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I Am An Immigrant

Pope Francis in his first official trip outside Rome drew attention to the humanitarian problem of immigration and criticized the "globalization of indifference" to the plight of immigrants. "Who among us has cried over the death of these brothers and sisters, for all those who travelled on boats, for young mothers who carried their children, for these men who wanted something to help their families? We are a society that has forgotten how to cry," according to the Pope.

In the meantime President Barack Obama deported 410,000 immigrants last year, an all time high, according to the Washington Post.

The United States senate has passed an immigration reform bill that many progressives do not support, and the speaker of the house may refuse to let the measure come to a vote.

I am an immigrant. I was born in Guatemala and came to the United States with my mother, sister, and other members of my family when I was four years old. My arrival was part of a larger exodus from Guatemala to the United States.

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My uncle Julio was the first family member to come to the United States. He left Guatemala in the 1940s at the age of 17, arrived in Texas without papers, and joined the Air Force because he wanted to fly a plane. After joining, he told his commanding officer he had no papers. His commanding officer arranged for him to become a citizen. He taught himself English. He served in the Air Force for 20 years. The rest is our history.

Today my family includes a lawyer, a medical doctor, and an MBA. We have graduates from or students at Stanford, Harvard, Cornell, Princeton, Boston University, Columbia, Colgate, and other schools, with more on the way. Our family includes workers in different areas and cities.

Here is Julio's story -- and the story of our family. I interviewed my grandfather, Julio's father, in 1991. My grandfather, whom we all called Pira, died in 1993.

Julio and Olivia Casamiento: wedding picture of my grandfather and grandmother, 1926


* * *


Robert: Did Julio study in Guatemala?

Pira: Look at what Julio did. He decided -- in the beginning we put him in the Canadian Academy to study English, and he was there for a little while. Then he said that he wanted to study business to be an accountant. So we put him in a business school.

After a year in the business school, he said he didn't like it, and that he thought he would, but he would rather study agriculture. So we put him in the National School of Agriculture, and he studied there for some time. When he was there he studied bees, chickens, pigs, and cows, and all of that. Two years after he started there he decided that he wanted to go back to studying business because he liked it more, so he went back to studying business.

After all of those years, he decided he didn't want to study business and told us he really knew what he wanted to do. He had thought it through long and hard, and he wanted to go to the United States.

Our family lived in the Colonia Ubico in Guatemala City. The first affordable housing program to allow workers to purchase their own homes, prices were set to meet the needs of worker-craft guilds or middle class groups including school teachers | Photo: Tipografia Nacional, 1940


In the neighborhood there was a widow of a U.S. citizen -- she had several sons and daughters. So I talked to one of her sons who were American citizens. I asked how we could get Julio into the United States. "Don't worry, it's easy. Give me $500 and I'll arrange his departure." I had my little savings, so I told him here's the $500. They went to the United States, he and Julio. Julio hadn't even turned 18.

As soon as Julio arrived he said that he wanted to join the Air Force. So they took his information and they told him you can't join yet. Why? Because you aren't 18 years old yet. But I'm only 15 days or a month away. It doesn't matter, you have to turn 18 to join. Well, I'll wait, and he waited. The man, who brought him, got him into the Air Force. And he served for 20 years.

Where did Julio go when he got to the United States?

He was in Texas, in a town called Amarillo. Amarillo, Texas.

He entered the United States in Amarillo, Texas?

That's where the man who helped him lived and that's where the man took his own wife. She was Guatemalan. That's where Julio went to stay, Amarillo, Texas. When he joined the Air Force, they sent him to a base in Newburgh called Stewart. That's where he started his service. Twenty years. He liked it, he said, and stayed there 20 years. He retired with a lifelong pension. After he retired from the Air Force, he was the director of a recreation center.

What did you think when he told you that he wanted to come to the United States when he was only 17 years old?

I thought it was fine, if that was what he wanted, I would give the $500. Back then it was a lot of money for us, it was a big sacrifice to give him that much money.

Why were you interested in making that sacrifice to send him to the United States?

Because I wanted him to do what he liked because I was sure that to contradict him would be to ruin the life of my son, to do what you want but not what he wants. You know that there are many lawyers and doctors and dentists who do that because it is what their father wanted them to be. And because of that they are bad dentists, for example, and bad doctors because they're doing it against their will.

Julio and his younger brother and youngest sister in GuatemalaDid he receive his high school diploma in Guatemala?

No. There were four, four who they got into the United States under the radar, or under the table as they say; none of the four had the right to enter legally to the United States.

Julio started out working as an office worker for the Air Force. Then he noticed how they investigate each individual in the Air Force. He got worried that they were investigating him for being there without papers. He was working as a secretary to a general. So he wrote me a letter telling me "I have to confess that I am very worried, I don't even have an appetite anymore because I know they're investigating us. What can I do?" he asked me.

So I responded to him that it was very simple. "Tell your boss immediately, your boss and your true boss, not some captain, the boss of your division, let's say. Tell them what happened, and see how things go. If he decides to kick you out of the country, you come here and we'll take you in with open arms and you can study or work." "That's fine," he said.

He went to his boss and said "Sir, I have to make a confession." "What happened?" And he told his boss. "I arrived here without papers."

And his boss asked, "Do you like it here in this country?" "Very much," he told his boss. "And do you like being in the Air Force?" his boss asked. "I love it," he told his boss. "You want to stay here?" "Yes," he told his boss, "I am certain I would like it." "OK," his boss said. His boss rang a bell and an official arrived. "Arrange his papers for his American citizenship," he said. And that's how they arranged it. And he never had to worry about anything again.

Did Julio know English when he came to the United States?

Very little. He started studying it a little bit as a student at the Canadian Academy, but he was there only a little bit. Then he went to school at the school of Don Tomas Cacela, and that's where he studied business. Then to the school of agriculture, then back to business school, and then to the United States, so he knew only a little English.

But I had given him a dictionary, which I now have here because not long ago he gave it back to me and it was totally ruined. Because he says he took the dictionary everywhere with him under his arm, and every word he heard or saw written he would look it up. And because the cover of the dictionary was black, they thought he was an evangelical pastor, they thought it was the Bible.

And that's how he came to learn English.

Once he was here, living here.

Yes, and serving in the Air Force as a U.S. citizen. Once he calmed down, he lived happily, then he fell in love with a woman who was also in the air force, she was a sergeant I think.

When they got married, we never imagined that we would be coming here.

You didn't go to the wedding?

No, they were here in the United States and we were in Guatemala.

How did his mother feel when Julio got married here?

She was happy.

* * *


My grandfather loved being a linotypist

My grandfather was a linotypist and labor organizer in Guatemala. He was blacklisted and could not get a job in Guatemala. He came to the United States with my grandmother and their youngest son years after Julio arrived. Julio helped arrange the immigration papers. My grandfather got a job as a linotypist, and taught himself English by reading the work he was typing. My grandfather then arranged to bring the rest of the family, including his father- in-law; my mother, sister, and me; my aunt and cousin; and later my father.

Growing up, I remember seeing my grandfather reading all the time. I think because of his influence, I read all the time, too. As a result, I did well in school, and graduated from Stanford and Stanford Law School.

My father had previously been in the United States twice, and was deported twice, before returning with the immigration papers that Julio and my grandfather helped secure.


Top: My grandfather with his futbol team, the mythical, unforgettable, and celebrated Tip Nac, one of the winningest teams in the history of the Guatemala premiere league.

About the Author

I am a civil rights attorney. Fighting for the simple joys of playing in the park and school field for children of color and low income children is the hardest work I have ever done.
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