Amnesty: Compassion in the Age of Rhetoric

by: Juan Meave

I’m a child of amnesty. My family came to the United States on two separate, but similar, journeys. My mom came with her family as a child, my dad by himself when he was a teenager, but both journeys began as illegal immigrants. Both sides of my family were from the same small mountain town in San Luis Potosi; they knew each other very well. In the early 1970’s, my mother’s family immigrated to the United States. They’d be one the first of many families to leave this town. Some families would immigrate to the U. S. Others, like my father’s, would move to the capital. There just wasn’t enough opportunity to support a family. To this day, the town is supported by the people that come back to visit, economic refugees coming back home.

After a few years, word came back that my mother’s family had been doing well, at least well enough. They were working on farms in small towns throughout Texas, eventually settling in Brownwood. Other branches of her family tree wanted to join them, but they needed another male to come with them, to have another strong hand around in case anything went wrong. As the story goes, my maternal great uncle came knocking on the door of my paternal grandparents’ house in the capital. There’s disagreement now over who he came to ask for, but I believe they were trying to convince my grandfather to go; he had spent his younger years as a migrant worker all over the American Southwest. Instead, they left with my father, still just a teenager.

Statistics aren’t kind to people who are born in my family’s situation. As the oldest child, my mother was pulled out of school to work and help the family financially. I can only imagine her heartbreak, finishing school was her only dream. Because of her, the importance of education is a principle that has been stamped in my mind. My father worked anywhere they’d have him. After working as a general laborer all week, he’d spend the weekends working on a doctor’s property. He told me a story once about how the doctor had him cut down several trees branches. For the doctor, the result was a better view of the lake from his back porch. For my father, the view was what was possible in the future. Together, my mother and father were an unmarried, undocumented, and uneducated couple, expecting a baby who would be born a citizen of the country they had hoped would birth their hopes and dreams. And at the time, the country was full of compassionate people who’d help make those dreams come true.

Imagine being in a country illegally, trying to raise a child. Imagine the fear of government officials walking in your door and separating your family because your papers aren’t in order. Having a conversation with your spouse to plan how you will care for your child if one of you is taken away. Luckily, that didn’t happen to us. My family, immediate and extended, received amnesty under President Reagan, and we were given a chance through the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986.There were many restrictions that came with receiving amnesty, including fines, back taxes and admission of guilt. The right to work and live without fear, however, outweighed any downside.

For giving us a chance with amnesty, President Reagan is revered in Hispanic culture. I grew up without the fear of separation and deportation. My parents started working legally, we paid taxes, we bought a house, and above all, we were “pulling our own wagon.” I went to school without a worry. We weren’t a perfect family. We had our struggles, but the shadow of being separated by the government wasn’t one of them. I don’t remember my family pre-amnesty; I wasn’t old enough. I’m sure there were struggles I don’t know about. But looking at where we are today, I believe that amnesty made all the difference. I grew up healthy, served my country in Iraq, and went on to college. I received bachelors and masters degrees. Our family continued to grow. My younger brother has received his bachelor’s degree, and is now serving the community as a teacher. My little sister took the SAT’s recently, and plans on enrolling in a four-year university this fall. Three children went on to college, after their mother wasn’t allowed to finish high school, I’m grateful to be a part of that amazing story. We were allowed to work and dream. Our family, immediate and extended, is in a better place, and the future looks even better. The benefits of amnesty will be felt for generations.

I look at the political environment now, and wonder: “Would my family have made it in these conditions?” There are false claims left and right, prejudices, and hate. You can’t see a fact for miles, just quick judgments and preconceived notions. President Trump has even created an office that is focused on reporting immigrant crime, even though immigrant crime rates are lower than native born crime rates. One thing’s for sure though, my family’s story is as American as it gets. And it’s not unique to my family. Millions of past and future Americans were given a chance under President Reagan. And I’m sure most Americans know someone that has a similar story. Immigrants like my family, like so many others, have helped to build this country. We’ve balanced assimilation while holding on to our culture. We are Americans. We’ve flourished under the four presidents since Reagan. It’s the fifth one that has us all worried.

There are parts of my family that came to the U. S. after amnesty. They saw the demand for their labor, the success of those ahead of them, and the fulfillment of dreams. They made the same decision that my parents and grandparents did. They have gone down the same path, almost step by step. They have the same hopes, the same dreams, and the same work ethic. I see them and think the only differences for them are timing and fear. They live with the fear that I never lived with because my family came to the right place at the right time. I see other families in my neighborhood struggling with the same fear, just trying to make it, and hoping for a chance that they’ll no longer be victims of a broken system. My family’s story is an American story. We share it with many cultures; Italian, Chinese, Irish, English, Polish, German, Mexican, Guatemalan, Honduran, Syrian, Iraqi, Afghani. The list goes on and on, but we are all Americans in the end.

It’s time that we rise above the rhetoric that stokes the fire of hate. It’s time we look into our souls as Americans and realize that we all come from somewhere else, that we all have the same dreams, and that we all want to create something better. We all want to leave something better for the next generation. We need to stop defining people through a broken immigration system and let them define themselves. It’s time to give people a chance to fulfill their dreams.


Juan Meave is an Army veteran who wanted to put his writing abilities to good use. He saw the dehumanization of people in the political spectrum and wanted to combat it. He co-founded The TRUMP project, a Facebook group dedicated to sharing positive stories about the people behind policy decisions. Juan spends most of his time juggling a family and his career, but finds time for local activism and writing. You can check out his Instagram (@jlmeave) for a different taste of Juan’s writing style.

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