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Community Voices: A child of immigrant parents speaks out

Pierre R. Berastaín

My family immigrated to the United States on December 18, 1998 after years of socioeconomic hardships.

In Dallas, my father found employment in a moving company, often working over 16 hours every day of the week while my sister and I attended school and our mother helped the family get settled. Eventually, my mother found employment as a babysitter.

In Peru, my father owned a company and my mother worked as a television producer for the Department of Education and for Defensa Civil, the equivalent of FEMA in the United States. Both were successful individuals, but during the instability of the Fujimori regime, my parents lost everything.

Both of them held university degrees, but as is the case with many professional immigrants to the United States, my parents saw themselves relegated to unfulfilling work.

On the day of our arrival, my sister and I spoke no English. Over the next several months, we would learn how to ask permission to go to the bathroom, how to tell a stranger where we had come from, and how to ask for directions.

From the beginning, my parents placed significant emphasis on our education, and we quickly learned that the quality of our schools depended on the geography of where we lived. Armed with this knowledge, my father asked me to research better school districts in the Dallas area so that we could relocate.

Years passed and I excelled in my studies and was accepted to the Academy of Biomedical Professions at R.L. Turner High School in Carrollton, Texas.  In 2006, I enrolled at Harvard College where I graduated with honors after completing my major in social anthropology, a minor in ethnic studies, and earned a Certificate of Language Proficiency in Portuguese.

On the day of my graduation in 2011, I began to feel — truly feel — that I would no longer have to dance to obtain an avocado or a peach and that my mother would no longer have to cry, wondering whether I would have to sell candy in the streets. My father would never again be abducted at gunpoint while on his rounds as a taxi driver in the streets of Lima.

I no longer wondered whether my family would have to choose between rice and toilet paper. On that day — May 26, 2011 — I knew my future was a little more secure than it had been the day before.

After graduating from college, I enrolled at Harvard Divinity School to pursue my Master of Divinity (M.Div.). I am the recipient of the Thomas E. Upham Scholarship, an award given by Harvard University’s Committee on General Scholarships to a graduate student committed to public service. Academically, I concentrate on Christianity and the processes of restorative justice.

Professionally, I work at Renewal House, a domestic violence shelter in Boston, Mass., and serve as the co-chair of the GLBT Domestic Violence Coalition in Massachusetts. I also work for the Hispanic Black Gay Coalition, and have organized a number of efforts to raise funds for underprivileged communities in Peru. (The funds have helped children survivors of rape, single mothers, and the elderly.) I am also involved in ¿Oíste?, a political and civic-engagement organization, and I work for Friends of Justice in Dallas, Texas.

I do not mean to write part of my curriculum vitae in this posting, but I do think it is important for people to know I am a contributing member in the United States, and that while my personal profile demonstrates a commitment to the communities in which I have lived, my communities have not always welcomed me.

The truth is, I am an undocumented immigrant.

My status means I do not possess a nine-digit number that would open doors to many opportunities. Although my family has paid taxes since they moved to the United States, we receive no benefits. We do not qualify for medical insurance even if we are able to pay out of pocket for coverage ­— insurers tell me we need a social security number.

When my father or mother go to the doctor we pay in cash, which means they never go. The years of hard work under the scorching Texas heat mean nothing for the long-term prospects of my parents ­— they paid into social security and other federal programs, but they will see zero benefits from it.

Over the years, I have seen my parents age, unable to maintain the pace they had worked in the past. My father, almost 60, is unemployed and works side jobs as a moving assistant. Until recently, my mother slept on a couch at a friend’s house and cleaned houses or babysat when she could. She moved to Peru on July 29, 2012 after realizing the United States was no longer a place of opportunity for her.

For some time, my father remained homeless, sleeping in his car and eating from the one-dollar menu. While both of my parents are far below the poverty line, I enjoy the comforts of studying at the prestigious ivory tower that is Harvard. The guilt consumes me every night.

Recently, President Obama signed an executive order that will allow me to stay in the United States legally and to obtain a two-year work permit. This means not only that I can continue to do the work I am so deeply passionate about, but also that my parents can live with more tranquility.

When I told my mother the news, she began to cry because she “would no longer have to worry about me.” President Obama’s executive order does not fix our country’s immigration problem, but it does mark an important step towards the recognition of what immigrants bring to this country.

We are not defective objects in a capitalist market. I am not a criminal, a monster, a predator, or someone who sits at home doing nothing substantive or meaningful. I have made mistakes and done things I am not proud of, sure, but I am someone — I think ­— who is just as passionate (if sometimes not more) about issues of social justice as any American citizen.

I am not asking that our government maintain an open-door policy for immigrants. I am simply asking that it give opportunity to those of us who have proven ourselves.

With my story, I hope public opinion about immigrants continues to shift so that this country can become more welcoming of diversity.