I grew up in the 90’s, before financial meltdowns and global crises. I attended conservative Baptist churches around Houston, Texas. They were all filled with politically independent folk (though in college I learned that a Texas Independent is a conservative who doesn’t want to be involved). In many ways my upbringing wasn’t too different than that of my peers. However, there is one exception that I value: I met, worked with, and made friends with immigrants who happened to be undocumented.
My first job was as a machine shop shipping clerk. I was probably a little young, but during the summer I was able to earn a few bucks and develop a taste for new and shiny bicycle parts. However, it wasn’t the money or what the money bought me that has lasted. When I think about that time, my friends and the people I worked with were a highlight.
I don’t remember everyone, though a few names still linger. When I first came to work, I was inexperienced and intimidated. Being the youngest didn’t help, but when my coworkers would speak Spanish, I had to strain, waiting for an occasional word of English to give me some clue as to the subject of conversation. They also spoke English, but their accents ranged from barely noticeable to very strong. Slowly I began to understand some words and eventually felt accepted by this small group of hard-working men.
I first learned that some of them were undocumented on the day that one of them took a vacation. An older man named Tino brought it to my attention that our friend was going back to Mexico to renew marriage vows with his wife. The words “He might get caught and not come back,” shocked me. I didn’t respond, because I didn’t know how or what to say. It was a complicated situation. Wedding vows are important, and getting caught keeps him from earning a living. But my friend came back a couple weeks later, and everything went on as usual. I returned every summer until I went off to college, something these young men my age didn’t have the opportunity to do.
Fast forward ten years, and I look around and see Latino immigrants being demonized to no end as the U.S. economy proves difficult to fix. Jobs, taxes, upholding laws and security are all being cited as reasons to treat Latinos and their families in ways that citizens would not want to be treated themselves. I’ve seen firsthand how Latino workers hold jobs that I qualified for as an inexperienced teenager their whole lives – jobs that rewarded me so little that I left to get easier, better-paying employment at the first chance. These people – my friends – deserve more than to be thrown to the curb at the first sign of trouble. Difficult economic times do not give us the license to scapegoat or demonize our new neighbors. We are all in this together.
-Keith Gustine, NC Council of Churches Intern