Refugee children: An earlier immigrant knows what it's like

By Cesar Juarez
Special to the Mercury News

As an undocumented person and a soon-to-be high school teacher, I empathize and am deeply moved by the struggle of the refugee children on the border to have a better life.

When I hear stories of children in detention centers, the image that comes to mind is young adults wearing caps and gowns ready to walk the stage in a graduation ceremony. These children will be future engineers, nurses, doctors, teachers, social workers, inventors, scientist, entrepreneurs and organizers that this country needs to prosper.

I know this will happen because the journey of the refugees on the border is similar to my own journey.

I also arrived in the United States at an age similar as the thousands of refugees from Central America and other parts of Western Hemisphere. In the summer of 1993 at the age of seven, I arrived in San Jose. My mom had made the difficult decision to leave her home in Mexico to travel to the U.S. with my older brother and me for two reasons. The first was to escape a death threat that Mexican authorities had refused to investigate and to provide protection. She feared not only for her own life but the safety of her two young children. The second reason was to be reunited with my father, who had lived in the U.S. for many years. She wanted my brother and me to grow up in a household that had both a mother and a father.

We lived the typical experience of an undocumented family: economic status wavered from being poor to working-class, parents paying taxes but being denied basic benefits and rights, children in public schools learning English and civics -- and living in constant fear of family separation. Even with these hurdles, both my brother and I graduated from San Jose State University. Now, my brother is starting a small animation business and I'm finishing up my secondary education credential program.

We are able to pursue these careers through Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the program created as a response to the immigrant rights movement to provide some relief to undocumented people who came here as children. The Obama administration used executive power to craft the program that gives a two-year employment authorization to immigrants that meet rigid requirements. Many of the people who now want to deport the children at the border are also fighting to put an end to this program.

Unfortunately, our immigration status continues to be undocumented. The DREAM Act or more extensive immigration reform, if passed by Congress, would give us legal status.

When hearing San Jose resident Geovana at a PACT press conference testifying about her daughter Diana, who has been locked up for over a month in Texas, or hearing politicians' desire to massively deport children, I could just imagine what future generations will be thinking of this: Those in power did an inhumane thing.

Let us do the right thing and be guided by love and not hate. Children and their relatives who come here to be reunited with family already living in the United States do not pose a threat. They are the embodiment of hope.

I hope you can see these children as I and many others see them: an opportunity to show future generations that we did the right thing and accepted them to our society.