The stories of immigrants coming to the United States are as diverse as the people who have lived them. There are people in this country who came simply because they knew the U.S. to be a “land of opportunity," and others to flee the dangers of wars, drug cartels, religious persecution, and gangs. Some were displaced by natural disasters that destroyed their homes and left them with nothing, and others to reunite with their families. In other words, we must listen to the reasons why immigrants come to the United States so that we can better learn how to support them, rather than fear them.
My own mother came to the U.S. in the 1980s while the nation she was born and raised in was ravaged by a civil war. Born into a dictatorship, she grew up in the midst of a coup that led to a communist uprising. She came to this country because my father, her husband, was forced to flee at the start of the war. He didn’t want to fight for either side (knowing neither would bring about the kind of good they promised), and was put on a kill list as a result. My mother was pregnant, though, so she decided to stay behind.
She gave birth and waited until my brother was 3 before she left her homeland (including her job as a teacher, and all of her family and friends) to join my father in Miami, Florida. I was born in the United States because she was willing to sacrifice everything to reunite her family and leave the constraints of a regime behind. She wanted her son to have a better life and more access to opportunities, and make no mistake my brother and I have had more opportunities because of her sacrifice.
I spoke with some immigrant moms (and first generation moms) who told the stories of why they were here in the United States. Hopefully, if you’re still unsure as to why people leave their lives behind in their countries of origin to start over in a new, foreign, and even hostile land, their answers will clear things up:
“I came to the U.S. six years ago to give my son a better future and to find a place to live in peace. We are from Venezuela, and even though when we left the situation wasn’t as bad as it is now, my husband and I lived in constant stress. The city had become so dangerous that we were afraid to even go out to pick up milk after 6:00 p.m. We were both professionals with good jobs. We owned our home and had no debt, but if we wanted to buy a car we had to sign on a waiting list or bribe someone. We had to become ‘diaper hoarders’ because the government regulated the price of diapers, inducing scarcity and making it hard to find the brand that didn’t give our son a rash. All these reasons may seem little when you compare them to brutal violence from war or gangs or even political persecution, but they add up to make [a life lived in] constant stress. It is like a psychological and emotional war and we didn’t want to raise our son in that environment.”
“We were escaping el sendero luminoso. They were a terrorist group that were known to attack big farms and kill people who didn’t agree with them. They took pride on ruining our crops and food source, and this is how inflation started and people didn’t have food. My mom would have to wait hours in line to get just one gallon of milk and eggs. This was how we were suppose to survive for a month. We were lucky that my dad was here in the States already, so he saved just enough money for my mom and only one of her daughters. She made the incredibly impossible decision to choose one of us. My sister was 2 and I was 6. My mom had to decide me because she feared that I had the most memory and cognition to remember my mom leaving me behind. It took 22 months for my sister to finally come to the States. My mom found a job and worked along with my dad to save the money to finally bring my sister. She’s one of the strongest people I know, but this broke her. I remember her crying almost every night for my sister. There were a lot of difficult moments. My mom got a cleaning job at the airport, but she had to work during the night. My dad also worked nights. They both left me alone during the night by myself because we didn’t know anyone here. Also, there’s no daycare or night-care for parents under these circumstances. It was hard for me to sleep at night cause I was so scared without my parents.
Back in Peru, my mom didn’t work so I was used to having her around all the time. I also had my cousins who lived with me, and of course my little sister. But here I was alone. I see now how they really had no other choice. They both had to save money so we could survive and to bring my sister. During this time that my sister was in Peru, she remembers el sendero luminoso shooting a woman in the back. She remembers this vividly. This is what most Peruvians had to experience on a day-to-day basis. Now that I’m a mom myself, I don’t know how she did that. It always easy to judge if you’re not the one in that situation. We didn’t have food and with two parents working here in the U.S., my sister didn’t need anything. My mom made sure that she was taken care of. My aunt took my mom’s place in the aspect of being like a mother to my sister. My sister still calls my aunt ‘mama.’”
“I have been thinking hard what makes an American 'American.' America was built on the premise of having a better life. And once they came here, it was hard. They left their family, their village, their friends, their language, culture, country, to have a better life. And nothing would stop them. That is the true American Spirit. I came to the U.S. from France when I was 20 years old. I wanted a better life. I wanted to explore. I wanted to be somewhere where no one could tell me who I could be and who I could not. I left everything and everyone behind for the opportunity to have a better life. I now have three children, born here, and frankly, I feel more American than them or than the ones who have been here for generations. They become like the old Europeans, anchored and don't embrace the pioneer spirit anymore. Yes, I came here to have a better life, knowing it would be hard, because in America no one gives you anything except a chance to prove yourself. You have to make it on your own. That is why this country is so great. It's based on hard work, determination, will, and a faith in something better.”
“My mom comes from South Korea. She was born in a very poor area of Pusan. She is the eldest of five children. Her father was forced to work as part of the Japanese Imperial Army during their occupation during that time. My mother was very young. Since she was the eldest, she worked hard to help take care of her siblings and sacrificed education. We are not sure how much she completed. My mother married my father and legally became a U.S. citizen a decade later. Although she never needed to work, she continues to work to this day to provide for her brothers and sisters. She has helped pay for education, housing, healthcare, and more.”
“My mother came to the U.S. from Cuba in 1968, 10 years after the revolution. Being of the upper and professional class, my mom and her family were obviously disenfranchised by the revolution. However, they did not move immediately. What prompted their flight was finding out that her father, my grandfather, was to be sent to the cane fields for re-education. My grandfather had been a soldier in Batista's army and had fought against the revolutionaries. He had then been put in the barracks when they were trying to weed out corruption. My grandfather, however, was not found to be guilty of any wrongdoing and was released. He even worked as a judge under Castro for years. But since he was still seen as a loyalist, they targeted him for re-education in the late '60s when Castro decided to model Cuba after the USSR after the death of Che Guevara. So my mother and her whole family fled when she was 15. They were given permission to go with only the clothes on their back since at that time the government was more concerned with having people they believed to be loyal to the new government.”
“My mom and her parents came over from Brasil because of the military coup in the '60s. My grandfather had been a butcher, but there was no more meat. I'm not clear on how they were able to come, like who their sponsors were. But my grandfather's sister, her husband, and their three kids came at the same time. My grandmother was eight or nine months pregnant with twins when they come. She gave birth two weeks after arriving in the United States.”
“My mom came on a plane all alone when she was just 10-years-old in 1960. Her mom had to send her on a plane by herself to meet her aunt who was waiting for her here. My two others aunts left that way as well. I can’t imagine how my grandmother must have felt sending her little girls all alone across an ocean. They left Cuba escaping communism.”