By Allison Dethlefs, ’15
Although immigration – and especially illegal immigration – is often seen as a political issue, I’ve come to see immigration more and more as a human issue: an issue of human rights, dignity, and decency.
As a declared Spanish major and a possible Justice and Society major, I have always been drawn to Latino culture, but I had never made immigration a personal issue for me until I saw it from a different, closer perspective.
I began to help teach ESL (English as a Second Language) classes with the Pixan Ixim service site every Wednesday evening through the Center for Service and Justice.
I’ve always known there’s a big Hispanic population in Omaha. I’ve walked around the shops on 24th Street in South Omaha and heard my dad tell me stories about his patients at OneWorld Community Health Center, 90% of whom are Spanish-speaking.
But this was different.
There, I met “Daniela” and “Alberto,” a couple who have lived in Omaha for eighteen years, work at the Tyson Food manufacturing plant, and still speak only the most basic English, struggling to learn present tense verbs and pronounce sounds completely foreign to their lips. I watched tears come to Daniela’s eyes as she expressed her deep desire to learn English, her frustration at not being able to communicate, and the sadness she felt when people at work could not understand her pronunciation and told her to “Go learn English!”
I met “Angela,” a middle-aged woman with an easygoing sense of humor who told us about the difficulty she had communicating with her bilingual children.
I met three teenage boys—my age—who could do little more than introduce their names in English and who will likely never have the opportunities that I have to get a college education.
I also had the opportunity to watch the documentary 9500 Liberty, which shows the conflict surrounding a community broken over the “probable cause” proposal that would allow police to pull people over if they had probable cause to suspect that they were illegal immigrants. This film did an excellent job of bringing to light different sides of the issue and the views of those it ended up involving—really, the entire community. At points, I found myself outraged by the blindness, accusations, and unfounded positions of some of the people. This legal war tore up the community, uprooted families who had been living there for decades, and sowed seeds of anger and mistrust between all those it affected.
These people and pictures have made it real. They have made me picture what it would be like to enter a foreign country as a complete outsider—not to steal other people’s jobs, or escape paying taxes, or ruin the economy, but because I needed desperately to find a way to provide for my family.
I tried to imagine how difficult it would be to have to find work in a low-paying, demanding job, to find a place to live, to form relationships with people, and to find a balance between becoming a part of a new culture and keeping my own—all without knowing the language of the country. I also tried imagining what it would be like if all the while I had people telling me to “just learn their language” or telling me to go back to a home where I couldn’t survive.
And so, the more I think about it, the more I’ve begun to see that immigration, while often framed as a political matter, is really an issue about people. It’s about protecting the human rights and dignity of all people, no matter what language they speak, or what country they come from, or what color their skin is. It’s about showing respect for the cultures and situations of others and trying to understand where they are coming from, instead of simply lumping them into a group of “illegals” or outsiders.
I may not be able to change much or make a huge impact on the people dealing with these issues, but what it really comes down to for me is awareness. After all, it’s only now that I’ve begun to expand my horizons and become aware of how significant this issue is in our community and have a desire to do something about it.
I firmly believe that we are called to become world citizens who are aware of the needs and suffering of those in our own communities and beyond. All people may not be able to participate in a semester abroad or a service trip outside the country to help them fully grasp what it means to be part of a different culture, but all people can do something.
It’s as simple as strolling along 24th Street in South Omaha, breathing in the culture that emanates from every direction, and realizing that you’re one of the only native English speakers around. It’s as easy as taking the time to watch a documentary, listen to a speech, or try volunteering with a group with which you’re not familiar. It’s as straightforward as talking to someone from a different culture about his or her background and customs and being open to hearing other people’s views, opinions, and ideas.
We are not called to live in ignorance. We are not called to shut out the problems and hardships of others, even if it means spending time and effort to reach a position on difficult and messy issues that have no clear answers, such as that of illegal immigration.
It may mean giving up being comfortable in our own little worlds.
As the saying goes, the question is not, ‘Who are you to change the world?’ but ‘Who are you not to?’ And the first step to changing the world is simply taking a breath and opening your eyes.
The names of those mentioned in this article have been changed.
The CCSJ blogs are meant to be a place for Creighton students, faculty, staff, alumni/ae, and friends to reflect on their experiences with programs sponsored by the office or related to its mission. The views expressed in these reflections, and all other blogs found on or linked to from this website, are those of the individual authors and are not necessarily those of Creighton University, the Creighton Center for Service and Justice (CCSJ), or any of the University’s affiliates. The University and the CCSJ are not responsible for the actions, content, accuracy, or opinions expressed in these blogs.