He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt. Deuteronomy 10:18-19
Tucson, Ariz., -- A firm and familiar knock on the door alerts me that ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) has arrived with the families Casa Alitas is to receive for the day. I thank the ICE agent and in Spanish I welcome the new guests, offering them to enter the home and have a seat in the living room.
A few mothers and their children, confused as to where they are, timidly approach the couch. Two men follow behind the women; one man guiding the other, offering his shoulder and stability to a man who, from what I can tell, has a limp.
I begin with intake forms and call Maximiliano’s name from the sheet, asking him to follow me to the office. He expresses that he has trouble walking, and I offer my arm to guide him towards the back room.
I ask where he is from-Guatemala, how old he is-26, if he has any sickness or pain we should be aware of- just sadness, questions and answers that have all become part of my daily routine. But when I ask if anyone has been separated from him he answers yes, something that is always difficult to hear. Maximiliano’s 16-year-old nephew was separated from him and his seven-year-old daughter Kimberly at the U.S. Mexico border.
“He was my guide, he helps me to walk” says Maximiliano referring to his nephew who served as his legs during the 11-day journey.
He explained that the last time he saw his nephew was at the port of entry and asks me if I know where his nephew might be, if there is another shelter they could have taken him to. I explain to Maximiliano that his nephew is an unaccompanied minor in the eyes of the U.S. government, and unfortunately will not be able to leave as easily as they have.
West Coast MCC partner Casa Alitas provides hospitality by welcoming traveling migrant families to a temporary "casa" home to receive basic humanitarian aid.
It is estimated that there are more than 65 million displaced people worldwide. Since the beginning, MCC has been working with displaced people for nearly 100 years. – since our beginning. For migrating people like Maximiliano, we are committed to caring for the lives and futures of the uprooted and vulnerable people.
MCC photo/Katherine Smith
After the rush of intake forms, lunch, picking out new clothing, showers, and calls to loved ones, I sit at the kitchen table with Maximiliano, his daughter plays with the other children.
He is a small man from Guatemala, polite and humble, he is older than I, but refers to me in the usted form, a sign of respect. He begins to tell me that his mother passed away when he was three years old, and that his father suffered from the same condition, muscular dystrophy, and was immobile during max’s childhood until he too passed away when Max was just 16.
He shares with me that he had a good job in Guatemala; he owned two moto-taxis and a car, something not many can say coming from similar areas. He is proud to tell me about the two molinos or mills that he owned, which would be used by community members to grind corn for making tortillas.
He reminisces about driving around town, swimming for fun, and how he had to leave his wife and two young children behind. He tells me that he did not want to leave Guatemala, but that he did it for his daughter, who had begun to show symptoms of the same disease at the exact age he had began noticing symptoms himself.
“I want to find medical help for her,” says Maximiliano, “I don’t want her to grow up like I did,” stating that she already has it harder being a girl, and that he does not want people to discriminate against her.
We find a wheelchair for Maximiliano to use at the house and within a few days he and Kimberly have plane tickets to Los Angeles, where they will reunite with his sister in law.
I am the one to accompany them to the airport, assisting them through security and onward to the gate. Due to lack of identification the TSA agent calls over a border patrol agent to revise their official documents issued by homeland security.
As the BP agent approaches he questions Maximiliano in a stern tone, “where did they catch you?” “Does the girl’s mother know you took her?” “Who gave you these papers” “Why did they let you in?”
My face became hot and red, feeling anger towards this agent for asking such interrogating questions, and empathy for Max who does not know how to answer. He was not “caught,” he did not “take” his daughter. I wanted to interject and explain that he did not enter into the U.S. illegally but that he crossed at a port of entry and was granted entry through humanitarian parole in hopes of finding medical help for his daughter.
My heart beat fast as if something could go wrong, even though I was fully aware that there was no reason they should not let him pass through security, I could only imagine Maximiliano’s anxiety.
With more stress than necessary we passed through security and made it to the gate, I explained some legal information to Max, bought a few snacks for his daughter, and then we sat in silence, his mind was somewhere else.
Finally came the time to board the plane, and the gate agent came towards us to escort Max and his daughter to their seats. I said goodbye and touched his shoulder, he looked up at me and said thank you with tears in his eyes, I saw his emotions and felt his fear. I assured him with a hug and said that everything was going to be okay, that God would bless them. He was crying then as I signaled for the attendant to take them to their seats.
I watched him go down the runway his daughter walking by his side holding his hand and tears swelled in my eyes, as I knew this journey of living in the U.S. will be marked with difficulties and uncertainties.
For many, to leave one’s home country is a choice, and for others a necessity something of life and death. Maximiliano left Guatemala on his own accord, certainly not as a preference, but as a means of survival for his young daughter.
I recall as I drove Maximiliano to the airport I asked him how he felt to now be in the U.S., he replied with one word, “extraño” which means weird or strange. After some silence he went on, “There is a saying in Guatemala: “You don’t know what you have until you loose it.” Of course I had heard the same saying many times, and have used it myself, but never had it felt so heavy, so real.
He continued to say that he missed his children and wife, and that he now regretted the times that he had been at home and had not spent time with them, promising if he is ever to return that he will be more present.
Five months later Maximiliano is still looking for medical help for his daughter and a way forward. I do not believe that Maximiliano was naive to the fact that migrating to the U.S. would be difficult, but I do wish that I could have been more certain in my assurance at the airport, that everything would be okay, not only for him but for the thousands of others who find their selves in similar situations, uprooted from their homes by choice, but certainly not by preference.
MCC is committed to providing much needed immigration services such as legal documentation, support for families seeking asylum, and “know-your-rights” education for migrating families. MCC persists in calling for fair and compassionate immigration policies that align with the biblical mandate to care for and welcome foreigners.