As mentioned in our last blog post, we are going to start using this space to share stories: stories from community leaders who have been engaged in social justice work as well as stories of those whose lives are interwoven with those causes.
By sharing these stories, we hope to gain a better understanding of our community members' lived experiences.
Our first story comes from Sandra, who immigrated with her family from Peru to the Kitsap Peninsula when she was nine years old. As Sandra points out, every immigrant's story is unique and hers is just one of many. We are grateful she was willing to share it with us.
Robin: Thank you for taking the time to talk with me. You moved here from Peru as a child. How long have you been in the United States now?
Sandra: Eighteen years. So we moved in--almost exactly eighteen years ago--we moved in June of 1999, my mom, and my brother, and me. My dad joined us in August of that year.
Robin: You were how old at that point?
Sandra: I was nine years old.
Robin: And why did your family move to the United States?
Sandra: For several reasons, but the main one was that my father was being pushed out of the country due to repercussions from Shining Path--from having lived in the country with Shining Path, the terrorist group that was prominent in Peru in the late eighties and early nineties. He was being asked to collaborate to their causes as they would call it while he was working in the Andes as a salesperson. And then when their contributors list was found a few years later, the police asked why his name was on it and then asked for ransom in order to keep quiet about his name having been on it, even though he had only contributed to them as an effort to survive in the area. So we were being pushed out from both sides, and my dad decided it was safer to leave the country. So we left first, and then he sold our possessions and joined us two months later.
Robin: As a child, were you aware totally of why you were leaving?
Sandra: I, being nine, knew that it wasn’t a safe situation. But I was more under the impression that we were having lots of financial troubles ‘cause I saw that my dad was selling off our things and that everybody was very stressed out. I didn’t know exactly what was going on. They kept that from us at the time. I didn’t find out exactly what was going on until I was a teenager and we had to go to court and testify about it.
Robin: What has the immigration process been like for your family? You are still having to deal with courts and in that process.
Sandra: Yeah, so we filed for political asylum when we--as soon as we got here, and that was eighteen years ago. And we are still not citizens. We are now permanent residents with a path to citizenship, which we will hopefully get granted in 2018. That’s the plan. It was going slowly but according to plan until 9/11. And that year, a bunch of political asylum cases kind of got pushed and put on the back burner while the country was dealing with more--I guess, more important cases that had to deal with national security, which is totally understandable. But we got put in that situation for about ten years until our case got picked back up. And then we got called to court, and our case was approved when we got granted temporary residency and then permanent residency. So it’s been a long, arduous battle to try to get a semblance of permanence with our immigration case.
Robin: What have you had to testify about? What are they asking you about in court?
Sandra: My dad has the brunt of it. He has to testify about things that happened in Peru and why we were unsafe there and why he chose to move here and all of that. As far as we--me and my brother and my mom--go, we have to talk about our lives here, since we moved here and why we’ve been worthy citizens--you know, taxpayers, law keepers--and what our life has been here. And why it’s worth the state’s trouble, essentially, to keep us here. And then the other aspect of that is: are we afraid to return to Peru? And those questions seemed appropriate when the danger of returning to Peru was more pertinent, when we first left Peru. But when you ask that eighteen years after the fact and the government has changed and the terrorist groups that were in power aren’t there anymore, it doesn’t ring as true as it did back then. So the questions that are more important are what our lives here have been like and what it would be like to go back to a country that me and my brother, especially, don’t really know as our own. And the court does take that into consideration--or they should. So it’s just--it depends on your prosecutor and your defense attorney on whether or not that stuff really matters or resonates with your judge--your immigrations judge.
Robin: So when you came here as a child, what was it like adjusting to life in the U.S.?
Sandra: Kids are pretty resilient. It was hard at the beginning not knowing the language and having to, you know, make friends and trying to get used to things like, you know, the change in weather and the change in the school cycle and all of that, having to relearn a lot. But it’s really pretty small potatoes compared to the types of things my mom and dad had to go through--having to change careers. And as an adult, it’s much harder to learn a language and to assimilate to a culture than it is as a child. So I think they really had a much harder time than me and my brother did. My mom hadn’t really worked in Peru, and she had to--well, she was a waitress for a few years. And my dad, who had worked as a businessman and had his architecture career, he started out as an exterminator and a construction worker and had to work with his hands. So that was much tougher for them than it was for us. And then from going--from having a huge, lavish house with a lot of help to living with our aunt and living in a two-bedroom, essentially, apartment--those are the changes that you really remember as a kid.
Robin: And you have family members in the area.
Sandra: We do, yeah. So we moved to Seattle specifically because my aunt had moved here about ten years prior. And so we--my mom and I and my brother--moved in with her when we first moved here before my dad came. And then we also have made lots of family friends and close friends that are family to us that live in the area.
Robin: Are still connected with some family and friends in Peru?
Sandra: Yeah, the majority of our family and friends are in Peru--all my dad’s extended family and my grandparents on my mom’s side. But we haven’t been able to see them in--most of them, in a long time. So that’s been tough.
Robin: When you think about the past year or so, with all the changes in the political arena--has life changed for you in the past year as a result of that?
Sandra: There was a lot of fear at the beginning when President Trump took office. I think there was a lot of resistance from most of the Latin American community about what that would look like. And for us, I guess the most tangible change for us has been that, with our permanent residency, we have travel documents that we can apply to and travel internationally. But with the immigration bans, we’ve been too afraid to use them. Just because it’s very unpredictable immigration policy when it comes to travel. And even, you know, immigrant citizens are being turned away at the border, so we are too scared to use our non-passport travel documents to travel internationally. So we’ve chosen that until the political situation in this country is a little more stable, we’re not going to travel internationally. So it’s as if we were temporary residents again ‘cause we’re not travelling outside the U.S. for now. Of course, we’re also very uncertain about our future. There’s some uncertainty for us, with our case coming up, whether everything is going to go like we had thought it would go. All signs point to “yes” right now because the immigration system hasn’t changed since he took office, but there’s still that fear there that things might change. There’s also the sympathetic aspect of it and the empathy for other people--other immigrants that are going through the same process that we went through with his campaign, you know, to cut immigration in half. That’s tough to hear, especially people that are trying to enter the country legally and people seeking asylum we did. It’s tough to hear that other people will encounter an even tougher time seeking asylum like we did, especially refugees and other people fleeing unsafe situations like we did. It hits home for us, and it’s tough to imagine people thinking that immigrants are “unvetted” or “unqualified” to seek safety for themselves and their family, when we know that that’s not the case. So that’s been tough on an emotional level. But as far as tangible changes to our lives, it hasn’t really hit us yet, other than just being as appalled as most people in our situation would be. But, you know, we’re wary, we’re ready for anything negative that might come our way.
Robin: Lastly, is there anything you wish that your community members knew about life as an immigrant or ways that they could better support the immigrants in their community?
Sandra: For me, as a kid, I think it’s important to know that immigrants tend to come from different backgrounds. I mean, of course, they’re racially and culturally diverse, but also socio- and economically diverse. The immigrant that you probably tend to encounter here in the Pacific Northwest is probably from Central America and most likely not a political refugee. They’re most likely fleeing Central America for economic reasons, seeking a better life for themselves and their family. But that’s not always the case. So, just not making assumptions about the people you encounter and trying to get to know them is always--they will appreciate that--trying to get to know what their story is. I always got frustrated as a kid when people assumed that I was Mexican and that they assumed that my family was not well-educated. While that tended to be the case for most immigrants in our area, that wasn’t our story. So it’s always good to get to know the people that you’re encountering. The other thing is that it’s tough to be an immigrant no matter what their background is. And to not lose patience with those people around you when they don’t understand what you’re saying and when you’re trying to get something across to them. It’s hard. It’s hard to be new somewhere and not only unaware of what’s going on around you but scared all the time. It’s a hard spot to be in. And lastly, if you can help in any way--to help them find work--it’s hard as an immigrant to find work with adults. And sometimes they don’t have the proper papers, social security numbers, so they’re always looking for work. I know that’s something that we are mindful of trying to do is helping immigrants in our community find work when we can. ‘Cause they get by on little jobs here and there when they can’t find steady work.