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Sanctuaries and Covenants: Undocumented Pathways to Repair in the Bay Area

By Kristen Ellieth Constanza, San José State University

I remember getting letters from immigration and I was, like, oh my God it's actually happening. What if I don't make it? There's always that possibility. Fortunately, it's been such, such a great experience. I just feel very grateful. I'm so very, very grateful. 'Cause it's like finally being able to breathe – Jay, from San Jose de Gracia, Tepatitlán, Jalisco

Latin American migration has dramatically increased since the 1960s, and as the U.S. government has pursued a policy of prevention through deterrence—with military-grade surveillance, high-tech sensors, and barriers--the routes have become more treacherous, resulting in higher levels of danger for migrants. The U.S. has created policies that make it difficult for migrants to cross the border, but individuals still find a way to enter the U.S. The experiences that these individuals encounter are often traumatic, painful, and damaging, but frequently overlooked by the media and ordinary citizens. Beginning in 2016, a renewed political discourse of white nationalism led to xenophobic reactions, including heightened and visible forms of discrimination towards immigrants who were coming to the U.S. It became evident that many news outlets were solemnly painting a negative picture about newcomers. In some cases, the reports were dehumanizing and created a barrier for immigrants. But even in these difficult times, there are many efforts underway that are enabling these men, women, and children to take a stance and tell their own stories.

Illuminating the experiences of border crossings and the subsequent adaptation to a new society is valuable because it gives an opportunity to inform the public, policymakers, and humanitarian organizations about the multifaceted aspects of immigrants’ journeys and experiences in order to design policies that are humane. While living in the U.S., many immigrants face difficulties in navigating their new environment because of their legal status. It becomes difficult to live calmly when a person is in constant fear of detention or deportation.

I come from a family who migrated to the United States from Guatemala in the 1990s, and the transition for my family was anything but easy. My relatives maintained multiple jobs at restaurants, they did custodial work, factory workers and any other odd jobs. I witnessed firsthand how hard my parents worked and how they tried to assimilate to a new culture, while also keeping our Guatemalan culture alive.

Front desk receptionist at EBSC

I developed a collaboration with the East Bay Sanctuary Covenant (EBSC), a non-profit organization based in Berkeley, California, because I knew I wanted to give immigrants a voice and to give them a space where they felt safe to be able to tell their stories. EBSC assists individuals in legal services and provides a community development and educational program. The organization is a resource that gives migrants an opportunity to adjust to a new place. My research will advance anthropological knowledge by documenting the healing and recovery processes of incoming immigrants. Collaborating with EBSC allowed me to team up with the Amplifying Sanctuary Voices team to design a demo exhibit to share the stories and to inform and educate the community. Most importantly, the outcome of the project could have a broader impact, directly improving the lives of migrants by shifting public attitudes.

Poster at EBSCC: In solidarity with immigrants and refugees

My deep and abiding commitment in immigrant issues inspired me to apply to the San Jose State University Applied Anthropology master’s degree program to study Latinx migration patterns and how they are constantly changing. I felt that my undergraduate education gave me a strong foundation, but a master’s degree would give me the privilege of putting my work into action. My project documents the experiences that immigrants and refugees go through to reach the U.S and how they are recovering, healing, and adapting in the U.S.

Poster at EBSC: Advocating for and empowering refugees

One of my first interviews was with Jay, a twenty-five-year-old male, whom I was introduced to by EBSC staff. Based on our previous encounters, our conversation flowed like we had known each other for years. We walked over to a courtyard and I listened to his story. I learned so much about his short-lived childhood in San Jose de Gracia, a small town in Tepatitlán, Jalisco, his migration story, and how his community has helped him settle in the Bay Area. We finished by him telling me how in the future he wants to achieve a GED to be able to leave his job as a lead clerk at a bathhouse. He believes with a GED he would obtain a better job now that he was granted asylum.

He’s more concerned with helping to change the narrative on migration. He told me that it isn’t going to be easy, but we have to try. My ears perked up and asked him, Is there something you would want to tell the public? With a crack in his voice he expressed I want to tell people that sometimes--like me, for example, I was brought here, I didn't ask. We all have our struggles and we have a reason to come to the country. And we are not all bad people. Just like in any background. Not everybody's bad. And just take a chance on people, you never know, you might get surprised and you know, befriend someone who you never thought you would be friends with.

Witnessing the ups and downs of my parents trying to settle in the Central Valley of California gave me the motivation to learn more, but it’s my eagerness that drives me to understand the different pathways and obstacles that Latinx immigrants go through to reach their ultimate goal. I am forever grateful that EBSC for educating me about the immigration system and to introducing me to the wonderful individuals that let me be a part of their lives.

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