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Another Voice: Immigrants should be treated with compassion

By Tamara O. Alsace

I was touched by the “Immigrants on the run find a safe space here” (May 21 Buffalo News) and commend Joelle and Mark Herskind for their kindness and willingness to help. My encounter with a Salvadoran family fleeing to Canada did not end as happily.

Recently, a friend from Arlington, Va., called to tell me a family she knew had crossed to Canada that day, fleeing due to the uptick in immigration raids under the current administration. Angel and Elena, both undocumented, had lived in Arlington for 15 years. They had two children together, ages 8 and 3, both born in Arlington. Elena’s 18-year-old child from a previous relationship, Ben, was raised by Angel since he was 3 and was protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program. The family had spent a month at a Lancaster motel, barely scraping by while awaiting their appointment with Canadian immigration officials.

With two brothers in Canada, Angel planned to request asylum for the whole family. He would be eligible under the “third country exception.” Unfortunately, Elena was only his common-law wife. With no marriage certificate, she was ineligible, as was Ben, who was not Angel’s blood relative. Angel and the younger children were accepted into Canada but Elena and Ben were returned to the U.S.

Elena was sent to await deportation at a county jail south of Buffalo while Ben, alone and with few resources, would have to find his way back to Virginia and pick up the fragments of his shattered life alone. Having been linked via text message by our mutual friends, I chose to pick up Ben and offer what help I could. I lost communication with him once he reached the United States and was told by the Border Patrol it would be hours before he was released. I found out later that Ben’s phone had been taken away. He had been questioned about who I was and told he would never see me.

Hours later, I received a call from Ben saying he was being released and that immigration agents asked if I had proof of citizenship. When I arrived, one agent barked questions at me while brusquely throwing Ben’s bags in the back of my SUV. Two others gave Ben his paperwork and wished him luck.

As the agents walked away, Ben burst into tears saying, “I just want to be with my mother.” All I could do was give him shelter for the night and put him on a Greyhound bus back to Arlington, his single good luck charm the Matchbox car his brother gave him before they were separated.

This family embodies the “nuances of the humanity of the challenge” referred to by Dr. Myron Glick, medical director of Jericho Road Community Health Center, in the article.

If more Americans witnessed the heartbreaking circumstances of a family being torn apart, more might reconsider their stance and realize each situation is different and complex. We must seek humane solutions to immigration policy reform.

Tamara O. Alsace, Ph.D., is the daughter of immigrants from the Dominican Republic. She is the retired director of multilingual education for the Buffalo School District.

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