You May Not Know You Know Me
By Mandy Smith
Meet Marco Saavedra-Mendez, a young man as “American” as any you’ll meet. An undocumented immigrant with an uncertain future.
I’m an immigrant to this country. I first came on a student visa, then had a temporary work visa, then a permanent work visa (or “green card”), before becoming a citizen. I read the fine print, filled in all the right forms, provided all the required information, consulted legal professionals, paid the visa application fees. And waited. Many times.
So when the immigration issue comes up, my initial thought is often something like, I had to go through the system. Why can’t they? I have to admit that the words illegal immigrant often bring to mind terrorists or drug smugglers.
But a few years ago, a young man named Marco Saavedra-Mendez started attending the church where I serve, and as I hear his stories, I’m learning it’s not as simple as I first thought.
Marco’s family is from the small Mexican village of San Miguel Ahuehuetitlan. In the early 1990s, Marco’s parents came to the United States for a year to raise funds to buy a house for their family in Mexico, leaving Marco and his sister in the care of their grandmother. But while here, they saw many opportunities for their children.
As Marco puts it, “The whole idea of the American dream can be so powerful. . . . You have two children to feed, and there’s no resources to do so where you are, so you’ll do whatever you can, and that provides a lot of direction and urgency for you to act.”
So Marco’s parents decided to make their temporary stay permanent, and in 1993 Marco’s father made the dangerous journey to retrieve his children, crossing the Sonoran Desert from Mexico to Arizona. The three then made their way by plane to be reunited with their mother in New York, where Marco was raised.
As he grew, Marco looked pretty much like all the other kids in his community—hanging out with friends, going to school and church—but he has always known he’s not quite like his peers, always known he has to be careful about where he goes and what he says. But, as he put it, “Whether you like it or not, I’m an American. With all the institutions I’ve been a part of here and all the identities I’ve taken on here, if I were back in Mexico, I’d be such a foreigner.”
Marco is a well-dressed and serious young man, an articulate and studious artist who desires to navigate his situation in a way that honors God. Even though he is a 22-year-old college graduate, he finds himself in a situation where he cannot work, so he relies on the kindness of friends to host him in their homes.
He attended prestigious Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, and partly funded his education with private loans. But, as much as he wants to repay them, his opportunities are limited. He is unable to apply for work or have health care, and has little hope of supporting a family. He can’t get a driver’s license and can’t travel overseas without fear of being barred from returning.
So he spends his time building community with other undocumented folks and providing friendship and support to those who are under threat of deportation. As part of his support for the DREAM Act in 2010 (see sidebar), Marco overcame his fears and decided to be open about his undocumented status for the sake of bringing awareness to the issue. We sat together for a few hours, and he shared his story, his fears, and his hopes. Here are a few excerpts.
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What would you say if someone said to you, “If it’s so difficult, why not just go back to Mexico?”
It’s almost like when Nicodemus asks Jesus, “Can I go back to my mother’s womb?” Yes, it’s possible for me to go back; Mexico does exist. At the same time, all the girls I’ve ever had a crush on have been in the U.S. I learned to paint in the U.S. Mexico exists in a real sense, just like in 1993 when I came to this country. But going back to Mexico would be almost like going back to 1993. To go back to it would be absurd.
What do you hope the future holds for people like you?
One of the goals for undocumented immigrants is to be unafraid. In Scripture it says there can be no fear where there is perfect love. Coming out as undocumented was a huge step for me in 2010, and then coming out as unafraid kind of built on that. It’s important to be honest about our condition.
Asking what I hope the future holds is almost like asking what I want for the future of the gospel. To be true, to be honest. Cornel West has said his life purpose is something like, “I just want to be true and love people before I die.” That sounds kind of sappy, but I think it’s true. Coming out as undocumented is, by far, the most powerful thing that an undocumented individual can do. It shatters so many superficial realities.
So I try to be unafraid and I hope for that for others like me. But the fear doesn’t ever completely go away. One time I was at a Greyhound station, catching the bus from Georgia back to Cincinnati overnight. Sometimes immigration officials board the bus and ask for IDs—so I wrote my friend’s name and my mom’s name and phone numbers on my arms with a marker. If they stripped me of all my possessions, then I’d still have that. So I still have the preoccupation that I’m subject to that kind of thing.
When you imagine your future—work, family, and children—what do you think about? What do you, as a 22-year-old, think life will be like for you when you’re 30 or 40?
[smiles] In that sense I’m just like any modern, American young man not knowing what to do with his life.
Do you have any pathway to citizenship?
Not really. Not under the 1996 immigration law, which Bill Clinton signed and which really raised a lot of the punitive charges. Right now, I don’t have a pathway to citizenship. The only way I could get a visa or citizenship is some kind of one-off situation where I was personally pardoned by someone with political power. But that’s contingent on a lot of ifs and buts. My situation is more tricky than even someone who is outside of the country trying to get a visa, even though I’ve lived here most of my life.
If you could say anything about this immigration issue to the readers of Christian Standard, what would it be?
I would just say that they might not know that they know me. We all exist in an interconnected humanity. Although I may be so alienated that people don’t know I exist, this doesn’t mean we aren’t connected.
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While I may have some hesitation about the policy side of immigration issues, my call to ministry wasn’t to minister only to citizens, but to whomever the Lord brings my way. The Lord has seen fit to bring this young man my way.
The immigration system and the myriad ways it affects individuals, the country, and the economy is incredibly complicated. The task of understanding it and developing a thoughtful, Christian response to it is overwhelming.
But in the meantime, I can do something simple: I can do what I always do in the course of my ministry. I can listen, I can encourage, I can pray, I can welcome. I can “entertain,” sometimes unawares.
Originally from Australia, Mandy Smith is an artist and author and serves at University Christian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio. Mandy lives with her professor husband and two children in a little house where the teapot is always warm. Mandy’s latest book, Making a Mess and Meeting God: Unruly Ideas and Everyday Experiments for Worship, is available at www.standardpub.com/makingamess.
What is the DREAM Act?
The DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act was drafted by both Republicans and Democrats and would permit certain immigrant students who have grown up in the United States to apply for conditional nonimmigrant status and eventually become eligible for U.S. citizenship if they go to college or serve in the U.S. military.
Around 755,000 students could ultimately benefit under the DREAM Act, and even if those students jump through numerous hoops and become U.S. citizens, they can never sponsor distant family members—such as uncles and cousins. Immigration law doesn’t allow it.
The DREAM Act passed in the House on December 8, 2010. However, when it reached the Senate on December 18, 2010, it fell five votes short of passage.