The Innocence of Migration

Jul 4, 2019
9:42 AM

A shelter in Tijuana in 2018 (Photo by Morgan Babbs)

Because I am a U.S. citizen, my dear Nicaraguan friend Oscar recently asked me to write a “letter of recommendation” for him in order to increase his chances in the crapshoot game of getting a visa to the United States of America. There is no official protocol or requirement around letters of recommendation in visa applications. In fact, they are useless.

Imagine that the country you called home is now a place you no longer recognize. Imagine that your family business, the most popular and trusted auto body shop in town, is barely keeping afloat. Imagine that you see no future for your nine-year-old daughter. Imagine that several of your friends are imprisoned  and you’ve seen other members of your community shot dead on the streets of your quiet town. Imagine that you spent weeks with unfathomable nerves while you provided safe housing to young students who had suddenly found themselves on a paramilitary group hit list. Imagine that this is your life — because it is Oscar’s life. What would you do? You’d seek a better one.

I met Oscar when he rescued me, literally. One Sunday in July, I was making the two-hour drive home along the Pan-American Highway in Nicaragua when my clutch gave out. It was 5pm and I was at the halfway point — suddenly (in)conveniently stranded in a place with intermittent cell service. I called the landline of a local hostel in Matagalpa, who looked up the one tow service that was miraculously open on a Sunday night. I waited for about two hours on the side of the road, reading the Alexander Hamilton biography for as long as I could before daylight ran out. I was elated when I saw the flashing tow truck lights approaching. My guardian angel came in the form of one of the largest humans I’ve ever seen. For the two years to come that Oscar would work on my Toyota RAV4, he never used the seatbelt. It didn’t fit.

This may as well be my proof that fate is a powerful force. It took a ridiculous mishap for me to get the greatest mechanic in all Central America. There is nothing with which I wouldn’t trust Oscar.

Dear US Embassy in Nicaragua, Attn. Dept of Visa? Dear US Citizen and Immigration Services?

Oscar has asked me to write a letter of recommendation for his family in order to help their chances in getting a U.S. visa. But I’m not sure who I should address this letter to, because, as I’ve unsuccessfully tried to tell Oscar three times  — or maybe I just don’t have the heart to say it directly —  this “letter” is good for nothing.

To Whom It May Concern. No one.

This is the innocence of migration.

I always remind Oscar that he can count on me for whatever he needs. Turns out, all he wants is a letter of recommendation in which I “invite him” to my country, as he says. I can tell he thinks he’s asking a big favor of me, which is what breaks my heart. In the letter, I want to say that my friend has done more for me than I would ever know how to repay and that he deserves a place in my country. But it feels cheap to write this letter on behalf of Oscar, first of all, because no one is going to read it. Of all the tangible, real things he’s done for me, what he has asked in return is barely even symbolic. Do I tell him that? Or do I write a damn good letter, understanding that to him, it is worth something? He genuinely believes this letter may up his chances, and who am I to take something from him that keeps his hope alive?

This difference in perception is what pains me — it’s the heart of the innocence. Why do we demonize people with such innocent intentions? When in Tijuana with the Migrant Caravan in November 2018, I chatted with dozens of people who asked me what I thought their chances were of getting across on the case of asylum. I had to say I wasn’t a lawyer . I really wasn’t in a place to give advice.

Harvey, from San Pedro Sula, Honduras, showed me his arms. The question was devastating.

“Look at me, I have no tattoos. This will help, right? I’m in no gang. Do you think it will make a difference?”

Harvey showing me that he has no tattoos. (Photo by Morgan Babbs)

Harvey shows me that he has no tattoos, hoping it will help prove that he is not a gang member when he goes in for his asylum interview. He is with his wife and their one-year-old baby. They fled Honduras after receiving consistent death threats from the gang that Harvey refused to join.

Toño, an acquaintance from Nicaragua, abruptly headed p’al norte when he found out that, as a result of his involvement in the anti-Ortega protests in Nicaragua, he was on a paramilitary group hit list. He left me voice messages recounting his journey. He was almost unable to move when he at last found himself between small towns along highways in Texas. He noticed people went jogging in the morning. He was so terrified of being caught by Customs and Border Protection, that, despite his exhaustion, he dug through a dumpster to find some old headphones, ripped his pants to look like shorts, and began to run. He had no destination. He just wanted to blend in and stay safe. Talk about running for your life.

In these situations  — with Oscar, Harvey, Toño, and everyone else they represent —  I feel sickened by the privilege I hold in simply knowing my American passport is sitting in a drawer in my room , and that I can forcefully shove it into a small compartment of my backpack and walk across the border to Tijuana or touch down in basically whatever country I please, whenever I feel like it.

The contrast is uncomfortable ,  unfair. What have I suffered through to deserve my citizenship status? Nothing. I was born into it. Who sat and analyzed the ink on me to decide if I was a violent gang member? No one. Who read through the documents I hastily collected to try to prove I was on a hit list and had to run for my life, literally? No one. Who was listening to the fear in my voice as I described how I was threatened and beaten and decided if my fear was genuine? No one. That is why it is our responsibility to fight for the people who sacrifice everything to be a part of our nation. Because they are the greatest compliment to our nation.

Via U.S. Customs and Border Protection (Public Domain)

There is no quest more innocent than the search for a better life for you or your family — for security, then stability, then opportunity. This is the core truth of migration. Yet the migrant’s innocence is consistently abused. They’ve left everything behind, yet are still robbed and ripped off on their journey; they are trafficked, starved, and pushed to physically impossible lengths. Many do not even survive.

If and when they finally arrive, they face individuals and a government that twists their intentions into something they are not. Perhaps the most innocent part of it all is that the migrant’s fate is almost entirely out of their control . It may rely on the cunning of their coyote, the water tanks that happened to be left by volunteers in the desert that day, the mood of their asylum case interviewer, or the chance that ICE may think a vehicle looks suspicious. But most of all, they face structural barriers put in place by our government that makes it more and more difficult to achieve the American dream. We can change this with our vote and our commitment to civic engagement.

I am proud to be an American. We represent an idea of which people around the world dream. We are built on the idea that everyone deserves an equal chance to achieve their dreams no matter where they come from and what adversity they’ve faced. I am proud that my country represents hope and opportunity. We should celebrate the notion that of the 195 options of countries in which to live, for centuries people have continued to look to the United States.

Our government has turned its back on these values. Yet, it astounds me that  — despite the hateful rhetoric and dangerous policies that our government is churning out —  somehow the promise of America still holds for so many individuals in search of a better life. This gives me hope.

There are people that sacrifice everything to be a part of our great nation. That deserves respect. The only appropriate response is to welcome them. If you are not outraged by what is happening right now — from the normalization of racist, xenophobic comments, to the massive human rights crisis we are experiencing with the detention camps at the border —  then you are not paying attention. This Fourth of July, remember that we were and continue to be founded by immigrants.

Learn about your heritage and what your family sacrificed to come to the United States. Then go vote for public servants who will uphold these values.


Morgan Babbs writes about informal economies, inequality, and contrasts. Follow her on Medium or on Twitter @morebabbs.