With the wave of immigrants arriving at the border clamoring to be let in, I have been thinking a lot about immigration. As a retired English as a Second Language teacher, immigration stories have been part of my narrative for many years and through many administrations.
When Donald Trump was President, the border was basically closed, refugees and asylum seekers had to wait in Mexico until their case was heard, and that was a very long, inhumane process. In addition, many mothers were separated from their children. Now it seems the pendulum has swung from one extreme to another.
Do I agree with all the adults and unaccompanied minor rushing the border? It is creating unmanageable chaos and confusion. However, I do understand why this is happening. America is viewed as a safe haven by so many whose own countries or lives are in conflict, and they are desperate for that safety.
I was a community college and adult education ESL teacher for 36 years. I worked with students from all over the world with different educational and socioeconomic backgrounds. My students came from Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Western and Eastern Europe, the Caribbean, Mexico and Latin America.
As a teacher, I was good at asking questions and listening to their stories. Over the years, my students ranged in age from 16 to 75. I had students who were fleeing wars, religious persecution, gangs, extreme poverty, and more. I had some students who were undocumented, but many came here legally and obtained green cards and even citizenship. I had DACA recipients.
I moved to San Diego in the early 1980s and began working with Vietnamese, Lao, Hmong, and Cambodian students. I heard many harrowing tales of coming to America, including encounters with pirate ships. Those students worked hard, and today their children are thriving.
Over the years I heard both good and very bad stories from my Mexican and Latin American students about “coyotes” and what they went through crossing the border in the desert and mountains. Later, my Middle Eastern students shared their stories of how they walked for days to escape to another country. They went through very difficult times before finally settling here.
Refugee camps have been set up all over the world for many years. A good portion of the students lived in them as they waited for their papers to immigrate here or have a family member sponsor them. In the 1980s, Southeast Asians went to camps in Thailand or Malaysia. Years later, Iraqis and Iranians went to Turkey or Syria. Somalis and Ethiopians went to Kenya. These camps ranged from okay to terrible, according to the students.
Coming to America was and has been no easy feat for the majority of my students. Despite their initial culture shock, most are happy and grateful to be in the United States. My students came to class to learn not just English, but the cultural way of life in America.
Imagine being an adult in a new country, having to learn a new language and for many, a new culture. That is what they did and do. They also found jobs. I taught night classes for adult education, so my students worked during the day and then came to improve their English at night. That is dedication. I taught community college during the day and many of those students came to improve their English and study a new career.
I am proud that so many of my students went on to become successful in both their professional and personal lives.
Even more relevant to today, from 2018 to 2019, my friend, Paula Sassi, and I co-founded and ran The Bus Station Project. This was when the wave of immigrants was arriving mostly from Central America, but also from Africa and Haiti. At that time, Border Patrol was dropping them off, with tracking ankle bracelets on, at the Greyhound Bus Station downtown.
We helped the migrants purchase tickets to go to family members across the United States. At the bus station, we provided them with bags that contained food, water, toiletries, and stuffed animals for the children. We explained the tickets to them and even brought maps of the United States.
We started in July 2018, and by November of that year the need was so great that Jewish Family Service of San Diego and other agencies got involved, and we worked in junction with them. The majority of these Central Americans were fleeing for their lives from gangs and intimidation. Many of the unaccompanied minors were fleeing from gangs that were trying to recruit them and threatening their families. Others were fleeing failed crops and abject poverty. They were desperate.
Unfortunately, the Bus Station Project ceased to be when the “Remain in Mexico” policy took effect in 2019. Then in 2020, the pandemic hit. Now that we have a new administration with different policies, all those who have been waiting in Mexico want to try again as well as others arriving from Central America.
We should give them a chance. They will work hard and give back to this country. It won’t be easy and they will struggle, but after all the hardship they have been through, they want to start a new life and provide a better life for their children where they feel safe.
Mimi Pollack is a former English as a Second Language teacher and a freelance writer.