For the last four years I have been living and working in southern Arizona and northern Mexico as a humanitarian and an advocate for those who migrate; it is here that I found a hero -- someone who demonstrates great strength in the face of adversity, and who rises above difficulty with courage, determination, and compassion. His name is Gilbert.
I worked with Gilbert, treating thousands of blistered feet, distributing food and water, evacuating the sick to hospitals, and providing safety and consolation to the emotionally distressed. That's where our lives intersected. Across the borderline, Mexican and American volunteers greet and care for those repatriated or deported to Mexico by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. It's a real heart-and-soul kind of gritty hospitality.
Gilbert lived and worked at the humanitarian aid station every single day for nearly three years. He spent Christmas and his birthday providing aid to other migrants dumped off at the port of entry. Yet, his holiday wishes never came true. No cards were signed by his kids, no small arms wrapped around his neck, and no cake was made by a woman whom he loves dearly: Gilbert was separated from his dreams -- his family and home.
Nonetheless, he worked every day for the dignity of others. And despite his own constant heartache, he gave comfort and empathy to the thousands of other fathers, wives, and children passing through with similar stories of separation, fear, and pain. All of them were stuck in an international zone, just feet from the U.S. boundary, but restricted from being with loved ones on the other side.
Gilbert is a deportee himself, though he has spent more than half of his life in the United States. At the age of fifteen, 'Gilberto' made his way from Guadalajara, Mexico, to San Jose, California. He quickly found work in landscaping and construction. He met a beautiful young woman, an American citizen, whom he married, and he became the proud father of four kids: two teenage sons and two very young daughters. But one day, everything changed for Gilbert and for the future of his family. After a minor civil offense, he found himself without the funds to hire an attorney, and his life quickly unraveled. His driver's license and green card were revoked and he had no choice but to face deportation to the country of his past. He was dumped off at the international boundary in an unknown place, with no possessions or money. In his absence, Gilberto's wife was not able to provide a stable home for the family, and the children were eventually taken into state custody. This is an all-too-familiar story of hyper-criminalization of immigrant workers, abrupt deportation, desperation, and the disintegration of family -- all results of an inhumane and terribly broken immigration system.
Often, while working as a humanitarian worker in Nogales, a new volunteer will exclaim, "Wow, it must feel great to help so many people." I scrunch my face into a half-grin, because the answer is, "No, I don't enjoy being praised for undertaking the natural task of helping one's neighbor in need." It's easy to think of ourselves as heroes for the long hours of work, but in reality, the recognition belongs to the thousands of Gilbertos who give us so much more -- who demonstrate interconnectedness. These are the brave folks who refuse to raise families in poverty. Instead, they undertake the heroic act to move, perhaps thousands of miles, in order to reclaim their human right to a livelihood and a future for their children. The heroes of this global phenomenon called "migration" surround us; they are our neighbors and essential members of our community.
Thank you, Gilbert, and many others like you, for teaching me about the depths of humanity and perseverance in struggle, which we all may aspire to possess and live out. I pray that our borderlands will find reconciliation and healing, and that you will be reunited with your family -- and your dreams -- someday soon.
Maryada Vallet works with No More Deaths, a humanitarian initiative on the U.S.-Mexico border that promotes faith-based principles for immigration reform.
This account is taken from Voices of Immigration, a campaign of Christians for Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CCIR) aimed at highlighting the stories of immigrants in our country. Believing that every person is made in the image of God, we seek to restore the human element to the conversation around immigration reform. Each day this week a new story will be highlighted on God's Politics, with additional ones posted throughout March at CCIR's Web site: www.faithandimmigration.org.