My Immigrant Story: Reflections on Alternative Spring Break in El Paso by Kevin Milton

“We’re moving to America.”

Those are the words that begin my immigrant story.

At age three, I was told that I was leaving the Caribbean, traveling across seas to join my family in America. My father told me all about this family that was waiting for me, he told me all about the big house we would live in, he told me about the new school I would go to, and that I was going to experience a new country. What he neglected to tell three-year-old me was that this big plane would also be taking me away from my mom and my baby sister. At the time, my father did not know that he would spend thousands of dollars and thirteen years attempting to legally bring his second child, my then-unborn brother, to America. “We’re moving to America” sounded like a magic spell back then, carrying with it so much excitement, adventure, and opportunity. I did not realize that in moving to America, I would leave behind much more than my favorite little stuffed dinosaur.

Once in America, I became an immigrant. To be specific, I was a permanent resident. A permanent resident is allowed to reside indefinitely within a country of which he or she is not a citizen. Growing up as an immigrant meant many things. It meant that despite living in this country since before I entered school, despite studying harder than all the kids who were American-born, despite my perfect English, I was never and would never be American. When my father and I became citizens, I still did not feel American. No matter what I did, I would never be American—because I was an immigrant of black and Hispanic descent, my parents weren’t from here, my family spoke Patois at home, and when someone said Independence Day, I thought August 6 and May 20, not July 4. As an immigrant, I have always been affected by and cared about certain issues that “real” Americans didn’t have to deal with.

So when I got the opportunity to serve as one of two student leaders for this year’s Alternative Spring Break, I could not turn it down. The Alternative Spring Break program sends a team of twelve to El Paso, Texas to discuss and learn about topics central to immigration. My Cuban roots drew me to the Latinx community, though my immigrant story did not necessarily mirror that of many other Hispanic immigrants who come from Central or South America and speak fluent Spanish, which I did not. I felt compelled to serve a community and be a leading voice in the movement that spoke in support of immigration.

Over the course of nine days spent in El Paso, I learned enough for a lifetime. The first few days went by quite quickly. We wasted no time getting involved and doing work in the community, in soup kitchens, churches, community centers, farms, shelters, and much more. Yet I did not feel completely satisfied until we encountered one of our last partner organizations in El Paso.

Our visit to Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services (DMRS) strongly resonated with me. Their mission statement reads: “To provide legal services to immigrants and engage in public advocacy and community outreach to advance justice and protect the rights of those we serve in the spirit of gospel values.” I went into this presentation feeling good, knowing that I had spent the week lending my hand where it was needed, hoping I would now gain an understanding of the logistics of the immigration process. With this knowledge I could travel back to my college campus and my hometown and educate others. I was horribly mistaken.

Our representative, a woman named Shalini Thomas, was a witty and easy-going individual who pranced through the presentation with painful glee. Our group spent just about two hours learning about all the discouraging scenarios that could play out when migrating to this country. We were told of the 115-year-long waitlist that individuals are met with when they try to apply for legal visitation rights to the US. We were informed of “priority individuals” who gained access while other family members were not given the same status. We were told about the unlikelihood of asylum, the unfortunate realities of deportation, and the unfair treatment of poor people who can’t afford the legal immigration process. We learned about anchor babies, and DACA recipients, and Dreamers, and undocumented citizens. They told us about refugees and criminals and everything in between.

Sitting in that room at DMRS, listening to the harsh realities of immigration, I felt American for the first time. As the presentation neared its end, I felt privileged and discouraged. Despite all the barriers that stood in the way of so many individuals, I was here. Not my mom, not my sister, not my grandmother, not the millions of people who risk their lives with the hope of a better life.

“Better life.”

The two words that carry so much meaning to the immigrant community and serve as motivation for the journey to America that so many global citizens make. I am here, I have what they want. A wave of defeat washed over me and followed me throughout much of the day following the DMRS presentation. You see, Ms. Thomas informed us that it is nearly impossible in most cases to expect a successful (and legal) migration to the US. This nation, founded on immigration, now turns its back to immigrants.

“Well, if they would just come over legally,” some say, and to that I respond, They can’t. And if they can, chances are there’s no legal way for their entire family to join them. So either you come here alone and spend a lifetime trying to get your family here, or you take matters into your own hands and migrate without documentation, facing a life of possible deportation. Now I know that even if I succeed in legally getting my mom to the US, there is no guarantee for my sister’s legal migration, as she is not what America deems a priority.

The information I learned at DMRS was nothing shy of depleting. My entire life’s mission to piece together my family was denounced in a ten-minute segment of a presentation. DMRS stuck with me because it reinforced that as a nation we have tremendous amounts of work to do. As a student leader, I was tasked with conducting group reflections. Amongst tears, I heard the same thing over and over: “I never knew it was this hard.”

On the plane home, I thought of a quote I once saw: “Privilege is when you think something is not a problem because it is not a problem to you personally.” Going into this journey, I hoped to broaden my knowledge on immigration and somehow use it to implement positive change. I wanted to use my outlet as a journalist to bring attention to misunderstood or overlooked topics. DMRS nearly deterred me from my life’s dream to make my mother’s sacrifice of giving me up worthwhile, but it also gave me a newfound purpose.

I chose to brush off my feelings of discouragement, instead replacing it with hope. Hope that as a people and as a nation we can begin to care about our neighbor’s problems as if they were our own. We can educate ourselves and one another about the difficulties our brothers and sisters face when seeking opportunity in a land that often forgets its own history. My immigration story began seventeen years ago when I became an immigrant. Today, choose to begin your immigrant story, if you have not already. You may be fortunate enough that this does not affect you personally, but as we did while in El Paso, you can choose to be an ally. Help lift the burden of your neighbor and join the fight to decriminalize immigration.

Kevin Milton is a Journalism major in the Class of 2018.