I was in the laundromat piling my wet clothes into the dryer when Ricardo began to talk to me. I’ve changed his name to protect his identity because he is an undocumented immigrant who has lived in the United States for more than twenty years, married and raised his children here, and has rarely, if ever, missed a day of work. He deals with the neighborhood’s dirty laundry all day long, washing, drying and folding it neatly into multi-colored bags. His English is rudimentary. He is paid less than minimum wage. He doesn’t complain because he is undocumented. He hadn’t seen his parents in more than ten years when, in desperation, he snuck over the border last summer and spent all of his savings on a coyote to bring him back.
More than one of my neighbors help Ricardo with his English. He has a new workbook; between cycles, he studies. He has always wanted to better himself. He has always worked. His children are “dreamers,” and have all attended college. He calls me “Teacher.” “Teacher,” he began. “Teacher, I am afraid. What will happen with this new president?” I showed him the safety pin on my hat and tried to explain. I said, “This pin means you are safe with me.” I wrote down the words “sanctuary city” in my small pocket notebook, ripped out the page and handed it to him. How would this scrap of paper help? I told him about my refugee parents, but as soon as I began to speak, I knew that it was not an analogous story. Despite the traumas of war and the unconscionable losses of a genocide, my parents were granted immediate legal residency and became naturalized citizens. The disruption in their lives eased and their children were born Americans. To carry an American passport became an emblem of safety and opportunity. I am glad they are not alive to witness President Trump’s draconian, inhumane executive immigration orders .
I have not been everywhere with my American passport, but I have friends, family, acquaintances and colleagues from everywhere. Some have two passports or green cards and lead trans-national lives, yet they, too, now feel endangered. Overseas students at NYU with legal visas have been urged not to leave the country as they may not be granted entry upon return. It is not at all clear if our “dreamer” students will be harassed or their parents deported. Much as we would like to say we are a sanctuary campus, there are no guarantees. A Palestinian-American friend, who has been a citizen for a long time, is having strange dreams: “Carol, I had a dream last night. Hundreds of coyotes were running after Trump attacking him. He was crying furiously and I woke up shaking.” I was pleased he wrote the dream down because it became a story. The beginning of a memoir, perhaps. His family was displaced in 1948 by the formation of the State of Israel and he has a story to tell, a good story, an American-Palestinian story.
There is so much work to do for all of us: daily phone calls, marches, other political actions. But this is all good. We’ve come alive to our responsibilities as citizens and patriots.