It was just weeks before the pandemic shut down the world that my husband made it to the finish line: At age 31, Hanser Marmolejos Lantigua became a U.S. citizen on Feb. 28, 2020, along with 97 immigrants in a ceremony held at 26 Federal Plaza in New York City.
I remember feeling relieved, wiping tears off my cheeks, while thinking about the overwhelming scrutiny he went through, the additional proof that I, as his spouse, needed to provide for him, and the anxiety it all gave us during the 14-month process.
But, most importantly, it was a moment in my last five years in this country when I felt deeply happy.
It’s not that my feelings should really matter much. As a U.S.-born Dominican, I’m very aware of my own privileges: a blue passport with which I can travel to 187 countries without a travel visa or with a visa on arrival, a citizenship that grants me access to federal jobs, government benefits, the right to vote in any U.S. election and even run for office.
My English skills might rival any native speaker and I have cinnamon-colored skin that — in some circumstances — could be considered white-passing. But, to the vast majority who are reading these words, I will never be exempt from being considered an outsider.
So, this year, when Hispanics and Latinos have been hard hit by the pandemic with high COVID-19 death and infection rates as well as the highest hospitalization rates in the country, I want to pause to celebrate Immigrant Heritage Month, honoring our communities’ resiliency and accomplishments in the U.S.
Before COVID-19 came along, achieving anything in the U.S. was an uphill battle for Latinos and Hispanics. Today, our smallest achievements are still the most important success stories we will have to share in our lifetimes.
My husband, a certified commercial driver with nearly 15 years of experience navigating Dominican and U.S. roads, spent three years learning English at an intense five-day-a-week, three-hour night course, after he finished his school bus route. He existed on five hours of sleep during this time, from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m.
Earning a low salary as a bus driver, he paid $875 to become a U.S. citizen: $150 to a social service organization to fill out the paperwork and a fee of $725 for the citizenship application and biometric services. (The fees were increased 60% during the Trump administration and still exist today.)
The broken immigration system has always been a moneymaking machine.
Others have had similar experiences, like Verónica del Carmen Lara Márquez, the South Philly mother who was arrested by ICE agents on Feb. 11, 2020, after dropping off her U.S.-born daughter at Eliza B. Kirkbride Elementary School on Seventh and Dickinson Streets. She was three months pregnant at the time.
The Salvadoran woman and her family invested $3,500 in application and attorney fees, case research, and paperwork to avoid the agency’s order to self-deport to Honduras — a country she had never been to, but was registered as her country of origin in the agency’s files. After a yearlong process, she received a work permit on Feb. 12 that grants her permission to remain in the U.S.
Lara Márquez, 33, who worked a part-time maintenance job at a bar on 20th and Manning Streets before she was arrested, said she felt last year was a “big, enormous spook” that happened for a good reason and has allowed her to be in a better situation.
“My godmother frequently tells me: ‘Every cloud has a silver lining.’ Now, I don’t walk around the city fearing Immigration [ICE agents] anymore,” said Lara Márquez, who, with her mother-in-law, cares for a household of nine. She is waiting for her former employer to reopen so she can return to work.
Some have more complex situations, like Albania Luciano-Wilmo, of Oxford Circle. She has improved her proficiency in English, won a battle against cervical cancer, and gained a U.S. citizenship while raising her 8-year-old son on her own.
This last year, the 30-year-old conducted social work in the mornings and managed a cleaning service company she owns with her brother in the evenings, while taking full-time college courses. On May 15, the single mother earned an undergraduate degree in social work at La Salle University.
Luciano-Wilmo said she won’t give up, even if her routine continues to be an around-the-clock marathon.
“That doesn’t stop me from fighting for my dream and for a better life for my son,” Luciano-Wilmo said. “He says to me, ‘Mommy, I’m going to go to college just like you.’”
Achievements in the communities are as complex and singular as the U.S. Latino experience itself: from upgrading a driver’s license to getting a full-time permanent job, from obtaining a loan to meeting in-person with family and lifelong friends once again.
These days, the most ordinary tasks can be life-changing moments.
For Sagrario Germán, getting a loan this year to purchase the building where her restaurant is located means “taking life more calmly.” After 12 years in business, the 46-year-old closed the deal for the property in Fairhill’s Centro de Oro business corridor. She’s no longer a renter.
“Now, I focus on my retirement and I have something for my girls to inherit,” she said. “I feel accomplished.”
The Vivaldi Restaurant has been the main source of income for the single mother of two daughters, who have now graduated from college, have established careers, and live on their own. Her extended family works at the restaurant.
On this day, when Vice President Kamala Harris is expected to visit the U.S.-Mexico border to curb migration, I’d like to offer her advice.
Look at the United States’ long history of interventions in Latin America, study the oppressive policies implemented by previous administrations, analyze the impact of the targeted shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, and consider the economic and health consequences of the pandemic, before taking action on immigration.
After all, we all survive on the hopes of accomplishing what brings us happiness.