I’m excited to bring you stories from courageous and tenacious leaders who are advocating for immigration reform in their home states. Today, I’d like to share an email interview with Amy Aguirre, Assistant Director of Angela’s Piazza, a faith-based center for vulnerable women. LIRS Media Relations Specialist Clarissa Perkins carried out the interview.
Clarissa Perkins (CP): What led you to become involved with immigrants?
Amy Aguirre (AA): I belong to a tight-knit family of proud Mexicans. I was raised to believe in myself, never denying who I am and where I come from. My dad was very open about the discrimination he faced growing up, yet not once did he ever imply how I was supposed to feel about his experiences. Rather, he allowed me to form my own opinion; he only offered the simple idea that he has since forgiven his tormentors and went on to use those humiliating moments to build himself up into a stronger man.
My dad’s trust in me in this very personal way helped me realize that he already knew the potential I had to be a compassionate person, and saw that it was his job to bring that out in me by teaching me the lessons he had to learn the hard way.
This profound connection that was instilled in me grew in many ways and has been expressed in many forms, including my voice for immigrants. Not only is my heritage deeply rooted in immigration, but my soul is, as well.
When my husband and I met in 1999, he was undocumented. From there, we fought the ever-uphill battle with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) (known as the Immigration and Naturalization Service at the time), facing blatant discrimination, humiliating interviews, and ridiculous costs in fines and fees. Beyond all that, though, we had started our family and so when he was reported by his employer, I was not only at risk of losing my husband, but also the father of our children.
“Living in the Shadows” only scratches the surface of what it really feels like knowing your whole world can be ripped apart on the whim of someone having a bad day. That’s what we faced on that initial visit to INS: The man there told my husband, “You know I can deport you, right?” Of course we knew that. Yet for whatever reason, he chose not to that day. Instead, we faced hearings in Helena via a teleconference with a judge in Seattle, a judge who only heard our voices during those hearings, a judge in whose hands our fate impatiently, fearfully sat. He’d never even laid eyes on us, much less our beautiful babies.
This experience, and that of my father and every other man, woman, and child who has been through this and is living it still today is why I speak out for immigrants. My husband’s story is one of opportunity and hope, as he was eventually granted his green card and today we are pursuing citizenship. I know, however, that (so far) we are part of the lucky few. It is for the rest that I take a stand, lending my voice to those who do not yet have one.
CP: What are you doing now to support immigrants and migrants?
AA: I had the very fortunate experience of going to Washington, D.C. this April to attend the rally for immigration. The trip was sponsored by Montana Organizing Project. At that time, I personally met the Montana legislators at an informal gathering for visitors from Montana. I shook their hands while handing them a copy of my feature article from my local newspaper, “Real-Life Experiences Fuel Woman’s Fight for Immigration Reform”, that had come out that week. My hope in sharing it with them on such a personal level was to give a face to the issue, which likely was a first-time experience for all of them. After this, I paid a visit to each of my senators’ offices, as well as our congressman’s, and discussed with their staff the urgent need for immigration reform. I had never done anything on this level and was as nervous as could be! But, I dug down deep and discovered the courage I never even realized I had, and spoke my piece with conviction.
Once the work was done, I had the honor of joining tens of thousands of others on the capital lawn for the rally. The experience was invigorating! I was deeply inspired by the energy and passion for the movement and it fueled my fire even more. I came home with a stronger drive to make a difference and utilize the tools that had already been placed before me.
In May, I had the honor of speaking at a May Day rally (for immigration reform) in Bozeman, Montana. Wow! Again, a completely new experience for me, but I knew what I had to say would mean something, even if to just one person. I knew it to be worth it to swallow my stage fright (again! the butterflies!) and say what needed to be said.
After that, I was sponsored by the Montana Organizing Project (MOP) to attend a four-day training by the Alliance for a Just Society in Seattle to learn how to become an organizer. Once again, I kissed my five precious babies and incredibly supportive husband goodbye and dug in my heels to try something new, to find my way around the murky world of uncertainty and come out of it a better, stronger, more effective voice for my purpose.
In June I was asked to co-present the documentary, The Dream Is Now to the Billings, Montana community as well as that of Miles City, Montana. Together with my friend Blair of MOP, we shared my personal story as well as his expertise and knowledge of the Senate’s immigration reform bill, S.744. At the Billings showing, I had the honor of introducing our family friend, Jocelyn, a local DREAM student. She and her dad talked about their personal experiences and openly discussed their dreams and hopes, as well as fears and concerns. This was a pretty big deal because no one in our area had ever “come out” before, and doing so raised obvious issues of concern. To this day, I am deeply humbled by their courage and desire to answer the call to put a local face to this movement.
Recently, an opportunity arose to be a part of a local panel of faith leaders with the task of raising awareness in our community via a public forum of discussion on faith and immigration. I happily accepted this opportunity because while my faith has always guided my movements, this was a chance to openly express this. I had alluded to it in my previous speaking engagements but here it was expected. I sat with a panel of professional ministers (feelings of inadequacy be quelled!) and again shared my story. We all expressed the moral need to pass reform; to be the “open door” that Christ teaches us to be. It really is that simple: As Saint Angela Merici of Italy said, “Make your homes and your lives like a piazza, where everyone is welcome.” Inspired advice indeed.
CP: You’ve dealt very closely with immigration. What was the hardest obstacle to overcome, and how did you overcome it?
AA: Really, my only perceived obstacle thus far has been myself. I already knew that a person’s story IS that story because God has a purpose for it. And when the time is right, as God’s timing is always perfect, He will present the opportunity to put you to His work. It is always our choice whether or not to follow Him, and I know this. I have prayed through all of this (and still do, all the time) over WHAT to say, WHEN to say it, HOW to say it, and THAT I say it. As I have learned in my faith life, when you follow God, He will provide. And bountifully, He has.
So when I say I am my own worst obstacle, it is because as a human, I sometimes waver in this faith. Simply put, it’s hard. Over and over I give to God my fears, frustrations, doubts and feelings of inadequacy – many of them the same old ones that I can’t seem to let go of… and over and over His patience in me settles my spirit.
CP: Is there momentum in support of migrants and immigrants in Montana?
AA: The momentum is slow, but it is growing. I am regularly asked by a family member, friend, acquaintance, even people I’ve never before met, about any number of aspects of the bill (not that I am an expert on it, by any means) or about my experiences. I am happy to discuss with them their concerns, and to offer the brighter side of why reform will improve not only our great state, but our country. I believe the neighbor-to-neighbor conversations are growing because I see and hear people discussing it at a variety of locales.
CP: What do you think most people don’t know, but should know about undocumented migrants?
AA: Most people should know that migrants are people, just like you and me. That’s a very basic statement, I know, but that’s because it couldn’t be any simpler than that. Migrants are parents, grandparents, students, young children… the only difference between us and them is opportunity: We have it, they desire it. So why not share? Isn’t that what we’re taught at the youngest of age? And isn’t it what faith teaches us, in the most basic form? Even if a person doesn’t subscribe to a specific religion, it’s the strongest moral foundation to which the majority of us are grounded. It’s time we remember that.