By Joy Truskowski

Truskowski teaches ESL to adults for Roanoke City Public Schools. She is also a local singer-songwriter, and you can find her music on her website: joytru.com.

Our country’s migrant detention centers are shameful and disgraceful. It is an embarrassment that my government treats human beings this way, and there is no reason we should be detaining migrants in the first place. The only difference between the “illegal” migrants of today and my grandfather who came to this country over a century ago, is that the laws changed. My grandfather came to this country with nothing and didn’t speak English, but since he didn’t have to wade through piles of paperwork, bureaucratic fees, and years of waiting for a legal status, he could simply work and support himself. The migrants today can do the same if we just allow it. If we expand the definition for who qualifies for asylum and give these immigrants legal working status, we don’t have to house them in detention centers at all.

Despite the misguided political rhetoric from our president and many media outlets, migrants are not here for “hand-outs.” They are here to live and work. I have been teaching English as a second language to adult immigrants in the Roanoke area for eight years. I have worked with literally hundreds of immigrants of various backgrounds and from various countries. My students are hard workers, often working two or three jobs or more than 50 hours a week of hard labor. They all want to support their families and contribute to society.

Every single migrant also wants to be in this country legally. Unfortunately, our immigration laws have become very complex. It is expensive, cumbersome, and it usually takes years to acquire a legal permanent residency. Most of the immigrants currently seeking asylum in this country come from Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. In their countries gangs force families to pay “war taxes.” There is very little or no legal recourse for innocent people who are killed or assaulted or for women who are raped. Young boys are often forced to join gangs, and young girls are either raped or forced into prostitution. For many of these migrants, the choice is to die or to watch one’s family die, or flee and rely on the mercy of others. They don’t have the luxury to fill out mountains of paperwork and wait years for their case to be processed while they wait it out in their own dangerous countries. Anybody leaving their home and risking their life to enter this country is already in a desperate situation and deserves consideration and compassion. We need to update our immigration law to accommodate the current crises.

Many claim that taking care of these migrants is not our responsibility. However, we need to remember our history. In the 1980’s the U.S. government failed the people of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala by ousting democratically elected leaders, installing “friendly” regimes, and training police and the military, resulting in death squads that have terrorized local populations. We have also given millions in military aid and training to Mexico’s government under the guise of the “war on drugs,” while Mexico’s corrupt police and military cooperate with drug lords and repress its poor indigenous population. Gangs such as MS-13 likely wouldn’t even exist if not for our own military intervention in Latin America. Now that victims are fleeing the chaos that we have initiated, our government has an obligation to allow these people to live and seek work and safety in our country.

Give these immigrants legal working status instead of spending millions on bureaucracy and detaining people, and we can have the money to pay a hard-working labor force to repair our crumbling infrastructure and maintain our natural spaces. Additionally, employers won’t easily be able to take advantage of a vulnerable, low-paid undocumented workforce. Allowing more people to enter this country legally will also cut down on smuggling and child trafficking and drastically reduce the number of people dying crossing the border.

My students are mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters. They have become your neighbors. They value their families. Just like you and I would do, they have fled a life-threatening situation in the hope of living in a safe place and making an honest living. Above all, my students value and appreciate the safety and opportunities this country offers far more than any of my native-born friends. They know what it’s like to be oppressed and live in poverty. Many have risked their lives to be here. They all want to be legal citizens and contribute to society. Let’s give them the opportunity to do that.

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