Two hundred thousand is a number, twenty percent of a million. It’s an amount that is difficult to imagine, a little less than half the number of people who fit into Kyle Field, the stadium at Texas A&M University. If dollar bills representing this amount were stacked one on top of another they would be around ninety thousand feet high, forty five times higher than the largest building in the world. In other words the more we think about it, the more we realize that two hundred thousand is a very large number, and yet it still doesn’t quite register when a headline announces that two hundred thousand immigrants from El Salvador are quite suddenly in danger of losing the protection which has allowed them to live legally in the United States since the early nineteen nineties. A number does not really tell a story or reveal a human face, and yet with a flick of the pen an entire group of people has been lumped together in a move that does not take their individual struggles and successes into account.
Back in 1991, President George H.W. Bush gave citizens of El Salvador who were living in the United States temporary protective status after a devastating earthquake hit their native country. Every eighteen months the immigrants were required to pay hundreds of dollars in fees to maintain their work authorization. Most of them gladly performed the the required registrations rather than facing the growing violence and poverty in their home country. In the process the vast majority have become thoroughly integrated into the communities in which they live. They have held down jobs, purchased homes and raised families. They have been Americanized in almost every since other than becoming citizens and earning the right to vote. For the most part they began to take their status for granted as Presidents Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama continued their protective status, particularly in the face of the rise of dangerous gangs in El Salvador like MS13. The people thought that they would be safe here, and they built their lives around that belief. Now the Trump administration has suddenly announced that they will no longer enjoy protected status, throwing into question what will eventually happen to them unless Congress somehow provides them with a reprieve via immigration reform.
Most people don’t pay much attention to such actions because they do not affect them in any personal way, but I happen to know a lovely family whose lives have already been touched by this decision, and I am both fearful and heartbroken that they must endure the uncertainty that lies ahead. They are literally at the mercy of lawmakers who have no idea just how wonderful they actually are, and I worry that it will be more important to members of Congress to take a hard line to impress voters than to do the right thing. Friends of mine are in trouble and few people in the United States even care or want to know about them. It is a situation that makes me immeasurably sad, not just for this wonderful family but for the character of our country which has grown so seemingly cold hearted.
I learned of these Salvadorans when their daughter attended the high school where I was working. She was the eldest in her family, a young woman determined to take full advantage of the sacrifices that her parents had made to insure that she would have a good life. They had left their homeland behind in the hopes of protecting their child from the horrors that were unfolding there. They found solace in Houston, Texas and began working hard to prove themselves and to be role models for their children. They were quite successful in their quest to be the kind of people that we all hope to be. They attended church regularly and inculcated a strong value system in their children. They emphasized the need for education and encouraged their young ones to work hard. They paid their bills and saved their money and eventually became owners of a lovely home where their extended family lived together in great harmony.
Their daughter, who was one of my students and has over time become a dear friend, lived every single day with determination and gratitude. She earned a high school diploma with honors, demonstrating extraordinary leadership skills. She was selected to attend a youth conference in Washington D.C. where she shone so brightly that she was interviewed by NPR. She spoke with the grace and wisdom of the maturity that her parents had helped her to achieve. She went on to attend the prestigious Bauer School of Business at the University of Houston where she continued to demonstrate her exceptional attitude and abilities. She headed student organizations and maintained exemplary grades, eventually being highlighted as one of the premier students at the school. All the while her parents reregistered every eighteen months and did all that was asked of them. They were good people who more than deserved the protection that the government gave them. They and their children contributed to the welfare of our city, our state and our nation in extraordinary ways, and they were proud of their accomplishments.
This past December the young lady graduated from the University of Houston with honors. I was there to watch her walk across the stage and I rejoiced with her and her parents. I attended a gala at her home to celebrate her accomplishment with her many friends. Her boyfriend surprised her with a proposal of marriage on that evening, and it seemed as though all of the hopes and dreams that the family ever had were coming true. It was the happiest of times for all of us until news of the suspension of their protective status was announced. Now for the first time they are very afraid of what will happen to them. They wonder if all of their hard work will only lead them back to a place from which they fled. They worry that they will somehow be split apart. The situation has become an uncertain nightmare for them, and I find myself feeling so helpless. I want to do something for them, but have no idea what that might be. I feel their pain intensely and I grow more and more angry that they must endure this at all.
They are but a few of those two hundred thousand people who never thought that they would one day find themselves in such a situation of uncertainty. They are our students, our neighbors, members of our churches, hardworking employees, people about whom we truly care, and we want everyone else to really know them as we do. It is only when they become flesh and blood and real that it is so apparent that we cannot let them down. We must help them to stay in the place that is now most truly their home. We must ease their concerns and embrace them as the incredible people that they are. To do less is a travesty of the highest order.
I honestly don’t know what will happen. I cry at the though of somehow losing them. I pray with a sense of desperation that our lawmakers will find a sense of decency and fairness in their hearts and save them. My voice is so small, but I want to shout loudly from atop that ninety thousand foot platform of dollar bills that represents people like them. I want all of the world to understand the importance of demonstrating our collective compassion by reaching out to them in kindness. I want the uncaring attitudes that have made them so insecure to evaporate. I want all of us to think about who we are as people and to remember how many of us came from ancestors not so different from the members of this family and the other thousands who truly believed that they had found comfort in our midst. I want them to feel welcomed once again. I want their status to allow them to be one of us. I want everyone to see the face that we all must see.