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What It Means To Be American

This is the flag by the side of the highway in San Rafael, near the Canal, which has a large population of undocumented immigrants.

This is the flag by the side of the highway in San Rafael, near the Canal, which has a large population of undocumented immigrants.

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“They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” These were the words with which our current president, Donald J. Trump kicked off his campaign. He was referring to undocumented Mexican immigrants, a major community and workforce in the Bay Area. According to the San Jose Mercury News, there are an estimated over 360,000 undocumented immigrants living in the Bay Area, many of whom are from Mexico.

One such person is Lorena Ramirez de Hernandez who came to the United States from Mexico City when she was 16 and a half years old. Her younger brother and sister were with her. After she crossed the border by Tijuana, some coyotes (people who were paid to bring them over the border) put them in a car for a short drive and then the children needed to get out.

Ramirez with her 7 (and a quarter) year old son, Tony.

“They told us to get out from the car and we had to walk and hide under the bushes you know and be quiet. You know, if we see people walking by or anything we have to keep still. And I just remember the only thing, I [was] almost screaming is because I see red ants crawling up my elbows,” she said.

But she had to be strong for her little siblings, and she remembers reassuring them, as they waited for a long time. They were terrified, but Ramirez stayed strong and they used her example.

“I was like no, I have to be quiet. I’m glad they didn’t bite me because if probably they bite me, I would be screaming or crying, or I don’t know. That part was scary. We have to wait there for awhile, I don’t remember like exactly how many minutes-it was more than an hour, probably, not minutes. And we just have to wait there and just until they tell us ‘Ok, it’s free, get out and come back to the car,’ and you know we came back to the car and we get into the trunk again and they drove us all the way here to Santa Rosa,” she said.

(The drive from San Ysidro, where they were, to Santa Rosa takes over 10 hours).

Oscar* had a different but also terrifying experience. He also was helped across the border by Coyotes, but then they left him and his friend alone and vulnerable.

“At that moment they left, two boys arrived with guns. We kept saying that we gave them everything we had brought but for that reason, they approached me and put the gun to my head saying that if they found something hidden that [they would kill me],” he said.

Jose*, crossed the border by himself when he was 19 to try and find work and education in the United States.

“In Mexico, the maximum school you could go to was elementary school, and there was no money for anything new, like clothes. There was barely money for food,” he said.

He had to try multiple times to cross the border because he kept getting caught.

He had been in the United States for several years when he went back to Mexico and got married. They found out that his wife was several months pregnant a few months into their marriage, but they still tried to walk across the desert for days to cross the border. They were caught and sent back, but they tried again in a van and were successful.

A common feature of all of their stories, as all of them were leaving when they were quite young, was being scared to leave their families.

“In reality, it is very difficult to have to go away from your parents and siblings without knowing if you are going to see them again,” said Oscar.

They also all dealt with coyotes.

“Those were not the kind of people you wanted to meet. They were very scary, my siblings did not like them,” said Ramirez.

Now, each of these people has families and lives in the Santa Rosa area. Ramirez is an American citizen by marriage, and has used her status to help other undocumented immigrants.

She went back to school to help earn her AA degree and is now getting her BA from Sonoma State.

Jose also wants to go to school, and he has attended classes to learn English, but there have been various obstacles to him attending.

“They have classes on Mondays and Tuesday and Thursday, but it’s hard when I’m working all the time and I’m tired. Also after the fires [it has been hard],” he said.

Ramirez and her eldest daughter, both of whom speak very good English, went to the shelters after the fire to reassure people and to teach the children art.

After last year’s election, all three told me that their communities were very scared.

Hernandez talked to a man who wanted to flee the country with his family, but she convinced him to stay in order to give his children a better future.

“I told him, ‘You came here to help them, and to give them a dream. Let them live their dream,” she said.

This was interesting phrasing because undocumented children brought to the US are called Dreamers, and a bill is currently before Congress called the Dream Act that would give qualifying children a pathway to citizenship.

However, many prominent Republican congresspeople and the president have expressed strong objections to the Dream Act. One of those people is the president, who has been called racist by many for his attitude towards Mexican-Americans.

I asked each person how they felt about President Trump, and what they would say to him to change his mind about undocumented people.

“I would tell him to be more human. To not look at people and judge them by their race, or the color of their skin, and to be kind,” said Jose.

I also asked if each person identified as an American, and what they thought that meant.

“Being American means you have opportunities, and you can create more good for your family. I am happy to be from both countries, Mexican and American,” said Jose.

Ramirez, who was at the interview with her son, looked over at him and smiled.

“I am so proud to be American,” said Ramirez.

*Name kept confidential or changed for anonymity

Many thanks to Lizbeth Betances, who helped with translation and interviewing, and without whom this article would not have been possible.

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