’t pay taxes”—and that’s not true. When I worked as a restaurant manager, I had employees who I suspect must have been undocumented. But I know there were taxes coming out of their checks. Immigrants not only work hard, but they definitely pay taxes.

Of course Donald Trump has had a lot to say about immigrants—about how they’re harming the community. “They’re taking our jobs away.” It’s not true. Not a lot of people want to pick apples or blueberries. Not a lot of people want to work that hard.

Not a lot of people want to pick apples or blueberries. Not a lot of people want to work that hard.

I also get the sense that people think immigrants don’t have skills. Immigrants contribute a lot—and they come with all kinds of knowledge and skills and drive and passion. They might not get to use those things in the kinds of jobs that are available to them when they get here. But immigrants are a very talented and skillful group of people from what I’ve seen.

3. How does the immigration conversation need to change?

I wish people talked differently about undocumented people. The fact that we got legal status changed our lives. We didn’t face constant barriers anymore. But I remember as a kid seeing friends and family who came after the amnesty, who weren’t able to get status, and the difference between those who had that barrier and those who don’t. How do you even live your life when you don’t have that opportunity? It’s a life filled with secrecy and struggle.

It’s hard to imagine where I would be if I hadn’t gotten here before the amnesty opportunity. I can’t imagine living with a fear that I might be deported to Guatemala. I don’t know anything about it. I only know conversational Spanish—all my academic and professional training is in English. What if there weren’t jobs in my field? Could I use my education? Even though I was born there, I think I’d feel like an outsider. I would be an outsider.

I can’t imagine living with a fear that I might be deported to Guatemala. I don’t know anything about it.  

I hear a lot of talk about the problems with our immigration system, or our immigrant population in this country. But I don’t hear a lot of creativity or positively about finding solutions. I’d like to talk about what it’s going to take to change things. There are so many stories like mine—about how legal status can change your whole life. When I look at my peers who don’t have that, I get frustrated that there seems to be so little will to try to make a change like that again. Why can’t we allow people to have access to opportunities?

What does the US really want? Do they really want to continue this situation, which is robbing hope from so many immigrants who are already here? I think we can make this better if we’re willing to tell real stories about the impact that legalization would have on our economy and on people’s lives.

Check back next Friday to catch the next post in the series. Don't forget to sign up to receive these posts in your inbox!

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