Young and Undocumented

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A Christian's experience of moving to the United States from Mexico

Juan*, now 27, moved with his family to the United States from Mexico more than 13 years ago. After attending high school and community college in northwest Iowa, he now works at a local store and is deeply involved in his church. As a Christian, Juan believes God is working all the parts of his life together, including his undocumented status. Dordt College student Adrianna Oudman recently sat down with him for a conversation about his experience.


*Name has been changed.

When did your family move to the United States?

December 1996.

Was anyone from your family here earlier?

Yeah. My dad came first, and he stayed with my uncle. He worked for a year or so and then went back. He worked in Mexico, but it didn’t work out. He came again, and then he brought the whole family.

Why did you decide to move?

Well, life was a lot tougher back then. You think the economy is bad here? You don’t know nothing. The economy’s worse there. It’s hard to find a job, too. There might be work here and there, but it doesn’t pay as good and you work long hours.

I was 14, my brother was 16, and my sister was 12, so we didn’t have a say. We came here because of my parents’ choice.

My dad and mom didn’t like our city in Mexico for us growing up. There were a lot of drugs, gangs, violence. Some people got stabbed in the street. There’s a lot of superstition and witchcraft there too. . . . It’s a funky little place. One of my friends from next door carried a gun in his backpack.

The area here—it’s a nice area to grow up. Immigrants might have something good in their country, like family, but they’re looking out for their kids, so they move.

What was it like to come to the States?

I think there was just one Hispanic family in our high school besides mine. It was difficult to learn English, but it was easier compared to some people today. I had no translators, and the other Hispanic students in high school wouldn’t talk to me in Spanish. We pretty much had to speak English right away. We had to figure it out on our own, so we picked up more that way, I think.

Now a lot of people don’t even have to speak English, I guess. Some of them don’t even make an effort. They come here to work for a year or so, save up, then go back to pay off their house or start a business.

What was the hardest part of moving to the States?

I missed my church. I really liked my pastor [in Mexico]. We were really good friends, and I was just starting to take pastor classes because I was friends with my pastor and the music leader. My family has gone to church all the time, but that’s when I decided on my own, “God is good. I like this.” That’s when I made my profession of faith. Then we had to go, and I was sad.

Do the immigrants you know go back to their countries, or do they stay here?

I’ve never been back to Mexico in all this time. I think for Guatemalans, Salvadorans, Hondurans it’s harder, especially for those who cross the desert or more than one border. When they finally reach the promised land, they’re like, “Heck, all I’ve gone through, I’m not going back.” It’s not worth it after all the sacrifice. My uncle spent a whole week walking with a group of other people just to get to the United States. They had nothing but tortillas and jugs of water, but they made it.

Some people never make it. Some drown in the river, some get mugged and killed. A lot of people save up to pay people to take them across the border, and the crossers take advantage of them. Instead of helping them cross, they send them back or kill them.

How do you reconcile being a Christian and an undocumented immigrant?

Well, the authorities told the apostles not to do things anymore, and they said, “What’s first, obey God or obey men?” We had a pastor who was illegal in Mexico. Eventually he worked out his visa so he could stay in Mexico legally, but he had a mission. I think it’s all in God’s purpose.

We know we’re here illegally in the States, but we try to do the best we can and not break the law. I guess our only mistake, or flaw, is being here. But I don’t know—I do see my parents’ situation. They wanted to give us a better life. What do we do? Some people don’t consider it a sin to try to find food for their family. It’s debatable, I guess.

Just because we cross the border to find a better life, we’re criminals? Tough to say.

As a Christian, it’s in the back of my mind, “Oh, I wish I wasn’t illegal here.” I bet it’s the same for most people.

Isn’t it difficult to live here without legal documentation?

It is hard. It’s hard because you can’t get a license, and they require a license for a lot of things, like a bank account. They’re making it easier for insurance, but if you don’t have a license, you can’t get insurance. If you get pulled over, you get a ticket for driving with no license. You can’t get insurance, and that’s another ticket.

A lot of kids are being brought up here not knowing they’re illegal until they grow up. The kids know perfect English and everything. Some of them can’t even read Spanish. . . .

You could be working here for years, but you can’t reclaim any taxes. They collect them automatically from the paycheck, but we never get anything back.

Is mistreatment around here a problem?

A lot of people get abused in the States. Maybe not around here as much, but they pay less because they know the immigrants need to work—that’s why they came. They pay less, no benefits, overtime, nothing. I don’t see that as much here as I hear about from other parts.

What do you think should be done about documents?

Will it be OK to give visas to all Hispanics? I don’t know. There are a lot of Hispanics in Texas and California. Lately, there’s a lot of Hispanics here too. When we arrived, we knew the Hispanics in the area. Now we don’t even know how many there are.

Is there any way people can help undocumented Hispanics?

Just pray. In the Bible, God says to do justice, help the widow, the poor, and the extranjero—the alien. It doesn’t tell you how, but it tells you not to take advantage of them. Pay the worker well. Help the widow, the orphan, the poor, the foreigners because you were foreigners once in Egypt. I guess it comes back to doing good and not evil.

The people of Israel had quite a time getting away from Egypt. What is it like for immigrants today?

It’s a risk. People of all ages try. There’s pregnant ladies, children, older people. If you’re going to do it, it’s a big decision. It’s something to think about, especially when you’re going to move with the whole family.

Is it worth the risk?

It has been, I think. It has been.

FOR DISCUSSION:

  1. Are you an immigrant or a descendent of immigrants? Why did your ancestors leave their country of origin?
  2. What is your current political stance on immigration reform?
  3. What inspired or enlightened you in Juan’s story? What discouraged you?
  4. What do you think God requires of us as we deal with the issue of immigration and immigrants themselves?
  5. How do we maintain civility with those who disagree with us?


About the Author

Adrianna Oudman, from Wheatfield, Ind., is a student at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, where she is majoring in Spanish and theology, with a missions emphasis. She has worked with Hispanic people in a variety of settings in the United States and abroad.