Vasquez: The pursuit of a better life America's founding dream

It was her parents’ dream for her that made her cry at first.

Her parents dreamed of a better life for her and for her brothers and sisters, and so they made plans to immigrate to America.

It took them more than five years to complete the required paperwork, but it was worth the effort. They brought their family to a place of opportunity and hope.

Liz was 10 when her parents told her the family was coming to live in America.

She cried. She was afraid of a new place, of a language she didn’t understand, and leaving all those she loved back home in Michoacán, Mexico.

But her parents wanted the American dream for their children — education, opportunity and a life free from pervasive drug crime and gang violence. They were willing to start from scratch to build a safe, productive and peaceful life in the U.S. for their children.

Liz’s experience as an immigrant has molded her into a thoughtful, introspective and confident young woman.

She recalls with clarity the fear and frustration she felt attending a school where she didn’t understand the language. But she also recalls the kindnesses shown her as she struggled to learn and to fit in.

Liz has also experienced the disappointment and pain of living with brown skin in a white world that doesn’t always accept her. She explains the simple truth with kind eyes and a gentle smile — while we may look different on the outside, we are all the same on the inside.

She recalls an Anglo teacher in her first American school who noticed her distress and realized she was struggling with English. He took the time to talk with her in Spanish and assure her that things would get better.

She said that he told her to never be afraid of who she was. She carries that wisdom today, so is not afraid.

Alfredo’s story is much darker, but quite typical for the many immigrants who come to America seeking only to find work, enabling them to send money back home to support their families.

Alfredo tried many times to cross into the U.S. from Mexico. He paid large sums of money to join groups of hopefuls led by “coyotes,” who earn their money promising safe but illegal passage into the States.

When a number of efforts failed — when he and his comrades were repeatedly caught and sent back — Alfredo decided to attempt a crossing with a lone partner. This began a harrowing journey into the Arizona desert that nearly led to his death.

Unsure of their location, the men wandered for nearly two weeks, running dangerously low on food and water.

Then they happened on a group of Native Americans living in a very remote area. They were provided with food, water and directions to civilization.

Alfredo did not come to America to get in line for entitlements offered by social services agencies. He didn’t come to get food stamps, or free health care or housing vouchers. He came for one thing only — work.

At home in Mexico, he could find none, and his family was struggling. So he continually risked life and liberty to get to a place where he could do the backbreaking manual labor that few Americans are willing to undertake.

He nearly died on the way, just so he could toil here in the shadows, always in fear of discovery. He did it out of love for his family.

The stories of Liz and of Alfredo captured my heart as I pondered the effort, commitment and determination it takes for immigrants to get here.

People the world over aspire to come to America.

Some seek asylum, fleeing war or genocide, or the horrors of a gang-infested homeland. Others are fleeing the hopelessness that only poverty and scarce opportunity can inflict.

Whatever their reasons, those who dream of coming to America arrive here with the hope of a better life for themselves and, more importantly, their children.

The issue of illegal immigration is a problem unto itself — a problem for which responsibility must be shared in part by those choosing to enter the U.S. without documentation, but perhaps more so by the businesses and industries here that depend on this type of labor to operate.

This quiet invitation — this siren song to the desperate — lures people without hope back home to break American law and to pay outrageous sums to human smugglers. They do it in the thin hope of finding work and a better life in this country.

While businesses obtain the laborers who will make them successful, those who respond to the call are greeted with the crushing burden of an ever-uncertain future. They pay millions in taxes on their meager wages, in exchange for benefits most of them will never see.

It is an added tragedy when legally arriving immigrants are confused with those who did not follow the law. This magnifies the challenges they face.

Sadly, one cannot distinguish an immigrant here legally from one here illegally. So, all too often, those who look different, dress different or speak different are all categorized as interlopers and treated accordingly.

Those who resent immigrants, or fear them, or find them unworthy, need to remember that they seek the same hopeful future that our own forefathers sought.

In this respect, all immigrants are alike — from the first American colonists of 1607 to newcomers arriving today. Each and every one brings hopes and dreams and the conviction that — in America — life will be better.

In fact, many newcomers appreciate America more than we who were born here, precisely because of their struggle to get here. Many value America — cherish it even — more than we do.

They do not view the American dream as a point of personal privilege. They worked and sacrificed to come, and they remain willing to continue that work to build the better life they want for their families.

Many of us born here take this place for granted. Too often we betray our birthright by forgetting that our predecessors struggled and sacrificed to come here generations before.

As with today’s immigrants, they fled the tragedies of their own times. They did this so all of us now can have the lives we enjoy. 

Liz, now a proud U.S. citizen, so wisely observed that if we just give one another a chance, we will see that we have more in common than we realize.

Guest Writer Erma Vasquez retired as assistant director of the Oregon Youth Authority. Earlier in her career, she taught high school English and served as a child protective services worker with the state Department of Health & Human Services. A longtime resident of McMinnville, she enjoys reading, cooking, spoiling her cats and traveling with her husband, Lee, also retired. 



Thank you for reminding us that the vast majority of immigrants are not drug dealers & rapists as described by those with a political ax to grind. They are hard working people doing a needed service for US businesses. A large percentage pay taxes & social security with the knowledge that they will never collect benefits.

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