Elena was only four. Starry-eyed, childlike innocence laced with the naivety that accompanied living only a short and quiet life. She played with homemade dolls and teacups as those her age should do. She is a child, in all meanings of the word. She is safe, not because of her budding youth, but because she is not one of the many undocumented immigrants.
He was only 12 when he made the arduous trek to the beloved land of prosperity. In his motherland, rumors spoke of opportunity, and more importantly, safety. Blessings too often missed in the carnage he once called home. The United States, he decides, is his new home now.
Customarily, the boy worked tirelessly every day until he was 30. He never complained when he was financially compensated less than his documented coworkers. He volunteered to work overtime until his nailbeds were sullied with dirt and calluses pulsed. He maintained his health in mint condition, for the forbidden chance he would become physically incapable of supporting his only love.
He was happy, because this was a salvation that he would never take for granted and that countless never get. He owed it to Elena, American-born, to stay by her side through all walks of life. To see her become whatever profession she deems her destiny. To see her wed the one for whom she cares. To see her children, his future grandchildren. To live freely in the place that they both called home.
However, he is not safe. Unlike his daughter, he is undocumented. In the eyes of their home, he is a danger.
* * *
The story of this man and his daughter is only one of millions, all lived and ended differently. But one peril prevails throughout each of their lives: fear.
Undocumented immigrants live a life entirely encompassed by fear. The fear of confrontation from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) persistently presents itself at the forefront of their minds, driving the choices they make every day.
So much so, Maria Chavalan Sut claims she never leaves the safety of her sanctuary — a church providing refuge for undocumented migrants. A place of worship ICE is forbidden to intrude. Chavalan Sut left her home in Guatemala after it was burned down and she was threatened with death.
She sought asylum in 2015 and submitted a notice to plead her case. ICE accepted the case, yet never assigned her a date or time for her court appearance, causing her to miss her own hearing and revoking her chance of a better life. ICE proceeded to deport her for absence of a valid reason to stay.
Her case is not unique. Myriads of other undocumented immigrants deliberately avoid traveling from place to place in fear of being stopped, because being caught means they strip their families of the chance at salvation.
A rural physician who privately treats undocumented immigrants recalls: “These people are here to support their loved ones. Sometimes, they make difficult sacrifices by leaving their family in their home countries, so they can work here and send the money back. I’ve held their hands as they sobbed over the death of loved ones, because they cannot go back to see them. They have a duty here, and it is to work.”
Those who flee their countries do so because they have no other choice. The homes they love in their hearts are too often riddled with gangs that recruit children before they can even finish primary school. These same children are recruited for guerrilla warfare, where they become child soldiers fighting for corrupt national regimes of which they have no understanding. Some are coerced into becoming cooks, while others are subject to sexual abuse.
Families opt to relocate to the United States in promise of a higher working wage. The pay in countries they come from are so meager, food can be more of a privilege than a necessity, even for families who harbor working professionals.
Undocumented immigrants put their lives on the line to chase livable circumstances. The journey to America is precarious, fraught with illness, starvation and even death. Their desperation, visceral enough to sacrifice their own lives and those of their children, is prompted by the abhorrent conditions in their countries. Inevitably, many do not survive.
But for those who do, their battle does not end once they reach the imaginary line of sanctuary. These asylum seekers fight every day for a minute taste of freedom, only to be criminalized as heartless felons taking advantage of a democracy.
Under the current U.S. presidency, undocumented immigrants live in more fear than ever before. With constant threats of ICE raiding their newfound homes, some immigrants have left to seek refuge in other countries with more open-minded policies.
However, to many, this is where they have lived their entire lives. They know nothing beyond American culture. They are not villains, but workers putting the food on our tables, feeding our children so they can make enough money to feed theirs. Many come from highly educated professions, such as medicine and engineering, but eagerly relinquish their stethoscopes for gloves to pick produce in fields — a job farm owners affirm any other American man could never hold for more than a few hours.
Undocumented immigrants are here to work, and they do their jobs with unparalleled persistence. In their eyes, hard work is not a choice —it is a matter of life and death.
Contrary to common belief, these workers pay taxes alongside every documented American, yet they receive no government benefits that taxpayers are entitled to, such as food stamps, voting rights or healthcare.
They identify just as American as anyone who has the papers to prove it, but their lives remain untold secrets to protect themselves and their families.
* * *
Elena clings to her father through the night in fear of losing him. Her fear becomes so ingrained, she spends two hours a week with her therapist to cope with her anxiety. The anxiety no child should have to bear.
She is not an undocumented immigrant, so this country tells her she is safe. It does not matter that she is afraid to open the door of her own home, or that she refuses to go to school, believing she’d return to an empty house. It does not matter that her father is undocumented, because she is safe. Despite feeling anything but.
Even at such a tender age, she understands that her father can be instantly stripped from her, leaving her alienated with no one to love and no one to love her back.
The girl who is meant to play with homemade dolls and teacups, now plays with fear.
* * *
Disclaimer: Real names are withheld to protect the identities of the individuals.